After the Olympics: lessons from Beijing

The Olympic Games will leave a positive environmental legacy for Beijing, says a new report from Greenpeace. China now must learn from the capital and adopt a more sustainable development model.

Beijing is a city of 16.33 million and China overall boasts 1.3 billion people – 20% of the world’s population. As a rapidly developing nation with growing energy and resource needs, no nation has a more important role to play than China in making the urgent transition to sustainable development.

A new Greenpeace report, available here, aims to provide an independent assessment of the environmental initiatives of Beijing’s 2008 Olympic Games. In 2006 Beijing’s population was 16.33 million and China overall boasts 1.3 billion people – 20% of the world’s population. As a rapidly developing nation with growing energy and resource needs, fewer nations have a more important role to play than China in making the urgent transition to sustainable development. The Olympics “green” theme has been the force driving both short-term projects and long-term infrastructure initiatives in Beijing. Planning for this international mega event has presented unique environmental challenges and opportunities for Beijing as it has for all Olympic hosts. Beijing’s original bid and additional environmental commitments include the following:

• While air quality during the period of the Games in 2008 will be of a high quality, and meet Chinese and World Health Organization (WHO) standards, Beijing municipal government is nonetheless committed to achieve a high standard for the whole year.

• Cleaner energy will be supplied to the urban area for domestic usage and natural gas consumption will be increased by a factor of five by 2007.

• By 2007 exhaust from new vehicles will be reduced by 60%. A full list of commitments is provided in the report.

Greenpeace’s rating of Beijing should be taken in the context of a number of factors:

• As a developing country, China faces serious environmental challenges associated with its rapid growth, population and limited experience in environmental solutions. Yet, the environmental Olympic initiatives and investment made by Beijing in some cases far exceed those of many developed and developing countries with vast experience in managing environmental issues such as Sydney and Athens.

• A number of Beijing’s achievements represent the world’s best environmental practice — a huge leap from the existing polluting or destructive technologies and systems currently in use throughout the developing world. In this, Beijing has been able to show that making the transition to more sustainable approaches is possible when a concerted effort is made.

• Despite Greenpeace’s earlier on-going engagement with the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Games of the XXIX Olympiad (BOCOG) in the form of regular consultations, during the drafting of the report, Greenpeace did not have sufficient access to important information regarding Beijing’s environmental progress. This has made it difficult for Greenpeace to accurately gauge how successful Beijing’s environmental initiatives have been.

In our analysis from the information available, Greenpeace found that Beijing achieved and in some cases surpassed original environmental goals but also missed some opportunities that could have ensured a better short- and long-term environmental Olympic legacy for the city.

Beijing’s key achievements include:

• The introduction of state-of-the-art energy saving technology in Olympic venues — for example the Olympic Village will showcase various technologies such as solar hot water, geothermal, and solar photovoltaic (PV) systems. These represent a welcome shift away from a reliance on polluting fossil fuels.

• Beijing has increased its new vehicle emissions standards to EURO IV ahead of schedule for the Games in an attempt to improve air quality. This is amongst the most stringent emissions standards in the world.

• Beijing has added four new rail lines for the city, as well as a direct line within the Olympic Green to encourage public transportation.

• 20% of the Olympic venue electricity used during the Games will be purchased from clean wind sources supplied by the Guanting wind power station, Beijing’s first wind power generation station capable of generating 100 million kWh of electricity a year, which is enough to meet the demands of 100,000 families.

• Beijing has dramatically improved its sewage and wastewater treatment plants and water reuse systems.

• Along with other low energy vehicles, there will be a fleet of 3,759 buses running on Compressed Natural Gas at the time of the Games. This is one of the largest fleets of this kind operating in any city in the world.

• At the end of 2007, 16,000 boilers under 20 tonnes and 44,000 boilers under one tonne had been upgraded.

• By the end of 2007, 32,000 household heating systems had been converted from household coal heating to electricity.

• BOCOG’s dialogue and consulting with NGOs during the Games represent a positive step towards the increased collaboration between government and civil society in China.

• Sponsors have delivered specific environmental commitments. 100% of Coca-Cola’s 5,658 units of Olympic coolers and vending machines will feature HFC-free natural refrigerants. Haier will use solar powered HFC-free air-conditioners in the Olympic Village, tennis centre and other venues. Samsung has committed to making one of the official Olympics consumer phones, SGH-F268, 100% polyvinylchloride (PVC) and brominated flame retardants (BFR) -free.

Missed opportunities include:

• Limited transparency and a lack of independently verified data and certification of Olympic venues represented the biggest challenge to comprehensively evaluating Beijing’s green efforts for the Games.

• Although BOCOG has introduced environmental guidelines for Olympic timber purchasing, they missed a chance to introduce an internationally recognizable timber procurement policy, such as Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) standards for construction material used during the Games.

