First Published on insidethegames.biz
The efforts being made in Sochi attracted initial criticism for not properly considering the environmental impacts of the projects on the local area, but it is widely recognised now that the 'green' light has been switched on.
The slow start may be hardly surprising, given the very different history of Russia compared to Canada or other modern winter Games venues. During the Soviet era, which ended only a couple of decades ago, environmental concerns were placed very far down the scale of importance. Industrial and military development were considered almost the only issues of importance. The resulting legacy of minimum-cost development with scant regard for waste management or energy efficiency have taken a little effort to shake off, but there are clear signs this is now being achieved.
Sochi 2014 is turning out to be the most expensive Winter Olympics in history. The price tag of more than $50 billion (£33 billion/€38 billion) owes much to the fact that almost all facilities in Sochi are being built from scratch, rather than (as in Vancouver's case) requiring only modest upgrading and updating.
Part of that huge cash pile is giving the Games project some sustainability credentials. Take the transport links for example, a new railway and new highways, with associated bridges and tunnels, brings the infrastructure of the region up to date. This sort of investment has both social and environmental benefits, as better roads mean safer and more efficient transport, which reduces fuel consumption and promotes economic development. You've probably experienced first-hand how traffic jams lead to wasted time, energy, and money.
The huge scale of a Modern Olympics meeting means huge potential for environmental damage, and equally presents lots of opportunities to exercise more sustainable credentials. Every visitor represents a number of journeys to be made, an amount of power to be consumed, and a number of meals to be eaten – not to mention a pile of waste to be disposed of.
At every point in the visitor's schedule, there are opportunities to improve sustainability. Public transport not only saves the vast majority of emissions, consuming only about five per cent of the fuel per journey of travel in a private car, but also reduces requirements for parking spaces and so reduces construction costs and the land take necessary.
In transport, as in construction, catering, and energy demands, an overarching criterion is the reduction of carbon emissions. Carbon dioxide, CO2, is produced whenever fuel is burned – whether this fuel is used to drive a bus, power a light bulb, or cook a hamburger. CO2 is the major contributor to climate change, because of the large quantities in which it is produced by these processes. It is not, though, the most potent of the 'greenhouse gases'. For example, methane has about 25 times as much global warming potential (GWP) per kilogram as CO2.
One significant source of methane is the decomposition of waste material in landfill, which is one major reason why London 2012 established its radical "zero landfill" pledge as part of its sustainability programme.
This neatly bridges between the operational aspects of a sustainable Olympics, and the legacy. One thing the citizens of Sochi would not welcome as part of their post-Olympics inheritance would be a landfill site oozing greenhouse gases – and perhaps other undesirable fluids – into their local environment.
This point is clearly recognised by the organisers, who have pledged that Sochi 2014 will be a "Games with minimal impact on the climate". One key way they will achieve this is by exploiting the latest advanced materials and technologies of some of its sponsoring companies, who are keen to use this international showcase to draw public attention to their own green credentials.
Nine companies have signed up to implement the Sochi 2014 sustainability programme, including five Russian firms as well as Dow, Procter and Gamble, Coca-Cola, and Panasonic. Between them, a total of 27 different environmental projects are underway.
Here at last we can see the true benefit of the IOC's "third pillar" position on sustainability. By encouraging host cities to take environmental issues into consideration, and by mobilising external partner companies to demonstrate their advanced technologies, the true legacy of future Olympics meetings is assured.
By Russ Swan