Net zero sport: the Olympic games

Olympic games

The 2000 Olympics in Sydney was promoted as the world’s first ‘green’ games, writes Nick Gibson. What was the impact of the 2000 Olympic Games and did it begin world sport’s path to an eco-friendly future?

Marie Sallois, Corporate & Sustainable Development Director at the International Olympics Committee, charts the progress of world sport’s net zero journey and the positive steps being taken by the Olympics to promote environmentally-friendly sporting events.

“The Olympics’ sustainability journey actually started at the Lillehammer winter games in 1994, the first to put sustainability at the heart of the games,” Sallois says. “Event locations were changed to protect wildlife and natural environment; 80 per cent of travel to and from the games was by bus and train to reduce individual journeys; signage and catering items were bio-degradable, all of which was innovative at the time and created a low carbon footprint.”

The 2000 Olympics in Sydney was the first to be awarded after the Rio Climate Summit and, inspired by Lillehammer, was a turning point in the Olympics’ sustainability journey. It was the first to place environment at the centre of its bid to host the games.

“Every aspect of the games from design, construction, energy use, transport, operations, recycling and legacy was built around carbon reduction and sustainability,” Sallois says. “The Sydney Olympic superdome remains one of the world’s biggest arrays of solar panels. Every edition of the games since Sydney has placed environmental concerns at the core of its activities with host nations striving to be a catalyst for sustainable development and a showcase for innovative solutions to carbon reduction.

“The 2010Vancouver winter games built on the Sydney environmental foundation, minimising energy and its footprint to the extent that it was recognised at the time as the largest low carbon built environment in North America.

“London 2012 created an important legacy by embracing sustainability in an integrated system that drove every process and led to a new ISO certification, ISO 2012-1, which has been used in every Olympic Games since. The London system drives sustainability at each step from host nation bid, to design, construction, event operation and legacy.”

Building sustainability from the ground up

Following the Paris Climate Summit in 2015, the IOC established an Olympic Commission on the environment to research what the organisation could do reduce its carbon footprint. The resulting IOC Sustainability Strategy focussed on infrastructure and natural sites, sourcing and resource management, mobility, workforce, and climate. 

“We also launched the Olympic Agenda 2020 in which sustainability was set as an executive priority,” Sallois says. “It meant that sustainability was no longer a technical subject for experts at the operational level but a priority for everyone across the entire Olympic movement. It was a paradigm shift as previous sustainability activities were most often individual initiatives by host nations that implemented their own projects.

“The Olympic Agenda 2020 set out our approach, process, operation and targets in a formal structure of sustainability to oversee sustainability and legacy, to maximise positive impact, and minimise negative impact across environment, society and economy.”

From the outset, the IOC’s net zero journey has been driven from the ground up by identifying and establishing sustainable actions that are now integrated at executive level.

“When I started in 2015 the Olympic movement was involved at local level in individual sustainability initiatives as an operational issue,” Sallois explains. “After a year of consultation with the 206 Olympic Committees and International Federations I presented a report of all the various activities. The reaction was positive with everyone wanting to be involved and through this route we created a practical framework and established sustainability as an executive priority.”

“It was vital to create a framework that was clear and results-driven that was also easy for the IOC to follow for national Olympic committees and federations to implement,” Sallois says. “Our sustainability model is clear direct and simple and you don’t need a PHD to understand and follow it.”

Steps to creating a sustainability strategy

When the IOC planned its new HQ in Lausanne Sallois was tasked with overseeing construction of the new building. “It was the perfect opportunity to demonstrate the credibility of our strategy by creating a low carbon net zero corporate flagship. We had three objectives: symbolism, functionality and sustainability and I made sure by contract from the outset that we met the highest level of certification. By setting the bar at the highest level it was no longer a matter of what we needed to achieve but how we were going to achieve it.”

When the HQ was completed it gained the highest level of certification as a carbon neutral building. “We achieved this by developing solutions as we progressed in our journey, reducing energy consumption by 50 per cent, reducing water consumption, using non-emission paint in the building. The success of our HQ building means we can show the rest of the Olympic movement how to put sustainability at the forefront and implement practical actions and the IOC is now aiming to become climate positive.

“We have introduced a carbon budget for each department at the IOC, along with a finance and headcount budget. I have a dashboard where I can see our carbon footprint and run simulations to forecast future footprints based on the decisions we make. Sustainability is now very much at the heart of the IOC decision-making process.”

Cost benefits of a net zero journey

“While constructing our Olympic House HQ we allocated around ten per cent of the budget for sustainability innovation and this allowed us to make savings elsewhere and complete the project within budget,” says. “We have a target of reducing emissions by 30 per cent by 2024 and, as the majority of our carbon emissions now come from travel, we can achieve this by working remotely and choosing low-carbon travel options.

“Sustainability requires initial investment but results in direct savings as we have shown with Olympic House. There is no conflict between finance and sustainability provided you establish a framework and set expectations at the start of the journey. Real savings can be made if sustainability is at the core and not just an after-thought. By establishing constraints on budget, functionality and sustainability we had to innovate and these innovations produced real savings.”

The IOC has set a target date of 2030 for the Olympic Games to be climate positive and by working to the new framework Sallois is confident of achieving great strides toward this goal. “We have an established sustainability template but flexibility is vital as every Olympic Games is different and requires a bespoke approach. The low carbon bar is still set very high with targets that a host nation must achieve but how they do it will depend on individual circumstances.”

The Paris 2024 Games will see an expansion of the Olympic Games’ sustainability approach, Sallois says. “We will enhance the London ISO 2012-1 certification to embrace new technologies, methods and reporting to create a template for the games that follow. Paris 2024 has a target to reduce its carbon footprint by 50 per cent and must remain within this target.”

The IOC is committed to using its global status to promote net zero strategies and eco-friendly sporting events.

“We have made clear our ambition to be climate positive as an organisation and for the Olympic Games to be climate positive by 2030 and we encourage and support the entire Olympic movement to engage in climate action,” Sallois says. “We established a framework with the UN’s Sport for Climate Action and presented it at COP24 in 2018 calling for world sport to join forces in climate action. Over 300 organisations have joined us and we support them with net zero methodologies, reporting and best practice in line with UN convention on climate change. This has accelerated the knowledge and learning process across a wide range of global sporting organisations who are now concentrated on carbon reduction rather than offsetting or compensation. We aggregate the various initiatives to create effective action and a unified approach.”

Environmental reporting to meet targets

The need to report environmental impact is increasing and the IOC aims to be a catalyst for world sport’s adoption and compliance.

“We use an environmental consultancy, Quantis, to measure our carbon footprint and we report through the GRI standard certified by ERM,” Sallois says. “Our footprint and sustainability activities are measured and overseen by third parties at every level and step and with NFD we will also now report on the range of social, gender equality and human rights elements involved in our operations.”

Sustainability is now at the heart of the IOC’s decision-making process and the process has been transformational, Sallois says. “Sustainability impacts every part of the organisation from top down; be it finance, resource, travel or daily operations. Measuring, reporting and taking action as a result creates transparency, energises the organisation and demonstrates that practical action can make a real difference. Establishing our carbon budget makes sustainability real in everyone’s minds; it creates facts that cannot be ignored. If you believe sustainability is the cherry on the cake, or it’s an afterthought, then you’ll fail to make a difference. It must be at the centre of the organisation, the core that runs through every part of your business.

“Sport has a responsibility to the planet and its people. It represents a unique opportunity to promote and engage in change.  The Olympic movement is committed to being part of the solution, not the problem.”

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