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Going for green: Is the Paris Olympics winning the race against the climate clock?

The 2024 Paris Olympics promises a gold-winning climate performance and to set the pace for future games. Our in-depth assessment reveals that, despite improvement, the carbon footprint of the Olympics remains far too high to be sustainable. This calls for a radical rethinking of the games. 

With the lighting of the Olympic flame tomorrow, the world’s eyes turn to Paris where, this summer, the 2024 edition of the Olympic games will take place. However, the sizzling temperature forecasts for this summer have athletes and fans already sweating in dread. 

Aware of the impact of the games on the climate and of record temperatures on the games, organisers of the Paris games have pledged to break records when it comes to reducing the impact of this mega event on the planet. ‘Going for Green’, a Carbon Market Watch and éclaircies report assessing the credibility of these plans reveals that if completely implemented, only 30% of the expected carbon footprint is covered by a robust climate strategy.

Within the existing mega event organisational framework, organisers deserve praise for attempting to make the most of a bad hand and for moving away from misleading carbon neutrality language in their communications. Ultimately, however successful these actions may be, broader, fundamental changes must take place if the Olympics is to comply with a future that does not hurdle over the 1.5°C Paris Agreement temperature barrier. 

Dropping the carbon budget baton

Organisers have set a carbon budget of 1.5 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent for these games – aiming to more or less halve the emissions associated with the 2012 London Olympics (3.3 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent) and 2016 Rio edition (3.6 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent). The desire to think sustainably is to be welcomed, and the decarbonisation objective set by this budget seems ambitious at first glance. However, it is very difficult to assess it as it remains unsubstantiated. No methodology or details about calculation are disclosed, and carbon budgets across editions might not be comparable.

Our analysis of how the Paris 2024 carbon budget will be spent shows that the major causes of emissions relate to construction (approximately 32% in total) and transport (approximately 40% in total). Our investigation of sectoral strategies to limit the impact of construction, food supply, non-food purchases, transport and energy showed mixed results.

Whilst decent efforts have been made to limit emissions with reuse, repurpose and recycle principles applied to construction, as well as the planned high availability of plant based menu options for spectators, this is undermined by the fact that organiser’s hands are bound when tackling the largest emissions sources. For example, air-travel emissions cannot be significantly reduced in the short- to medium-term unless the event itself is redesigned to limit the need for such travel.

Benja Faecks, Carbon Market Watch policy expert on global carbon markets, shared her concerns. “The Paris 2024 Olympics have promised a green transformation of the games, but have only delivered marginal improvements,” she explained. “Substantial efforts have been made to reduce emissions, and setting a carbon budget for the event sets a strong precedent for future editions. However, real transformation to make the games compatible with a 1.5°C world requires a rethink of the entire Olympic model.”   

A green Olympic vision

To host Games compatible with avoiding catastrophic climate impacts, a fundamental rethink of the Olympics is needed. César Dugast, co-founder of éclaircies, explained: “No emissions reduction at a meaningful level will be possible without seriously tackling the immense size of these events. It is the number of spectators that primarily determines the size of the infrastructure, the number of meals served and above all the number of international flights.”

Making the Olympics sustainable in its current format where the world’s best athletes all assemble in one city, stretching transport networks to their limit and generating new, short-term and purpose-built infrastructure is impossible.

‘Going for green’ outlines one possible alternative games hosting model that is compliant with the need to protect the 1.5°C temperature barrier identified in the Paris Agreement. For example, assigning different sporting disciplines to different countries while restricting physical access to attendees who can reach the games over land. 

Not only could this drastically reduce the environmental impact of the Games, it could also substantially increase the number of people who get to experience the Games in-person, boosting the reach of Olympic values. A reimagined games could deliver the exciting prospect of athletics events held in Mexico City, aquatic sports in Buenos Aires, team sports in Nairobi, combat sports in Seoul, racquet sports in Warsaw, cycling sports in Ankara, gymnastics in Jakarta, and so on.

How to win gold

The first step that the Olympics could realistically take to speed towards an environmentally sound model is to drop and avoid sponsors pursuing a negative climate pathway. For Paris 2024, each brand listed as an ‘Official partner’, including Aeroports de Paris, ArcelorMittal, AirFrance and AccorHotels is contributing significant negative impacts on the climate and the environment.

Although the Paris Olympics has avoided FIFA’s egregious error of labelling the mega-event as ‘carbon neutral’, the term still appears 27 times in the technical documentation. Fortunately, their language use evolved over time featuring the honest yet non-grandstanding tagline of “Olympic and Paralympic Games in tune with society and its realities.” 

Gilles Dufrasne, Carbon Market Watch policy lead on global carbon markets welcomed this development. “It is encouraging to see that the Paris Olympics have dropped their carbon neutrality advertisements and that efforts are being made to avoid greenwashing. But more is needed,” he stated. “The Olympic games continue to be a platform for big polluters to advertise their harmful products. Withdrawing access to this platform for big polluters, and offering it at attractive conditions to clean actors, is the next step to take.”

The Paris Olympics have completed the warm-up lap for climate action but the real race is now on. The IOC must cut the flab and lift the pace of change to get the games across the 1.5°C finish line.

Authors

  • Gavin Mair

    Gavin is a member of the communications team. He formerly supported the work of MSPs in the Scottish Parliament, and held responsibility for media output and office management for two MEPs prior to Brexit. He is an experienced campaigner, relishing the challenge of communicating for causes that have a social and environmental impact and is motivated by CMW’s mission of holding businesses and governments to account as they move towards essential environmental ambitions and transitions. When not fighting the good fight Gavin can typically be found enjoying live music or attending to his houseplants.

  • Noemí Rodrigo Sabio

    Noemí is a communications officer at Carbon Market Watch.

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