How Sustainable Will the Winter Olympics Be?

PyeongChang, South Korea, is known for its beautiful mountains and as a haven for winter sports. Republic of Korea/flickr

Over the past decade, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has promoted environmental friendliness and sustainability. The Olympics host countries have made renewable energy, carbon offsets and conservation aspects of their hosting plan. PyeongChang, South Korea, site of the 2018 Winter Games, is continuing that trend.

PyeongChang organizers have not been shy about broadcasting their efforts to achieve a green Olympics. Solar and wind power will provide energy to event venues. Organizers have created a recycling infrastructure and public transportation network.

Olympic preparations have earned some negative press as well. Conservationists have criticized the clearing of a mountain forest to make room for a new ski slope (when others already exist in the area), and some are wondering whether new buildings and venues will be used once the gold medals have all been awarded.

Aiming for transparency

New ski jump area in Pyeongchang
New venues, like this ski jump area in PyeongChang, had to be built for the Games. Republic of Korea/flickr

PyeongChang is trying to respond to naysayers by being transparent when it comes to the greenness of their Olympics. Organizers have published information about carbon offsets, greenhouse gas emissions, air quality and water quality. They also have a “performance index” that shows up-to-date data concerning their efforts. They have published reports outlining their goals and plans.

This transparency should help PyeongChang avoid some of the criticism levied against Sochi, Russia, the host of the last installment of the Winter Olympics. After promising a green games held “in harmony with nature,” Russian organizers were hit with allegations of illegal waste dumping, habitat-altering construction, unused buildings and damage to the local water supply.

Controversy and uncertainty

Advertisements to see Korea in a hallway.
South Korea hopes for tourism growth after the Olympics. Republic of Korea/flickr

The most publicized environmental controversy in PyeongChang involved a centuries-old virgin forest that was partially cleared to create a run for the alpine ski competitions. Critics said the forest on Mount Gariwang included rare tree species that could not be replaced. Their destruction would alter the ecosystem forever. Organizers rejected the idea of holding the events at an already-established ski slope, but promised to reduce the area designated for clearance at the new site, combine all courses on a single run (the first time this has been done for alpine events) and avoid clearing the densest vegetation growth areas.

Others wonder whether the most common drawback of past Games will haunt PyeongChang in the future. The new transportation network, venues and accommodations are meant to increase tourism allure after the events have ended. For past hosts like Athens, Sochi and Rio de Janeiro, that tourism boom never materialized.

The IOC has noticed this problem. The next Olympics cycle is in Tokyo and Beijing. Both these cities have hosted before and will use already-existing venues rather than building new ones. This "build less" strategy could also apply to future hosts like Paris and Los Angeles. PyeongChang could be one of the last "built from scratch” Olympics. Some are already concerned that the Games won’t make a profit when ticket sales and sponsorships are added up.

Sponsors getting on board

Longtime Olympics sponsor Coca-Cola hosted the torch relay before the 2012 London Games, here winding through Inverness, Scotland.
Longtime Olympics sponsor Coca-Cola hosted the torch relay before the 2012 London Games, here in a low-emission truck winding through Inverness, Scotland. Glen Wallace/Wikimedia Commons

Even so, PyeongChang is pushing forward with its green Olympics efforts. Organizers have enlisted major corporate sponsors, many of whom have a long history with the Olympics. General Electric, which has provided renewable energy and tech solutions for past hosts including London and Sochi, is involved in the 2018 efforts.

Coca-Cola is working with organizers, local officials and the World Wildlife Fund on a water resource project that could affect all of South Korea. Like GE, Coke has a history with the Olympics. At Vancouver 2010, the company became the first zero-waste, carbon neutral sponsor.

Renewable energy

wind turbines in Pyeongchang
Energy from these wind turbines in PyeongChang will help run the Olympic Games in February. Republic of Korea/flickr

Gangwon, PyeongChang’s province, started erecting wind turbines while it was still bidding to host the 2018 Games. These wind farms could produce enough power to cover all of the 190 megawatts of electricity demanded during the Games.

Six venues constructed specifically for the Olympics will rely on either solar or geothermal energy. A number of these recent constructions have also achieved a G-SEED rating, the South Korean green building certification that uses many of the same criteria as LEED.

A green trend for the Olympics?

Beijing National Stadium
Beijing will reuse venues from the 2008 Summer Games, like Beijing National Stadium, when it hosts the Winter Olympics in 2022,. Peter23/Wikimedia Commons

PyeongChang’s transparency efforts mean that air quality data and carbon counts should be available for anyone who wants to look. At the same time, Winter Olympics games, because they include events that must take place in non-urban areas, will probably always run into conservation controversies unless they decide to start turning to repeat hosts who have existing Olympic infrastructures.

Despite air quality issues, the 2008 Beijing Olympics met its green goals according to the UN’s Environment Programme. For the past decade, Olympic hosts have attempted, with varying degrees of success, to make environmental friendliness a part of their plans. It appears that this will continue in the coming Olympiads as hosts rely more on existing infrastructure to become the "greenest games ever."