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Will Tokyo 2020 be the greenest Olympics?

The organizers of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics are confident that this year’s event will be the most sustainable yet, but is this true? Some of the world’s leading environmental organizations don’t think so, accusing the Tokyo Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games of greenwashing.

As one of the largest sporting events in the world, the Olympics have a great responsibility to show what can be achieved when sustainability is a priority.

The organizers of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games recognize this. “From the outset, Tokyo 2020 has been committed to leveraging the opportunities presented by hosting the Olympic and Paralympic Games to help build a more sustainable society,” said Yuki Arata, senior director of sustainability at the Tokyo Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (TOCOG).

The Games’ sustainability report set high expectations: “The road to contribute to a sustainable society will come with several difficulties, but the determination of the many people involved in the Games will make it possible to meet these challenges.

” cope,” said Yoshiro Mori, who was the president of Tokyo 2020 at the time of publication. Mori further stated that Tokyo 2020 “will not only pursue sustainability initiatives and pass them on to future Games, while continuing to engage in dialogue with the multiple stakeholders involved in the Games, but also create vivid memories of the value of sport in the spirits of the people of the world and help realize the sustainable society of tomorrow”.

It is a courageous statement, supported by a comprehensive sustainability strategy.

Leading with the concept of “be better, together for the planet and the people” , the strategy outlines how it will contribute to the UN Sustainable Development Goals on climate change, resource management, natural environment and biodiversity, procurement, and more.

On paper, it all looks great. Sixty-three municipalities across Japan have signed up for example affiliated with Operation BATON (Building Athletes’ village with Timber Of the Natio n).

The project promises to build the Village Plaza using sustainably sourced Japanese wood donated by local authorities across Japan, before dismantling it after the Games to return the wood for reuse in the communities, for example as a public bench or as part of a school building.

Tokyo 2020 also says it is working to reduce CO2 emissions when delivering the Games.

In addition to avoiding and reducing emissions through advanced energy-saving technologies and a commitment to 100 percent renewable energy systems in sites, it has partnered with the Tokyo Metropolitan Government and Saitama Prefecture to launch a project aimed at offsetting of all CO2 emissions that will be generated throughout Tokyo during the four days of the Games’ opening and closing ceremonies.

Hydrogen energy will also play a major role. In addition to Toyota’s 500 electric fuel cell vehicles to be used during the Games, hydrogen will fuel the Olympic and Paralympic cauldrons and flares during part of its journey through Japan.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government will also use hydrogen energy in some facilities of Olympic/Paralympic villages.

Then there is the Tokyo 2020 Medal Project, which has seen the collection of used electronic devices, from which the precious metals they contain will be extracted and recycled to make the gold, silver and bronze Olympic medals.

More than 18,000 collection boxes have been installed at offices of participating companies and Games partners, government departments and chambers of commerce across the country.

They have also been provided at post offices and special events hosted by Tokyo 2020. In addition, 1,618 local authorities – about 90 percent of the total in Japan – and 37 local authorities from the host city participated.

Tokyo 2020’s partner companies are also collaborating in various ways, for example by donating their employees’ used mobile phones.

In addition, the Japanese team will wear clothing made from recycled clothing and, in collaboration with consumer goods giant P&G, stages will also be made from recycled materials.

24.5 tons of used plastic and about 400,000 bottles of laundry detergent have been donated by the public and collected from the ocean in preparation.

Meanwhile, recyclable paper containers for serving meals will be provided to spectators, and Tokyo 2020 will also promote proper waste sorting to meet its goal of reusing and recycling 65 percent of the waste during the Games.

Not to mention the reuse of existing venues, which Hirokazu Shibata, technology and sustainability leader for Dow Sports Marketing Solutions, believes plays an important role in the sustainability of the Games.

“As a global Olympic partner and the official chemical company of the Olympics, Dow is committed to using our materials science expertise to enhance the Tokyo 2020 Olympics experience for everyone while delivering a lasting legacy,” he says.

“That legacy includes uniting the old with the new, proving that using the latest technologies enables improved performance and durability.”

“The real fruits of Tokyo 2020’s sustainability work will be measured not only in outcomes directly associated with the Games, but also in terms of long-term legacy and social impact.

” Yuki Arata, Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee

The Tokyo 2020 cityscape features new construction and Tokyo 1964 sites equipped with advanced building technologies to bring the more than 50-year-old facilities to the cutting edge.

