Is Tokyo 2020 the Greenest Olympics Ever or the Most Greenwashed?

Organizers say the Tokyo Games have set a new standard for sustainability, but critics beg to differ.

A general view of the Olympic rings installation and Rainbow Bridge as the sun sets on day twelve of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Odaiba Marine Park on August 04, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan.
A general view of the Olympic rings installation and Rainbow Bridge as the sun sets on day twelve of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Odaiba Marine Park on August 04, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan.

Clive Rose/Getty Images

For the Olympians who are competing, there’s only one color that matters at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games in Japan: gold. For the organizers who have planned it, however, there’s an entirely different color worth boasting about: green.

From the start, the Tokyo Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games has emphasized the importance of sustainability and set ambitious goals to demonstrate its commitment to environmental stewardship. Hoping to become the greenest Games to date, it established as its guiding principle the sustainability concept, “Be better, together: For the planet and the people.” Under that umbrella, it conceived a wide-ranging sustainability program with which to pursue specific goals, including moving “towards zero carbon,” producing zero waste, and restoring biodiversity.

“Sustainability has undoubtedly become an essential aspect of the Olympic and Paralympic Games,” Tokyo 2020 CEO Toshiro Muto said in 2018, upon announcing the Games’ sustainability plan. “I am confident that Tokyo 2020’s efforts to achieve a zero-carbon society, to limit resource waste, and encourage consideration of human rights, among other things, will become legacies of these Games.”

According to Reuters, Tokyo 2020’s efforts include podiums made from recycled plastics, medals that were forged from old mobile phones and other recycled electronics, electric vehicles that transport athletes and media between venues, recyclable cardboard beds in athletes’ dormitories, and an extensive carbon offset program that will help the Olympics achieve a negative carbon footprint.

“The Tokyo 2020 Games are a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to showcase on an unprecedented scale what the transition to a sustainable society can look like,” former Tokyo 2020 President Yoshiro Mori said in Tokyo 2020’s “Sustainability Pre-Games Report,” published in April 2020. “The task of making society sustainable is fraught with challenges, but the commitment of everyone involved in the Games will allow us to overcome these challenges. Modeling that commitment is one of our most fundamental and central roles as organizers of the Games.”

But Tokyo 2020 isn’t the role model it claims to be, critics contend. Among them, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), which in 2020 expressed concerns over the Games’ procurement of wood, fishery products, paper, and palm oil, protocols for which fall “far below globally accepted sustainability standards."

Researchers from New York University, Switzerland’s University of Lausanne, and the University of Bern, also in Switzerland, also have criticized the Games. In the April 2021 edition of the journal Nature Sustainability, they analyze all 16 Olympics that have taken place since 1992 and conclude that the Games have actually gotten less sustainable, not more. Tokyo 2020, they assert, is the third-least sustainable Olympics to take place in the last 30 years. The most sustainable Olympics was Salt Lake City in 2002 and the least was Rio de Janeiro in 2016.

Sustainability—or lack thereof—is a function largely of size, according to researcher David Gogishvili of the University of Lausanne, who is one of the study’s co-authors. When Tokyo first hosted the Olympics in 1964, there were 5,500 athletes participating, he said in a recent interview with architecture and design magazine Dezeen; in 2021, there are approximately 12,000.

“More athletes means more events, more participating countries, and more media. They need more venues, accommodation, and larger capacity, which means more construction and a more negative ecological footprint,” explained Gogishvili, who said most of Tokyo 2020’s green efforts “have a more or less superficial effect.”

Among the Games’ problematic sustainability efforts is the use of timber in new construction. In a bid to reduce emissions, buildings like the Olympic/Paralympic Village Plaza, Olympic Stadium, and Ariake Gymnastics Centre were constructed using local Japanese timber that will be dismantled and reused after the Olympics. But according to Dezeen, some of that timber has been linked to deforestation, which it says “effectively negates its positive impacts.”

The Games’ decarbonization strategy is similarly counterproductive, argues Gogishvili, who says carbon offsets like those being utilized by Tokyo 2020 can help reduce future emissions but do nothing to mitigate existing ones.

“Carbon offsets have been criticized by different scholars, because what they tell us is: We’ll keep emitting, but we’ll just try to offset it,” continued Gogishvili, who said “radical changes” are needed to make future Games more sustainable. For example, he said there should be an independent body that evaluates the Olympics’ sustainability claims, and a group of established cities amongst which the Games continually rotate so as to eliminate the need for constantly building new infrastructure in new cities.

And to his previous point, the Games should be downsized. “The first modern Olympics, which were hosted in Athens in the late 19th century, had only 300 athletes,” Gogishvili concluded. “Of course, we are not saying that we have to go to that level. But there needs to be a discussion … which takes into consideration the current realities of the world and the climate crisis to come to a reasonable number.”

View Article Sources
  1. "Sustainability Pre-Games Report." Tokyo 2020, 2020.

  2. "Tokyo Olympics in Danger of Failing to be Sustainable." World Wild Life Fund, 2020.

  3. Müller, Martin, et al. "An evaluation of the sustainability of the Olympic Games." Nature Sustainability, vol. 4, 2021, pp. 430-348.