2012 Olympics: a mixed record so far on environmental issues

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When London bid to host the 2012 Olympics, it put sustainability at the core of its pitch. Its winning concept, "Towards a One Planet Olympics", was based on the notion that if the entire world's population lived a typical British lifestyle people would require the resources of three planets.

It was on the back of this idea that London pledged to stage the greenest games in history. Back in 2005, that pledge loosely translated into making the games carbon neutral.

Since no industrial operation can ever be entirely emissions-free, the term is largely synonymous with carbon offsetting - when an organisation funds an environmental scheme, generally in a developing nation, to counteract the emissions resulting from its operations. Over the past few years, however, offsetting has attracted a growing number of critics who say that pay-to-pollute schemes have little real impact on emissions levels and fail to discourage rich nations from cleaning up their acts.

"Offsetting is a false solution," says Robin Webster of environmental lobby group Friends of the Earth. "The focus needs to be on emissions reduction, both in the UK and abroad, rather than playing one country off another." Such criticisms have spurred demand for certified offsets, which demonstrate that real emissions reductions have taken place. One of the most widely recognised certification is the Gold Standard.

Partially as a result of this shift in attitude, Olympics officials have now distanced themselves from the concept of carbon neutrality, opting instead, in their words, to "reduce" and "mitigate" the carbon footprint of the games. However, they are considering offsetting some elements of the event, such as flights, through Gold Standard projects.

In spite of this change in attitude, the Olympic Flame will still be carbon-neutral, although EDF, the primary energy provider to the games, says this is a symbolic gesture.

Under its sponsorship agreement, EDF will provide 24MW of energy to the games, all of which will come from renewable sources, such as wind power. To put this figure into perspective, 24MW is only a single megawatt more than is needed to power a single square km of Central London. London, however, does have the highest load density in Europe.

If the Olympics uses less than the agreed amount of energy, EDF will keep half the savings. If the games use more, however, authorities will be subject to "open-book" pricing - the prevailing electricity price on the open market, rather than a previously-agreed rate, which would probably be much lower.

"London is under a lot of pressure to control costs so if it runs short on renewable energy, it could face some tough decisions," says Cindy Cahill of consultancy Deloitte, one of the advisers to the games. "The credit crisis means it has been more difficult to get the same level of sponsorship than would have been available previously, so paying a premium for green energy versus cheaper fossil fuels is not going to be an easy choice."

David Stubbs of the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games (Locog) says it is impossible to predict at this stage how much energy will be needed during the event. "Our first objective is to get a handle on our climate impact and then work out how to avoid our emissions," he says.

According to a recent estimate, the games will produce 3.4m tonnes of CO2. This compares with total annual UK emissions of around 550m tonnes.

It is hard to say if this is good or bad; because London has never staged an event on this scale, it has no point of reference from which to benchmark the environmental impact of the games. Information from previous host cities is only partially reliable, because the post-games environmental records of recent hosts such as Beijing, Athens and Sydney vary considerably.

Until now, no city has attempted to track all the energy embedded in hosting an Olympics, from the construction materials used to build the Olympic venues, to the transport of athletes and spectators.

So far, London's scorecard is mixed, according to Shaun McCarthy, chair of the Commission for a Sustainable London 2012, the independent body charged with monitoring the environmental impact of the games.

The commission's latest report praised London's target to reuse or recycle 90 per cent of construction waste, particularly as more than half the CO2 emissions associated with the games are embodied in the construction process.

The commission has also lauded plans for an on-site combined cooling, heating and power plant, which will be 30 per cent more efficient than a traditional generator. The plant will include biomass boilers and have the capacity to switch from natural gas to other low-carbon and renewable fuel sources.

However, Mr McCarthy says games officials are lagging in the search for alternative biogas energy sources. "There's a whole range of technologies available that would provide a low or zero carbon source of power, but there's been confusion over who is accountable," he says. "I'm getting a bit impatient now. The fact is we first made this recommendation two years ago and it still hasn't happened."

He adds that London has the added challenge of living up to a milestone year on the environmental calendar.

Domestically, 2012 is significant because it marks the final year of Britain's first carbon budget. The budget commits the UK to legally binding emissions cuts, so London's failure to stage a low-carbon Olympics would prove highly embarrassing. It is also the year the 1997 Kyoto treaty on climate change expires. Provided a successor is agreed, 2012 will usher in a new era of solutions to tackle global warming. The long-anticipated Earth Summit also takes place in 2012.

"It's an important year for the environment so London has a real opportunity to show the world what Britain is capable of achieving," says Mr McCarthy. "Our recommendations are a matter of urgency now, because time is short. It would be a travesty if we couldn't meet our 2012 goals."

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