With the Winter Olympics in full flow once again this February, the fanfare around sports that rarely get the recognition they deserve is high. This tournament, as always, is a chance to enjoy the darker days of winter, and potentially encourage those who have never engaged in winter sports before to fall in love with them. Yet the question from many people’s lips is not about the sports, but more about the location.
How did the Winter Olympics end up in Beijing?
For those not already aware, Beijing is not exactly known for its snowfall, with around a third of an inch of precipitation on average in December, January, and February. As a result, this Olympics has had to rely almost solely on snow machines, with more than 350 in use. So how was this a viable option for a Winter Olympics host city? The answer for the International Olympic committee (IOC) seemed to be the belief that this Olympics would inspire 300 million Chinese people to try out winter sports, and belief in China’s claim that this Olympics would be carbon-neutral and the most environmentally friendly games in history.
China has informed the IOC that all venues for this event would be powered solely by renewable energy and the majority of vehicles would be ‘fuel-efficient’. They also say that natural carbon dioxide is being used for cooling instead of harmful chemicals in the artificial snow and ice. However, there are other issues involved with the games that affect the environment than just these. It seems both the IOC and the Chinese government overlooked these entirely.
What are the environmental issues with these Games?
First of all, 20,000 trees were forced to be cut down to create the slopes required to host the games. Whilst these trees are supposed to have been replanted by China, there is no evidence of this and there is still a direct environmental impact at a time when cutting down so many trees is not ideal. In addition, the slopes and runs go directly through the Songshan Nature Reserve, which is a protected forest ecosystem. This entirely neglects the care and respect such an ecosystem requires to look after wildlife and biodiversity in the area.
Worse still is the idea that using artificial snow for an entire tournament is a viable option at all. The event needs 1.2 million m3 of artificial snow which would require a whopping total of 49 million gallons of chemically treated water in a city that is the 4th most water scarce in the world according to The World Bank. In fact, in 2015, 40% of surface water in Beijing was too polluted for use at all in agricultural or industrial use. So, this event will only increase that devastating figure for the people living in Beijing. Artificial snow is also devastating to native vegetation and can cause erosion and landslides, which is quite a terrifying prospect considering so much is being used on the mountains of Beijing and its surrounding areas for this Olympics. It simply cannot be argued that artificial snow is a good idea for this sort of event, and especially not at this magnitude.
The final, and most worrying, part of the environmental effects of these Winter Olympics is what will happen after it ends. When the tournament finishes and the spotlight moves away from Beijing once again, will China remain nearly as conscious of carbon neutrality and environmentalism? If 300 million Chinese people do become engrossed in winter sports for years to come then artificial snow will be required for entire seasons, not just 3 weeks in February like this year. The amount of energy required, and cost of upkeep would surely see China return to coal and other unrenewable energy sources like they do in their industries instead of using entirely renewable energy. The water usage and contamination would be huge and local ecosystems would be devastated, either by the ski runs through them or the erosion and landslides that the artificial snow will undoubtedly cause.
Who should take the blame?
This by no means is an attack on the athletes taking part in the games. They should absolutely be celebrated for their achievements at the Games, as they have no say in where they must compete. However, the IOC should take a lot of blame for the damage this will undoubtedly cause to the climate and environment in the area. There is only one word to describe the Beijing Winter Olympics when it comes to the environment: greenwashing.