Photo credit: United Nations Photo Source:

With the successful completion of the Rio Olympic games it is valuable to reflect on what has been achieved in terms of the contribution of the event to the sustainability agenda: one of the pillars of the Games.

In the past, the Games were criticised by environmental groups for wasting resources through the construction of venues for a two-week event. Beginning in Lillehammer, the organizers began to take the commitment to reducing the footprint of the event more seriously.

In simple terms, there are two approaches to addressing this impact.

First, in general, the organizers have sought to build greener infrastructure, reduce and divert waste and minimize the ecological impact of infrastructure construction. With the exception of the Sochi Games, each host city has raised the bar in venue construction and management, to the extent that the venues in both Rio and London explicitly showcased sustainable construction projects.

Reports produced by the organizing committees shows they consider both the materials used in construction and the end-of-life plan. Rather than build venues that have no post-games use plan, the best plans build for the long term and modify venues for the two weeks of the Games.

Some of the most innovative approaches, seen in Vancouver, London and Rio, involved the construction of venues that could be repurposed or demounted after the event. Increasingly, sponsoring companies have used the event to showcase new environmentally friendly products—Dow Chemicals even invented a new sustainable material for the cladding of the main arena in London.

The second approach recognizes that even with the greatest level of innovation, the Olympics will have some environmental impact from construction emissions and from athlete travel. The concept of carbon neutrality was introduced in the Turin Winter Games, and Salt Lake City also invested in offsets.

The 2010 Vancouver Games were the first to comprehensively measure and offset the emissions associated with the event. Instead of simply sourcing offsets in the market, the carbon neutral sponsor  worked with technology companies to generate some of the emissions reductions from Canadian clean technology investments. They built on this approach for the Russian Olympics and created a new broader framework for measuring and mitigating greenhouse gas emissions. The framework recognized that for many large companies, up to 90% of their emissions are upstream with the producers of their raw materials or downstream with users and customers. Changing the chemicals and materials used in the products to reduce emissions, such as by changing the blowing agent in insulating foam and working with a Russian partner to distribute and apply insulation improved the efficiency of buildings in Russia.

A similar approach was taken in Rio. In this case, alongside a comprehensive programme to incorporate the most sustainable materials and systems into the venues, Dow Chemical invested in projects within its supply chain and through its relationships with customers to reduce emissions. These reductions, called Climate Benefit Units, distinguish these reductions from the sometimes negative attitude to offsets and reflect the fact that they are not being sold on the market. The projects involve changes to industrial processes and to agricultural products that result in significant climate benefits.

This approach both drives innovation in new technologies and also establishes a model for how large corporations can get credit and recognition for using their power and influence in their supply chains to have a much larger influence on greenhouse gas emissions.

By Dr. James Tansey, 25 August 2016