• The development of more landfill and incineration to deal with waste represents a failure to use the Games as an opportunity to move towards a zero-waste policy for Beijing.

• Although Beijing adopted a number of long-term measures to improve air quality in the city, they nevertheless had to introduce temporary measures, such as drastically reducing vehicle numbers and shutting down industrial production in order to ensure that air quality meets standards during the Games. Beijing could have adopted clean production measures more widely across the municipality to speed up the improvement of air quality and to ensure that standards are met for the whole year.

• Although some water saving technologies were installed at the Shunyi Olympic Rowing and Canoeing Park, these technologies could have been more widely applied to all venues as well as across the rest of the city to alleviate the continued reliance of the Games on much needed water resources in Beijing.

• While the 2008 Games were in large part ozone-friendly, facilities nevertheless continue to rely on climate-damaging hydrofluorocarbons (HFC) technology, thereby missing an opportunity to leap directly from ozonedepleting to climate-friendly natural refrigeration.

• Although BOCOG has introduced a number of guidelines that include positive environmentally friendly policies for the Games in the areas of procurement and construction for example, the non-binding nature of these guidelines may have weakened their implementation.

• Refrigeration-using sponsors McDonald’s and Yili, missed the opportunity to showcase significant numbers of climate-friendly refrigeration equipments free of HFCs. Electronic sponsors Lenovo and Panasonic missed the opportunity to provide electronic products free of toxic substances PVC and BFRs.

Greenpeace recommendations – Beijing and Beyond

Beijing beyond 2008

Beijing should continue to implement successful environmental policies, and to introduce projects and state-of-the-art technologies used for Games venues more broadly across the city.

The city should:

• Continue to tackle air pollution through strictly regulating vehicle emissions standards and to set an example for other Chinese cities.

• Continue to upgrade industrial technology and to push them towards clean production.

• Widely promote the use of renewable energy technology used at Games venues across the city, such as solar lighting, geothermal heating, and solar PV systems.

• Devise building standards to require new buildings to use smart design and energy efficient technologies.

• Continue to move away from coal as the dominant energy source and to promote the development of renewable energy such as wind power.

• Widely implement water reuse and rainwater collection features across the city to maximize water efficiency.

• Re-evaluate the long-term water strategies in the region to ensure that attempts to supply China’s urban centers, such as through long-distance water diversion projects, will not affect access to water for rural areas, agricultural water, water safety, and security for future generations.

• Move towards reducing waste production, to promote zero-waste policies, and to move away from a reliance on incineration and landfills as common methods of waste treatment.

China beyond 2008

Successful environmental achievements of the Olympic Games should continue to be extended not only in Beijing but throughout China after the Games. Although Beijing’s current efforts to develop mass transportation and to implement various environmental regulations and policies are encouraging signs that environmental understanding is growing within government, it is imperative that other Chinese cities which will undergo similar types of transformation as Beijing over the next twenty years learn from Beijing’s achievements and mistakes. Greenpeace urges that all Chinese cities consider environmental protection when devising economic development policies. Given the serious environmental challenges China faces as one of the fastest growing economies in the world, the environmental achievements of the Beijing Games, especially long-term infrastructural improvements, need to be broadly applied to other cities in China beyond 2008.

Other Chinese cities need to:

• Learn from Beijing and to avoid the development model of “pollute first, clean up later” (xianwuran, houzhili), which prioritises development goals ahead of environmental considerations.

• Widely apply the methods that have been successful in Beijing to their own development models as listed above. Future Olympic Games – Recommendations to the IOC Greenpeace urges that future host cities and organizers of major sporting events take on board the lessons learned during the 2008 Games.

 Specifically, the IOC should:

• Make a number of specific base-line environmental commitments mandatory for host cities and devise and set up a comparable set of environmental evaluation criteria so that green achievements are more easily evaluated and measured.

• Ensure that all public environmental data is made available for public scrutiny.

• Ensure that future Olympics adopt more internationally recognized environmental certification systems, such as LEED and FSC, which are not only credible but also require independent verification.

Overall, Greenpeace believes that the environmental efforts of BOCOG and the Beijing municipal government have created a positive legacy for the city of Beijing.  Beijing did more than Athens and should be commended for its efforts in using the Games as an opportunity to upgrade and improve city infrastructure as well as to integrate leading energy saving technologies in Games venues. Many of Beijing’s environmental initiatives have set a good example for other Chinese cities to follow. However, in part due to inadequate transparency and engagement with third party stakeholders, Beijing’s green Games efforts do not meet the comprehensive approach of the Sydney Government before and during the 2000 Games. In addition, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has an important role to play in ensuring that all Olympic host cities meet some minimal environmental standards and should require the use of independent verifiers for large-scale Games venues to encourage the best environmental legacies for all Olympic Games.


Homepage photo by Theo Jones