David Suzuki: Going for the Olympic green medal

Several people have asked me if the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics will be the greenest games yet. The answer may be yes—if we’re talking about the abundance of greenery and lack of snow brought on by record high temperatures during one of the earliest spring seasons the city has experienced.

With respect to environmental impact, all Olympic Games leave a very large footprint. Thousands of people flying in from all over the world, along with local transportation and the infrastructure that must be created, mean a lot of carbon emissions get spewed into the atmosphere.

What many people may not realize is that, along with sports, the Olympic movement has two other official “pillars”: culture and the environment. People in Vancouver have seen evidence of the cultural pillar, with an amazing line-up of music, theatre, and other cultural events for the Cultural Olympiad.

Vancouver Olympic organizers have also tried to reduce the environmental impact of the 2010 Games. For example, venues and infrastructure have been built using energy-efficient technologies, clean-energy sources will be used for many aspects of the Games, and carbon offsets will balance out a significant portion of the emissions from the Games. As a result of these and other initiatives, the 2010 Olympics are expected to produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions than previous Winter Olympics.

But that doesn’t mean the Vancouver Olympics are as green as they could be. In fact, we may eventually have to rethink our approach to such global mega-events if we are serious about reducing the impacts of climate change, particularly as the very future of winter Olympics depends on having winters cold enough to sustain snow and ice.

We hope that future host cities, and the IOC itself, will learn from the lessons of the 2010 Olympics. For example, despite an emphasis on public-transit use during the Games, the Vancouver Olympics will leave the region with few long-term improvements in sustainable transportation. Instead, the highway up to Whistler was widened at a cost of $600 million. And so far, 2010 Olympic organizers haven’t made the most of opportunities to tell the story of their climate initiatives to Canadians and the world. Because so many people will be focused on the host city, and because climate change is a defining issue of our time, the winter Olympics offer an unparalleled opportunity to inspire billions of people around the world with solutions to global warming.

The IOC itself must also play a stronger role to ensure that Olympic organizers take the environment seriously. A look back at previous Olympics shows remarkably varied performances regarding the environment, with the Athens 2004 Games standing out in particular for their weak environmental record. The IOC should set minimum environmental benchmarks so that every organizing committee has clear targets to meet—or exceed. Such benchmarks would also allow successive Olympic Games to be assessed and compared and opportunities for improvement to be identified.

The IOC should also put in a place an external monitoring body for each host city to ensure that standards for addressing climate impacts are upheld. For example, the Commission for a Sustainable London 2012 was created to increase accountability of the London Olympic organizers with respect to their sustainability commitments.

And because not all host countries have the same financial means, the IOC could create an environmental fund, with financing from media-rights revenues or other sources. The fund could help less wealthy countries to incorporate environmental considerations into their games, and to invest in long-term environmental and social initiatives in their regions.

Of course, environmental initiatives around Olympic Games are a shared responsibility. For the Vancouver Games, the federal, provincial, and municipal governments, the organizing committee, and other organizations are all accountable when it comes to ensuring that the Games themselves are green and that they leave a lasting legacy for the region.

The Vancouver Olympics have demonstrated that climate change initiatives, such as green venues and clean energy, are not only doable but affordable and can leave lasting legacies for host cities. Future Olympics can and should raise the bar even higher by finding ways to reduce their climate impact and inspiring their worldwide audiences with climate solutions.

Learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org.



dan kellar

Feb 10, 2010 at 12:30am

come on Suzuki... talk about the green washing that RBC is doing (surely you know they fund the tar sands...), talk about the complete lack of teeth in the environmental assessment legislation that allowed the callaghan valley venue to be built, or for the new sea-to -sky highway expansion totally destroy the eagle ridge bluffs.

talk about the 100000 trees cut down for the "green games", many of them started growing before the colonizers of this land first came to destroy the indigenous cultures.

talk about the hydrogen gas that is trucked in from quebec to energize the fleet of buses in whistler that refuel on a site that was until 2 years ago, a wetland.

you talk about the great cultural events of the games, why don't you talk about the appropriation of indigenous culture to make canada look like a friendly "post-apology" country. talk about the social cleansing of the downtown east side and the broken promises around social housing.

talk about the cuts in education and arts spending that BC is facing or the enormous transfer of wealth from the public to private hands.

