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Can Tokyo Pull Off a Green Olympics?

U.S. gymnast, Simone Biles performs at the 2016 summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Image: Fernando Frazão/Agência Brasil

Brett Yates

Edging out the FIFA World Cup, the Summer Olympics represents the world’s most popular sporting event, with an international television viewership that, over the course of more than two weeks, encompasses about half of the human population. On the ground, however, residents of host cities aren’t always so enthusiastic.

The Games of the XXXII Olympiad, scheduled to begin on July 23 in Tokyo after a one-year delay, have inspired unusual resistance on account of the Japanese public’s fear of a coronavirus spike, but protest movements routinely trail Olympic bids, emphasizing associated problems such as residential displacement, increased policing and surveillance, ballooning public debt (amid corporate profit), and environmental degradation.

In 1992, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) began to incorporate environmental considerations into its candidature questionnaire, and since then, host cities have made plans to mitigate the ecological costs of the event, with mixed results. Notably, Rio 2016’s promises to improve local air and water quality went unfulfilled, and PyeongChang 2018 spurred the removal of 60,000 trees from an ancient forest on South Korea’s Mount Gariwang to make way for a ski slope.

IOC President Thomas Bach visits Tokyo’s new Olympic stadium (IOC/Greg Martin)

In its quest to go green, Tokyo 2020 (the nomenclature remains) will benefit, unintentionally, from its greatest challenge: the pandemic. 600,000 international travelers, due to arrive at the Haneda and Narita airports this summer, will instead tune in from home, owing to a public health-based ban on foreign spectators. But the Tokyo Organizing Committee’s efforts to reduce environmental impacts began long before COVID-19.

Attentive planning has reduced the Games’ expected carbon footprint to 2.73 million metric tons, officially, compared to 3.6 million previously in Rio de Janeiro. Tokyo 2020 will likely claim 100% renewable energy usage for its 17 days of operations, thanks in part to the purchase of renewable energy certificates.

A host of small, tangible measures aim to demonstrate Tokyo’s commitment to conservation. In 2017, the organizing committee asked Japanese citizens to turn in old consumer electronics like cell phones, whose subsequently harvested metals now make up the Olympics’ and Paralympics’ 5,000 gold, silver, and bronze medals. Victorious athletes will stand on podiums composed of post-consumer plastic, which has additionally served as the material for the torchbearers’ uniforms.

The Olympics will also give Japan a chance to showcase its long-term vision for a hydrogen-based economy. Once created, hydrogen burns without emitting carbon, but for now, its costly production typically relies on fossil fuels, and the US Department of Energy has not prioritized its development as a clean energy source. In Japan, however, the gas is currently lighting the Olympic torch through sections of its route to Tokyo and will fuel the iconic Olympic cauldron once the Games have begun. More significantly, 500 hydrogen fuel cell cars will reportedly transport Olympic staff between venues, and fuel cell buses will join battery-electric shuttles in moving fans.

In recent decades, the IOC’s demands for state-of-the-art facilities have led host cities to waste millions of tons of steel and concrete on “white elephants”: vast new structures that, after accommodating a round of Olympic events, tend toward vacancy. Tokyo 2020 hopes that its eight permanent new venues – fewer than Rio or Beijing, the same number as London – will avoid this fate through continued use as “valuable public property,” in the words of the organizing committee, in addition to fostering an estimated 71,860 newly planted trees. (Paris 2024 has trimmed its construction plan to just one permanent new athletic facility.)

For its 10 temporary venues, Tokyo 2020 has pledged to make use of preexisting materials in the form of rentals and leases for tents, lights, and bleachers. And with the help of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, the organizing committee seemingly intends to leave the 25 competition sites that predate the Olympic bid in better shape than it found them, through projects, for instance, to reduce waterborne E. coli at Odaiba Marine Park and to conserve wetlands at Kasai Rinkai Park (though another section of Tokyo Bay now lies behind concrete walls, erected to provide flatwater for rowing events). “Seabins” installed at Enoshima Yacht Harbor have already begun to collect marine debris.

Tokyo’s Olympic and Paralympic mascots, Miraitowa and Someity (Tokyo 2020 and Tokyo Metropolitan Government)

At the Olympic Village, diners should, according to Tokyo 2020 officials, expect to consume GAP-certified produce, eco-labeled seafood, and similar items on recyclable or reusable dishware. But they may want to look closely to be sure: in preparation for the Games, Tokyo’s organizing committee put together a “sustainable sourcing code” to weed out irresponsible suppliers for goods ranging from palm oil to paper, yet a 2018 scandal revealed that tropical plywood from Malaysia and Indonesia, purchased from companies associated with illegal logging and deforestation, had served to mold concrete for the new National Stadium, casting doubt upon the code’s stringency.

Japan’s government has presented Tokyo 2020 as a celebration of national and regional recovery following the 2011 tsunami-induced nuclear disaster in Fukushima, where radioactivity displaced 50,000 households. But critics say that the infrastructural upgrades demanded by the Olympics have diverted resources away from the ongoing decontamination and reconstruction in Fukushima, and the Games’ triumphal narrative has incentivized public officials to whitewash remaining health hazards while urging former residents back into their homes.

NOlympics LA, an activist group formed in advance of the 2028 Summer Games, traveled to Tokyo in 2019 for “the first-ever transnational anti-Olympic summit,” as some media called it. “We saw massive amounts of development, both directly and indirectly tied to Tokyo 2020, and we doubt any of that was very sustainable,” organizer Jonny Coleman recalled. “We saw the destruction of public parks for more Olympic development, just like we’re seeing take place in the name of Paris 2024 at the moment.”

In the view of Dr. Satoko Itani, a professor who studies sport at Kansai University, the Olympic motto Citius, Altius, Fortius (Latin for “faster, higher, stronger”) appears to have inspired not only Olympic athletes but overambitious planners in host cities. “This is the mantra of modernity that has led us to this catastrophic environmental degradation,” they told Green Energy Times. “In order to protect the environment, we have to learn to de-develop, meaning learning to value and live life slower and smaller, not trying to go or make something faster, taller, stronger.”

The IOC, unsurprisingly, takes an optimistic view of the role of the Olympics in an eco-friendly future, having announced last year that, through the planting of an “Olympic Forest” in Africa and various harm-reduction measures, the Games will become “climate positiveby 2030. “We want to ensure that, in sport, we are at the forefront of the global efforts to address climate change and leave a tangible, positive legacy for the planet,” IOC President Thomas Bach stated.

Brett Yates is a contributing writer for Green Energy Times. He lives in Mendon, Vermont.

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