Events

Green Olympic Roundtable: Insights for Beijing 2008

October 08, 2002 // 12:00am
Event Co-sponsors: 
Environmental Change and Security Program

Featuring Yu Xiaoxuan, Environmental Activity Department, Beijing Organizing Committee; Tom Price, Environmental Advisory Committee, 2002 Olympic Games; Mark Jordan, Bay Area Sports Organizing Committee; Tanmay Tathagat, International Institute for Energy Conservation

By Timothy Hildebrandt and Jennifer L. Turner

On 18 July 2001, outgoing International Olympic Committee (IOC) president, Juan Antonio Samaranch, declared in Moscow, "The games of the 29th Olympiad in 2008 are awarded to the city of Beijing." This announcement sparked celebrations with fireworks and baijiu in Beijing and other cities throughout China. Most Chinese citizens believed the most difficult task in China's Olympic journey to successfully convince the IOC and the international community that Beijing could host Olympic Games that would rival Sydney or Atlanta. Yet, those more closely involved in the planning for the 2008 Summer Games, acknowledge the even greater tasks before Beijing.

In order to secure the Games over other serious contenders like Paris and Toronto, Beijing needed to construct a bid that fulfilled or surpassed all the requirements set forth by the IOC. Taking a page out of Sydney's bid, Beijing 2008 paid particular attention to the newly created "third leg" of the Olympic movement—the environment. The Beijing bid committee created a comprehensive environmental plan applicable to all elements of the Games: venue construction, transportation, waste management, and pollution control.

At an 8 October 2002 roundtable meeting at the Wilson Center—cosponsored by the ECSP China Environment Forum and the International Institute for Energy Conservation (IIEC)—Yu Xiaoxuan, deputy director of the Environmental Activity Department for the Beijing Organizing Committee, outlined the achievements already made and challenges the city still faces as it attempts to fulfill the environmental commitments for the Olympics. Yu was joined by a unique group of individuals with Olympic experience from past and potentially future Games who offered advice for Beijing's Green Games. Tom Price, former chairman of the Environmental Advisory Committee to the 2002 Olympic Winter Games, profiled the successes and failures of Salt Lake City's efforts at hosting a Green Olympics. Mark Jordan, a member of the executive board of the Bay Area Sports Organizing Committee's 2012 Olympic bid, discussed the unique environmental plans that San Francisco hopes will help it win the right to host the 2012 Games. In light of the massive infrastructure projects necessary for the Beijing Olympic Games, Tanmay Tathagat, senior energy efficiency engineer at IIEC, discussed the ways by which Beijing might construct green buildings and venues. Beijing's journey to host successful Green Olympic Games has just begun and the task is daunting. However, presenters and audience members alike concluded that the environmental movement of the Games deserves great attention, for Olympic Games have the capacity to affect real change. In the end, it is the broader legacy of the Games, not the three-week event alone, which will have the most lasting impact on the environment, locally and globally.

Beijing: The Problems
Beijing's efforts to ensure that their version of the Summer Games are truly green are made all the more difficult by the city's preexisting environmental problems. When presenting their bid to the IOC, the Beijing committee was surprisingly honest about the environmental challenges facing the city; they went to great lengths, however, to emphasis their commitment to resolving the current problems. Similarly, Yu Xiaoxuan was very candid in his assessment of the environmental situation in Beijing today and he provided examples of the city's air quality challenges:


  • Sulfur dioxide concentration degradation is considerably higher than the national average of 60 micrograms per cubic meter (mcg/m3), symptomatic of Beijing's dependence on coal for heating;
  • Nitrous oxide levels are well over 100 mcg/m3, growing significantly over the last decade along with increased numbers of private vehicles on Beijing roads;
  • Perhaps most worrisome, the city's total suspended particle concentration, linked directly to the desertification of northeast China, is nearly 80 percent greater than the national average of 200 mcg/m3.


Before even being awarded the 29th Olympic Games, the Beijing city government began efforts to address some of the causes of air pollution, most notably heating sources and vehicle emissions. Since 1998, according to Yu, the city successfully converted 44,000 small coal facilities to natural gas and 8,600 larger (and more polluting) coal boilers to cleaner burning fuel. Natural gas usage increased seven fold from 1998 to 2002—the amount is expected to double again by the start of the Games in 2008. In those instances where coal is still used for heating, higher quality coal has been employed to diminish sulfur dioxide. Showing Beijing's devotion to tackling vehicle emissions, Yu touted the city's 1,900 natural gas buses ("nearly double the [number of buses] in Los Angeles," he interjected), the banning of leaded gasoline and the 90 percent passing rate of random roadside emissions tests. Additionally, Beijing has adopted the Euro II standard for new vehicle emissions and retrofitting of 190,000 older vehicles—by 2005, Euro III standards will be in place. Though pollution levels are still high, Yu expects these efforts and others will assure cleaner air in time for the Summer Games. Massive infrastructure projects involved in the preparation for the 2008 Games have the potential to cause new environmental problems for Beijing. Of the 37 sports venues needed, Beijing needs to build 19 new structures and to expand 13; the city will construct 59 training venues, a media village, news center and 470,000 square kilometer Olympic Village. In all, the total area of Olympic-related construction is 2,160,000 square kilometers, over a tenth Beijing's total construction area.

