Was London 2012 the Most Sustainable Olympic Games Ever? By Shaun McCarthy OBE

Back in 2005, I helped to advise the team bidding for the London 2012 Olympic Games as part of my voluntary role as a member of the Mayor of London’s Sustainable Development Commission. Much as I was delighted to hear the announcement that London had won, I had no idea at the time that this result would change my life.

By the end of 2006, I had packed in my well-paid corporate job, started Action Sustainability and had taken a role as Chair of the Commission for a Sustainable London 2012, an independent assurance body to oversee London’s commitment to delivering “the most sustainable Games ever”. Ten years after the Games, how has the world moved on?

How sustainable were the London 2012 Olympics?

The starting point for my work with the Commission is there is no such thing as a sustainable Olympic Games (or any other major event for that matter). If you consider using all the resources, flying people around the world to compete, people travelling to spectate, the energy use, waste and resource consumption to watch some people do sport is not sustainable. The only way is to deliver a legacy of better sustainability practice to the wider world and have an influence beyond the Games themselves.

My final report in 2013, “Making a Difference”, considered this point. The report broadly concluded that London 2012 had made a big difference to the construction sector’s approach to sustainability, supported new standards for sustainable event management such as ISO 20121 and the GRI Event Sector Supplement, and inspired the food and catering sector to new levels of certification and good practice. Even areas that London 2012 had not addressed effectively, such as some human rights issues, had led to the formation of the Centre for Sport and Human Rights. Overall, I concluded that we can judge London 2012 as sustainable given its influence over many sectors.

However, the report highlighted “slowness in government action in embedding sustainability in government procurement” and “the need for more independent oversight to ensure that sustainability targets in all sectors are met”.

The legacy of the London Olympics

Ten years on, what has changed? In the past 12-18 months, UK Government’s approach to sustainability through procurement has moved up a gear. The implementation of Procurement Policy Notices on social value and carbon have at last enabled public purchasers to consider sustainability in their procurement decisions in ways that have real teeth. Time will tell how this flows down into performance on the ground, but the signs are encouraging.

Is there independent oversight of sustainability in public projects? Not really. The UK Sustainable Development Commission was closed down by the Cameron government, and although retrospective audits take place, there is no sign of the strategic, forward-looking assurance provided by the Commission.

Sadly, the Commission remains unique.

So, London 2012 has been influential in raising sustainability standards globally and UK public procurement is finally following the example set by the Games, but the political courage that enabled proper independent and strategic assurance remains in short supply.

As Meat Loaf once sang, “Two out of three ain’t bad”.

Shaun McCarthy

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