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The 2022 Olympic Games: Lacking a Good Carbon Footprint

By Dr. Kristin Drexler
Faculty Member, School of STEM

Starting today and until February 20, the 2022 Olympic Games are being held in Beijing, China, bringing in almost 3,000 athletes from 90 countries. Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States are in a diplomatic boycott, however, over China’s poor human rights record. Athletes from these countries will still participate in the Games, but their government representatives will not be in Beijing.

According to reports from BBC News and other news outlets, the Beijing Olympic organizers have promised that these Olympic Games will be the “greenest and cleanest” Olympics ever by reducing resource use, protecting native species, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. This claim, however, is being widely critiqued as the Beijing Olympics appear to be the most environmentally unsustainable Games on record.  

Why These Olympic Games Are Not Environmentally Friendly

Aside from the normal reasons that Olympic Games are not friendly for the environment –carbon emissions, ecological damage, plastic pollution, and large-scale consumption of water and electricity, to name a few – there are additional reasons why these Olympic Games in Beijing are not clean and green. These reasons include 100% reliance on the use of artificial snow, the uprooting and relocating of a forest to develop ski runs and other alpine Olympic infrastructure, and developing this massive Olympic infrastructure partly in a nature reserve. 

[Podcast: A Conversation about Climate Change (and What to Do at the Local Level)]

Beijing, where the indoor events will be held, is not located in a mountainous area. As a result, the alpine events will take place in Yanqing (about 55 miles away) and Zhangjiakou (about 100 miles away).

Yanqing is the venue for alpine skiing, bobsled and luge events. Zhangjiakou is the venue for cross-country skiing, ski jumping and snowboarding events.

These mountainous areas, however, receive almost no natural snow. Also, the region has been in a prolonged drought. Both Zhangjiakou, on the edge of the Gobi Desert, and Yanqing average about eight inches of snow per year.

Consequently, the organizers of these Games have had to use artificial snow to create the right conditions for athletes to compete.

100% Reliance on Artificial Snow and the Impact to Water Resources

The Beijing Olympic Games are the first ever to rely entirely on artificial snow. The process of producing artificial snow is both energy and resource-intensive, although the Olympic organizers have stated the snow cannons need 20% less energy than ones used in previous games.

According to The Guardian, these Games will need approximately 49 million gallons of water to create the artificial snow required for outdoor events.  Additionally, there are 130 fan-operated snow generators and 300 snowmaking guns to create the 1.2 million cubic meters of snow.

This quantity of artificial snow requires diverting water from existing reservoirs. This massive use of water negatively impacts the region’s water supply, including the water needed for agriculture.

Climate Changes Could Permanently Affect Future Winter Sports

With shorter winters, less snowfall, and warmer temperatures with melting ice and snow, climate change is causing major implications for not only the Beijing Olympic Games, but future winter sports altogether. As Georgia State University professor Tim Kellison stated to Futurity, “even fake snow melts.”

Kellison added, “For everything to work, event organizers need to be able to access a huge supply of water and to power all that equipment. And even still, they need favorable weather conditions to keep the artificial snow in optimal conditions.” He also noted that artificial snow requires significant resources and infrastructure to create – and it could impact winter athletes’ ability to train and safely compete.

Yanqing Ski Runs Were Constructed in a Nature Reserve, Requiring the Removal of Trees and Topsoil

The Alpine event ski runs in Yanqing were constructed inside Songshan Nature Reserve. This reserve is known for its high biodiversity and important wildlife species.

To prepare the site for the Olympics, a Beijing 2022 Olympic press report said that 20,000 trees and about 25% of the nature reserve’s topsoil were removed and relocated to the mountains north of the city. About 90% of the trees survived the complex forest transplant process.

There are problems with removing large quantities of trees and topsoil, though. It causes erosion, destroys critical wildlife habitat, and will likely cause soil degradation, landslides, and pollution.

These Olympic Games Do Have Some Positive Environmental News

There has been some positive environmental news regarding the 2022 Olympic Games, however. For example, there was the construction of new wind and solar projects to deliver 100% renewable energy to the Games.

In addition, there are fewer carbon dioxide emissions due to the ban on foreigners attending the Games and restrictions on local vehicle and industrial emissions.

According to the Beijing 2022 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games Sustainability Plan, carbon emissions from these Olympic Games will be offset by planting 198,000 acres of trees around the city. However, it will take a decade or two of growing and maintaining these trees for enough carbon to be sequestered from the atmosphere.

Dr. Kristin Drexler is a full-time faculty member in the Space and Earth Studies Programs. She teaches geography, environmental science, earth system history, and conservation of natural resources for the School of STEM. She earned her Ph.D. in educational leadership at New Mexico State University by researching socioecological systems, sustainable agroecology and community education. She earned her Master of Arts in international affairs with an emphasis in natural resources management from Ohio University. Dr. Drexler earned the Undergraduate Excellence in Teaching Award for the APUS School of STEM (2020) and the Dr. Wallace E. Boston Leadership Award for American Public University System (2021). Kristin has conducted numerous community surveys in Belize regarding agroforestry, conservation and sustainable agriculture. Until she became a full-time instructor with APU in 2009, she was an environmental scientist in New Mexico, conducting field biology surveys and environmental impact analyses. Drexler founded the Belize Field School Program at NMSU, coordinating short courses in Belize in wildlife, agroforestry, marine ecology, and documentary film (2006-2014) and produced an award-winning short film, “Yochi” in 2017 about youth conservation and action against poaching and illegal wildlife trade. In the late 1990s, she served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Belize. She co-founded and serves on the board of directors of Full Basket Belize, a U.S. nonprofit that provides high school scholarships and community grants in Belize. Kristin serves as a faculty advisor for the university’s wSTEM and AWIS chapters. She also founded the “Science Talks with Dr. Drexler and Friends” lesson series for primary school (2020-21).

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