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.
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.