Beijing: The Plan
Beijing's environmental planning is entering its final stages. The Beijing Olympic Committee is vulnerable to problems faced by all past Olympic environmental efforts; this new "third leg" of the Olympic Games leaves great room for interpretation. For the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, Japan, the visuals of Green Games were emphasized at the expense of environmental degradation: To make for better television, trees were cut and placed in PVC piping near venues in Nagano that needed a little more green. The burden, therefore, of deeming what is "green" and environmentally sound for the 2008 Games falls to individuals like Yu Xiaoyuan. To this end, Yu and his colleagues have created numerous
study groups tasked to create environmental and energy efficiency standards for the Games. These standards are expected to be firmly established by the end of October 2002 and will be used in vendor and builder selection early in 2003. The Beijing Environmental Activity Department also will hold a series of meetings in which builders can get together with suppliers to assure that environmental requirements and standards are known to all parties involved.

The environmental initiatives that Beijing is prioritizing are energy conservation, water protection, construction materials, landscaping, solid waste management, and cultural relic protection. Yu highlighted the work of three study groups working on Olympic infrastructure design:


  • Energy: The Beijing Polytechnic University was chosen to design standards for energy conservation in Beijing 2008 infrastructure projects. The study group created extensive energy guidelines. Energy consumption per square unit will be closely regulated for illumination, cooling and heating in sports venues, athlete housing, and all commercial public facilities. Moreover, the group made recommendations on an often-ignored drain on energy in China—insulation in floor, ceilings, doors, and windows. The group also suggested clean energy sources such as natural gas for electricity, geothermal heating in the Olympic Village, and solar energy for illumination and hot water.
  • Water: The Beijing Environmental Conservation Bureau tackled water conservation and water use efficiency. The showcase of the Beijing bid, dubbed the "Olympic Green," poses a great challenge for those entrusted with saving water in a city that suffers from grave water shortages. In addition to the tremendous amount of water needed for scores of new trees and vast lawn space, a new artificial lake, central to the "Olympic Green," will put great strains on the city's already over-tapped resources. The Environmental Conservation Bureau stressed the necessity to use recycled water in lieu of fresh water. Additional recommendations include the reduction of phosphorus and nitrogen levels in water citywide.
  • Building materials and equipment: Addressing another under appreciated environmental challenge, the Beijing Building Material Institute was entrusted with the task of researching the potential of new, environmentally- and health-friendly building materials in the renovations and new construction. The Institute divided thousands of materials into ten categories, in which each was ranked using European environmental building standards— researchers recommended that builders restrict their materials to only those ranked in the top ten of each category.


Mr. Yu acknowledged that, while their planning has been comprehensive, the Environmental Activity Department is in the earliest of stages of executing truly Green Games. Indeed, Beijing now has the basic strategy, but, in Yu's words, the planning is most certainly not ready to be a "dish that we can put on the table." With the aim of assisting Beijing officials along in their preparation to finish "cooking the dish," Tom Price and Mark Jordan offered their own suggestions to help Beijing reach its 2008 environmental goals.

Salt Lake City: Advice from the Past
Salt Lake City's 2002 Winter Games could be seen as unusually successful. Economically, the city pulled off a feat not common in the Olympic world—not only did the Olympic Committee pay all of its bills, but also closed the Games with a 100 million dollar profit. From an environmental perspective, the Salt Lake City Games had much to be proud of; the venue recovery plan, bringing native vegetation and species
back into former venues, has already been a great success. There were, of course, many failures as well. Some of the environmental plans that were laid out before the bid were not completed. After the bid scandal, the "third leg" took a back seat to the simpler goal of getting the stalled games off the ground. It was these failures, often characterized as "missed opportunities," from which Beijing has the most to learn. Moreover, Tom Price emphasized how seizing environmental protection opportunities will create a lasting impact well beyond the three weeks of
the Games.