In both types of locations, Dow says it is partnering with local customers to prioritize sustainability, implementing the latest innovations in high-performance construction solutions to better insulate, seal, connect and protect Olympic infrastructure.

The repurposed buildings include the Olympic Stadium, Olympic Village, Equestrian Park and Saitama Super Arena, just to name a few. “Retrofit locations at Tokyo 2020 honor their history and have been redesigned to serve the city and its residents for the next decade and beyond,” says Shibata.

“With technology solutions that exist today, such as those built into the renovated Tokyo sites, we can improve the energy efficiency of structures, reduce built-in carbon and leave a positive legacy, underpinned by the power of sport and science.” All these elements together make up a seemingly gigantic effort.

But is it enough to declare that Tokyo 2020 will be the greenest Games ever? It is certainly up for debate.

“Our research shows that Tokyo’s sustainability record will be about average compared to the long-term record,” said Martin Müller, professor of human geography at the University of Lausanne, and author of the first long-term study of the (un)sustainability of the Olympics. 

“Ironically, Tokyo’s biggest contribution to sustainability may have been unplanned: the adjustments made as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

They show that you can hold an Olympics with fewer bells and whistles and probably fewer visitors.” In short, Müller believes that the sustainability philosophy of the organizers of the Olympics is to clean up after themselves and make a big show of it.

“For example, making victory podiums from recycled plastic is very visible in the media, but of course this plastic should not have been used at all,” he says.

He believes that the sustainability efforts at the Tokyo Games are aimed at spectacular measures that are easy to communicate with a large audience.

Still, it avoids asking the really hard questions:

Can an event that displaces hundreds of people ever be socially sustainable? Could a multi-billion dollar cost overrun ever be financially sustainable? “At best, the Olympic sustainability measures instill a vague good feeling in > < spectators and calm the bad conscience of having flown halfway around the world to watch your favorite swimmer compete,” he says.

“It suggests that everything is fine and that we can continue to consume as before, as long as we recycle our waste and offset our emissions.

” At worst, Müller argues, these spectacular sustainability efforts simply justify the usual course of events by distracting themselves from larger, structural problems.

“Can the Olympics take sustainability seriously if their main sponsors are the world leaders in sugary drinks (Coca-Cola), mass production, meat-rich fast food (McDonald’s) and pesticides and plastics (Dow Chemical)?” he wonders.

“This lineup certainly suggests that profit comes before sustainability. If the organizers of the Olympic Games are serious about sustainability, they should put their money into it.”

Müller is not alone in his opinion. Masako Konishi, meteorologist and expert director for conservation and energy at WWF Japan, said he was disappointed with the sustainability procurement policy pursued so far.

“While I’d say the zero-carbon effort is commendable — and the best of any Olympics to date — sourcing policies for timber, fish, paper and palm oil in particular leave a lot to be desired,” she notes.

“As a member of the working group created to help develop world-class protocols, I’ve worked incredibly hard to enforce robust guidelines, but instead TOCOG opted for a watered-down version well below the global best practice and is inappropriate.

for a global event like the Olympics.” The outcry in response to TOCOG’s timber procurement policies has been particularly fierce, with eight non-governmental organizations (NGOs) coming together to accuse the Tokyo 2020 organizers of fake sustainability practices and greenwashing.

Junichi Mishiba, executive director of Friends of the Earth Japan – one of the NGOs – says he is incredibly disappointed. “In principle, TOCOG’s standard for timber procurement is to purchase ‘certified timber’, but in practice it is not limited to this,” he explains.

“The organizing committee has accepted timber without taking any measures to prevent the use of high-risk products from tropical forests, which are threatened worldwide by rapid deforestation, and only on the basis of certification. With this in mind, I believe that TOCOG timber sourcing standards do not work at all to achieve sustainability.

” Toyoyuki Kawakami, of the Rainforest Action Network in Japan, further explains: “The Games used large amounts of tropical plywood, which has been linked to rainforest destruction.

Analysis of the supply chain from the factory that manufactured this plywood showed that approximately 40 percent of the trunks used to produce plywood came from tropical forests that had been cleared and converted for coal mines and oil palm plantations to develop,” he said. he.

