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One Planet Olympics

This article was written by Alex Steffen in December 2006. We're republishing it here as part of our month-long editorial retrospective.

The Olympic Games have had from the start a worldchanging mission. They spring from the desire of many in the late 1800s to see young men devote their energy to the pursuit of excellence rather than war. And for all the plastic patriotism which attends them today, they remain a cosmopolitan affair, in the true sense of that word. The Olympic ideal is, at its very core, an acknowledgment that we all live on the same planet.

sustainability-hero-340x185.jpg In (four) years, the 2012 London Olympics will broaden that cosmopolitan perspective to include a deeper sense of planetary responsibility, for London has committed itself to holding the first "one planet" games.

Like tourism, major events are both big business and high-impact. Visitors spend tens of billions of dollars a year (estimates vary widely) at conventions, sporting matches and cultural events. Luring those big-spending crowds involves massive ecological impacts: land use changes to prepare the sites, greatly increased energy use, food and souvenir vending (with attendant resource use and waste creation), accommodations, and air travel. One study, of the Football Association cup game at Cardiff's Millennium stadium, found that the ecological footprint of the event meant that an area equal to about one fifth of the area of Cardiff would be needed every year to produce the ecological goods and services to hold a single day's game on a sustainable basis. And the number of big events is growing. In 2001, the US alone had 1,800 major conventions attended by 12.5 people.

London made the idea of a "One Planet Olympics" a centerpiece of its successful Olympic bid

"We want our One Planet Olympics to be the most complete and sophisticated expression of sustainable development ever delivered on a city-wide scale. We want it to benefit not just London and the UK, but to be a credit to the Olympic Movement as a whole.“ --Lord Coe

Now many worldchangers are watching, wondering if it can indeed follow through on such a lofty goal.

I was in London in September, poking around, and I had the chance to talk with a number of people both then and afterwards about the upcoming 2012 "Green Games." The jury, as you might expect, is still hung on whether the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA) can actually, well, deliver on its promises.

Here's some of what's going on so far:

The ODA has partnered with some impressive groups, including WWF, BioRegional and London Sustainability Exchange.

Planners are working on reducing CO2 emissions by using green building techniques and renewable energy sources -- indeed, almost all the new facilities will be high-performance green architecture.

As the athletes and officials travel to the Games, London will offset all of the greenhouse gasses they emit. New investments are being made in public transit and travel to the games by private automobile will be severely restricted.

The entire Olympic Park, planners hope, will both restore some biological function to the area (in other words, provide for wildlife habitat and more natural water flow) and help improve the surrounding communities after the Games are over. The Lea Valley will become one of the largest urban parks created in Europe in over a century.

The Olympic Park will be powered by a giant, "iconic" wind turbine

They are even plans to regenerate London's East End

The difficulty comes in the implementation. Transport is a challenge. Provision of food (100 mile Olympics, anyone?) is a bigger task Even more daunting is the waste generated by the construction of massive single-use facilities, and the energy embodied in many structures and objects which will be used once and then tossed or remodeled. Since so much of the impact of the Games is manifest in these temporary constructions (in a life cycle analysis sense), a great deal of effort will have to be made elsewhere to mitigate that impact.

But many Londoners seem eager to take on that challenge. Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone said,

"I am determined that the Olympic and Paralympic Games helps to make London a more sustainable city. Future London: Footprints of a Generation offers an inspiring insight into how we can 'green' our lifestyles and our city. By making informed choices about how we live our lives now we can help avert catastrophic climate change. London is already establishing itself as a leading 'green' city - we all need to build on this success to build a better future for us all."

As London is already embarked on the beginning stages of what could become one of the most ambitious efforts anywhere to retrofit a city for sustainability -- from encouraging pedestrians to building eco-estates to charging congestion taxes -- it would seem well poised to really deliver on a One Planet Olympics, indeed, to turn such an effort into a tool for reducing its citywide ecological footprint.

According to those I spoke with, the biggest need, at the moment, is information. The documents publicly available are slim in particulars, and a few of the Brits I spoke with said the ODA is far from transparent in its workings. It's difficult to tell if the Games will truly be sustainable, in large part because it's not entirely clear what the ODA has planned. In addition, others point out, ecological footprinting is still a rough and inexact science, and much work remains to be done on evaluating the merits and harms of various products, materials and practices.

The best thing in the world the ODA can do is to throw the whole process open to the sunshine of international public scrutiny and, in the process, harness the energy of people everywhere who are working on figuring this stuff out. If it is brave enough to put its commitments to the test in public, the Games will improve -- and the learning curve it meets in trying to reach its goals might well prove more valuable than the actual ecological savings themselves. The 2012 Games can become a massive classroom for learning how to live well within the limits a finite planet places upon us.

In 2012, the eyes of the world will be on London. Let's hope that part of what we see is a sustainable future emerging.

London 2012: The World's First One-Planet Olympics is part of our month long retrospective leading up to our anniversary on October 1. For the next four weeks, we'll celebrate five years of solutions-based, forward-thinking and innovative journalism by publishing the best of the Worldchanging archives.

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