With the involvement of an independent Environmental Advisory Committee in the Salt Lake City Games, many environmental concerns were voiced and successfully addressed. The committee was able to secure the broad use of natural gas buses for transportation. Acknowledging that venues would far outlast the three weeks of the Winter Games, renewable materials were used throughout venue construction. Somewhat unexpectedly, the Committee was able to involve private businesses in the effort as well. For example, the hotel and hospitality community committed to their own environmental program, including: (1) taking used mattresses to homeless shelters and community groups rather than the landfill, and (2) creating a hotel policy to limit the needless washing of towels that resulted in massive water savings. Despite such successes, observers contend that there were countless missed opportunities. Tom Price noted some opportunities that Beijing could take advantage of in 2008 to promote its green agenda:


  • Utilize the vast news media presence: Media might well be the unofficial "fourth leg" of the Olympic movement. This integral and very influential force should be used to benefit the environmental movement in Beijing. "17,000 journalists are stuck in a building, desperate for a story to tell," remarked Price. Salt Lake City, unfortunately, failed to bring its environmental success stories to these eager journalists. Price noted that the local event is simply "scenery for an international event"—for most of the world the Olympics are solely a television event. In order to reach the broadest audience, it is crucial that Beijing's Environmental Activity Department quickly build a relationship with the Game's official television broadcasters, like NBC, so that their environmental programs may be seen worldwide and thus have a far greater impact.
  • Form partnerships with major sponsors: Olympic Games have increasingly become a forum for sponsors to show off their latest products. This commercialization of the Games can be used to promote environmental protection—green projects and sustainable development initiatives might be more widely adopted with the help of major Olympic sponsors. Because of its bid scandal, Salt Lake City was unable to secure a great deal of sponsor assistance for environmental initiatives—however, all green projects pitched to sponsors received full funding. Tom Price suggested that Beijing is in a perfect situation to benefit from similar relationships in which they could "get someone else to pay for something [Beijing] wanted to do anyway."
  • Capture the spectators' attention: Price suggested that the Beijing Game's environmental efforts could be the "waiting story." For the television spectator, the Games are marked by commercials; for the live spectator, waiting in lines for food to be served, events to begin, and buses to arrive. In Salt Lake City, like most host cities, spectators spent more time getting to and from events than any other activity throughout the Games—yet, they missed the opportunity to capture this audience and promote their environmental message. Beijing could use buses as "rolling billboards" to tell their environmental story to several hundred thousand spectators (and millions of residents) every day.
  • Protect your position: Salt Lake City's environmental initiatives were, in part, a victim of the bid scandal—achieving Green Games was not a priority with the prospect of having no Olympics at all. However, environmental concerns were also a victim of organization. For the 2002 games, environment was not a separate entity within the greater Olympic Committee—instead, it was under the direction of "venues."

    Builders were not obligated to listen the suggestions of environmental staff; who were viewed as organizational subordinates. Consequently, environmental concerns often were shelved in the interest of speedy and cost-effective construction. To preserve their vision, protect funding, and produce truly meaningful projects, Price suggested that the Beijing Olympic Environmental Activity Department attempt to secure equal status with all other groups within the organizing committee.
  • Take advantage of the experts: The enormity of the Olympic Games is difficult to conceptualize. Tom Price opined "you can't imagine something of that scale….there is no way you can prepare for Olympics other than actually doing it." Moreover, the Olympic committee can not very well run successful Games without outside input. Beijing must take advantage of energy and environmental experts and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) whose level of environmental expertise far exceeds that of the Olympic Committee.



San Francisco: Insights from the Future
San Francisco is well known for its civic-minded and environmentally aware citizenry. The IOC's recent devotion to the environment makes San Francisco a potentially strong contender for the 2012 Summer Games. Mark Jordan maintained that a fundamental commitment to environmental ideals, and not outside pressure, is the best way to achieve truly Green Games. In Lillehammer, for example, the Norwegians achieved high environmental standards purely on their own initiative, before the IOC created the environmental leg. Environmental commitments are difficult to uphold, in great part, because the Games are a multibillion-dollar business with a plethora of competing interests. Therefore, without a firm commitment by those in power, environmental concerns are easily pushed out of the way as sometimes occurred in Salt Lake City.

San Francisco's keen interest in the environment has been made all the more substantive by a detailed set of commitments and standards in preparation for possible Olympic Games. Using frameworks like ISO 14001 (a certification standard for environmental management planning) and Agenda 21 (the UN action plan for sustainable development), San Francisco's bid committee aims not only to execute the most environmentally friendly Games in history but also to create an adaptable model for future Olympics. Although the U.S. Olympic Committee has not chosen its 2012 competitor, San Francisco's unique environmental planning offers some guidance for Beijing.