“The organizers of the Tokyo Olympics have clearly violated their sustainability promise by fueling the destruction of rainforests in Southeast Asia, and have refused to take any responsibility, including by using their grievance mechanism.”

Meanwhile, Isao Sakaguchi, a law professor specializing in fisheries management at Tokyo’s Gakushuin University, explains his concerns about the fish sourcing strategy.

“The Games’ sourcing code for fish recognizes not only the stricter standards of Marine Stewardship Council and Aquaculture Stewardship Council, but also unreliable local certification schemes, Marine Eco-Label and Aquaculture Eco-Label.

” Sakaguchi says that in practice these local schemes are, in effect, certification machines. “They issue certifications for almost all types of wild-caught and aquaculture fisheries in Japan,” he explains.

“In addition, the code does not even require certification by approval of wild-caught fisheries managed under a nationally or locally recognized resource management plan and aquaculture fisheries managed under the fisheries environment maintenance and improvement plan,” he continues.

“Both plans are voluntary management systems designed by fishermen or aquaculture farmers based on government guidelines that cannot guarantee sustainability in any way and do not have a transparency mechanism, as these plans are not made public and do not have a periodic assessment system of effectiveness.”

The concerns don’t end here. Clare Perry, campaign manager with the activist group Environmental Investigation Agency in the UK, raises issues with the Games’ climate policy.

“The sustainability concept focuses on energy conservation and the use of renewable energy, but leaves a important overview behind: the use and emissions of fluorinated gases such as hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) which are widely used in refrigeration and air conditioning,” she says.

“As the July Olympics take place in Tokyo, one of the hottest and most humid months of the year, there will be significant demands on refrigeration and air conditioning.

If these are captured with HFC refrigerants, there is a huge climate impact. The Olympic Committee must ensure that all sites are cooled with HFC alternatives, namely climate-friendly energy-efficient natural refrigerants, and reduce the demand for cooling where possible.

But as far as I can see, none of the reports from the organizers of the Games mention refrigeration or refrigerants.” Perry also questions the plastic policy of the Games.

Like Müller, she believes that a truly ‘green’ Olympics would focus on an absolute reduction in material use, for example through reuse and refilling, rather than fixes that focus on biodegradability or energy recovery.

“Japan stands behind the Osaka Blue Ocean Vision, which promises to ensure no plastic ends up in the ocean by 2050 – so a priority for the Olympics should be eliminating single-use plastics and minimizing where possible. waste,” she says.

“This can be achieved through things like water filling stations, cup deposits and providing reusable bottles instead of single-use items.

They also need to make sure they don’t promote pointless plastic free giveaways.” Perry concludes that the policies and initiatives are not there to make this the greenest games ever.

“Not words but deeds. My only hope is that this is a great lesson for future organizers of the Games.” TOCOG’s Arata strongly disagrees with this analysis, criticizing Müller’s article, arguing that it makes illogical comparisons between Games held in different seasons.

“The research paper in question evaluated sustainability at both the Summer Olympics and the Winter Olympics that have been held since 1992.

Due to factors such as the difference in scale between the Summer and Winter Games, the increased involvement of stakeholders in each edition of the Games, and constant updates to sustainability policies and initiatives, we believe that one-to-one comparisons between successive editions of the Games are fundamentally impossible.”

She is adamant that the efforts being made at Tokyo 2020 will not only surpass the previous Games, but also pave the way for future sustainability efforts.

Arata cites the Tokyo 2020 Medal Project as a pre-Games example that contributes to a lasting lasting legacy. “This project played an important role in encouraging Japanese citizens to get involved and taking action to build a sustainable society, and in raising awareness about the importance of a circular economy.

The project will continue to collect and recycle appliances and other small consumer electronics across Japan by supporting local governments that collect these electronic devices and organizing recycling events,” she says. Ultimately, Arata says, the organizers of the Games aim to have a positive impact in many areas, not only in Tokyo, but also in Japan, Asia and around the world.

“Japan faces universal sustainability challenges, including climate change and depletion of natural resources.

 Tokyo 2020 sees it as an important responsibility to show leadership in harnessing the power of sport to solve these challenges and build a sustainable society,” she says.

“The real fruits of Tokyo 2020’s sustainability work will be measured not only in outcomes directly associated with the Games, but also in terms of long-term legacy and social impact. This is where Tokyo 2020 hopes to see real and lasting progress.”