stop being a speaking post for "sustainable development" or whatever other buzz word is being thrown around to confuse the masses. you know that this system is incapable of development that will not lead to the complete devastation of our planet. in only 500 years we have managed to wipe out many indigenous cultures, peoples, and other life forever and have started the 6th great extinction.

the IOC can set all the benchmarks it wants, but they will not enforce them... their 3 pillars include culture and the environment... a part of the environmental pillar is to not only avoid destruction of the environment but to leave an overall positive legacy... the fragmentation of the larson creek wetlands will lead to their ecological demise in a short time, you know this Dr. Suzuki, so tell us how is that a positive?

we don't need to destroy lives, cultures, and eco-systems to prove who can slide over frozen surfaces the fastest...

you used to be someone to uphold as an environmental leader, an inspiration of critical thought, the sacred balance has been disrupted and the olympics are continuing evidence of that.


Feb 10, 2010 at 10:10am

Suzuki mentions the three pillars of the games as Sport, Environment and Culture however he neglects, as he so often does these days, to mention the political foundation all three 'pillars' rest upon. The torch well represents this and people should become fully acquainted with the origins of "The Torch," in order to gain a full understanding of the political genesis of the corporate games.

The Olympics, like much of the rest of contemporary society, has been hijacked by a dysfunctional and discredited corporate model which requires the likes of Suzuki to run interference on an agenda few if any of the people footing the bill of this Olympics could support.

This is the greenest Olympics based solely on the cash the corporate greed machine drains from the public purse.

glen p robbins

Feb 10, 2010 at 4:12pm

I have been watching the Olympic Torch relay a little bit. I could not help but wish how much better it would be if that torch represented a movement to stamp out poverty --- and a covenant among the people in communities to ensure that all children went to school with a belly full of good food.


Feb 10, 2010 at 5:06pm

I think that David Suzuki's comments are a good consideration of how we should continue to think about Olympic type mega-events, but I do believe that the organizing committee and involved parties have taken sustainability seriously. The Venue Energy Tracker project (www.venueenergytracker.com) is a good example of how they are being transparent with regard to energy consumption and shows some of the forward thinking strategies that went into making the facilities as efficient as possible.


Feb 11, 2010 at 12:08pm

From the article

Several people have asked me if the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics will be the greenest games yet.

I do not believe this statement at all.

I do not believe that anyone has asked David Suzuki that question, except of course, officials in government and/or VanOC.

It's not really important. But it's just one of those cheap and cheesy little bits of spin that have a really annoying quality once you notice them.

Rod Smelser

rob baxter

Feb 11, 2010 at 1:36pm

David Suzuki and Faisal Moola correctly point out that sustainable transportation will not be a legacy of these games. But they do offer VANOC some praise when they suggest that these Olympics are expected to produce few greenhouse gas (ghg) emissions than previous Winter Olympics.

I decided to take a close look at the numbers used to make this claim. The scorecard produced by the David Suzuki Foundation (DSF) estimates that the overall emissions will be reduced by around 15%. Where will this reduction come from?

DSF estimated that emissions from electricity at venues will be 12,000 tonnes. VANOC and BC Hydro have claimed that this represents a 90% reduction in emissions. Which means the reduction from electricity alone would be about 108,000 tonnes.

But 108,000 tonnes is over 30% of estimated total emissions for the games (328,000). That means that the 15% reduction doesn't even cover the reduction from electricity. Or in other words, if you remove venue electricity from the equation there would actually be a net INCREASE in ghg emission compared to previous games.

The reason why there is such a large reduction for electricity is that over 85% of electricity consumed in BC comes from hydro power. And this means that other locations that have hosted the games have a much higher ghg component to their electricity.

VANOC can not really take credit for this clean electricity being available. The hydro projects were built decades ago. If these calculation are right, it means that in the sectors that VANOC was responsible for they actually managed to increase ghg emissions.



Feb 11, 2010 at 6:50pm

Who gives a shit?


Feb 21, 2010 at 6:06pm

Green House Emmissions causing weather changes? Now I have seen a faulty formula that showed evidence of global warming. It has been disproven. Historical weather showns no significant changes, in fact is slightly cooler on this cycle than previously. Good try David....but again...I see your butt and your neck, but can't see your head!