Jordan, like Price, explained that environmental concerns are usually seen as an "add-on" and often are lost in the organizational hierarchy of the Olympic Games. Indeed, the organization of the Beijing Games is potentially problematic for a strong environmental voice. The Beijing Olympic Organizing Committee is headed by three officers: The President of the committee is Qi Liu (Mayor of Beijing); the Executive President is Weimin Yuan (Director of State Sport General Administration); and the Executive Vice-President is Liu Jingmin (Vice Mayor of Beijing, who has the infrastructure portfolio covering Beijing's environment and transportation). These three officers oversee 14 departments; ranked seventh and created in July 2002 the Environmental Activities Department contains 4 individuals, but has plans to increase its staff to 14.

San Francisco's Olympic Committee organizational structure differs from Beijing's (and those in previous Olympics) in that it prioritizes environmental issues. Reminiscent of a traditional business structure, San Francisco's Olympic bid committee is headed by a CEO, but followed closely by three officers, all of equal status: Chief Financial Officer, Chief Operations Officer, and Chief Environmental Officer. This structure aims to ensure that the environmental representatives are not pushed into a subordinate role as occurred in Salt Lake City.

To create a lasting environmental legacy for Olympic Games, according to Mark Jordan, a city must not ignore the business of the Games. The thousands of vendors and suppliers must be well aware of the Games' environmental commitments and standards. Jordan, encouraged by Beijing's plan to communicate its own standards to suppliers and vendors, reiterated the importance of paying attention to supply chain management and suggested that suppliers and vendors should: (1) be educated in environmental systems management, and (2) be ISO 14001 certified. Moreover, the city's Olympic Committee should be expected to audit all suppliers and vendors to guarantee full compliance. Environmental standards for construction, materials, and energy generation for Olympic facilities are strengthened when standards are well publicized and the compliance process transparent, "We don't want ISO light," remarked Jordan. The ultimate goal of promoting strong standards is to show the world that addressing environmental issues early in the planning process will result in a truly sustainable Olympic development plan.

As Beijing begins to choose its vendors, Jordan suggested the city Olympic planning committee create an arena in which smaller contractors can participate. Certainly large corporations are needed because of the numerous massive infrastructure projects; yet, innovative thinkers and cutting edge environmental technologies are often found in smaller corporations. Uncovering these "hidden treasures" is another way Beijing can put its mark on the state of the global environment and future Olympic Games.

Education is an important element for preserving the legacy of the Games. Jordan agreed that it is important to engage in outreach—using sports is a terrific means by which children can begin to think about the environment. The San Francisco bid also has outlined plans to educate the athletes in environmental issues. It is one challenge, Jordan noted, to create an Olympic Village with green buildings; it is another to teach the athletes how to interact with the housing. The 2012 plans call for issuing each village housing unit a detailed manual addressing issues from "what detergent is the most green?" to "what plants are most appropriate for the indoor environment?"

What Makes a Building Green?
Aside from the legacy, the buildings constructed for an Olympic Games are perhaps the longest lasting reminder of the three-week event. San Francisco's attention to green standards goes beyond its efforts to host the Olympics in 2012: Working with the U.S. Green Buildings Council, the bid committee is exploring the use of hydrogen energy, natural gas, and solar power, in addition to examining the prospect of making the Olympic Village a net zero consumer of fresh water. Indeed, green buildings are one of the most prominent physical examples of environmental ideals in action, claimed Tanmay Thathagat.

Just like all other standards for measuring the environmental impact of the Games, gauging the "greenness" of buildings is no simple task. Thathagat profiled the two most widely used whole building assessments: (1) Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method (BREEAM), used primarily in the United Kingdom, analyzes building materials and the means by which the building is constructed. The assessment also takes into account the building's operation and management, such as waste collection, water usage, heating, and cooling; (2)
Beijing could use these types of assessments to help attain legitimacy for its greening efforts in the eyes of the international community, Thathagat noted. As Beijing is just completing its planning process, it is not too late to implement various green building strategies:


Thathagat reminded the audience that China has a long history of "smart design" from which they can draw upon to build modern buildings; natural ventilation and lighting used in ancient Chinese buildings could find a prominent role in green Olympic structures. In effect, the legacies of the past and the present can potentially meet in 2008.

Yu Xiaoyuan gracefully received the suggestions provided for Beijing's 2008 Olympic. His presence at the meeting alone suggested a desire to seek out the advice of those who have been in a position similar to his own. Indeed, Beijing has a great deal of work ahead to make its plans a reality—but they have certainly made progress in creating a workable framework for a green Olympics. Moreover, their insights on forging a legacy, primarily through stressing environmental education, are in step with other successful Olympic environmental efforts.

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