Looking back at Vancouver and forward to London

Since 1994, sustainability has been the “third pillar”—alongside sport and culture—of the Olympic movement

VANOC, organisers of the Vancouver Winter Olympics, went all-out to stage “the greenest games ever”, its mission was to leave no negative impact on the environment. For the 2012 games, London is going a step further, vowing to positively enhance the site and leave a permanent, environment-enriching legacy. But how will this be done, and what can it learn from Vancouver?

Vancouver’s Winter Olympics, held in February 2010, were billed as the “greenest games ever”: buildings were constructed from sustainable materials, cleaner fuel was used, waste responsibly disposed of — even the medals were made from old circuit boards.

The Olympic Village was LEED Gold-certified and transformed a former brownfield site into a sustainable living showcase. Heat from the city’s sewer pipes was used to warm the water for the village and hidden drains siphoned rainwater to flush toilets. Renewable, local lumber was used in place of materials such as steel, aluminium and plastic. Buildings were designed to be reusable: post-games, the Olympic Village is being transformed into a new residential neighbourhood; the Richmond Oval speed-skating rink is being repurposed for community use.

One of the greatest challenges was to tackle the huge volume of carbon emissions generated by the games. For the first time, an energy tracker was used to monitor real-time energy consumption and savings achieved through sustainable building features and operating practices. Overall, 15% was saved from the predicted energy use, equalling over 906 mWh of power.

VANOC estimated that 118,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions would have been generated during the seven-year project, whereas the 2006 Turin Winter Olympics produced around 160,000 tonnes during its 17-day duration alone.

Helping to achieve this reduction was a new, cleaner energy source, supplied by BC Hydro, which was used instead of diesel generators to reduce carbon emissions by 90%, while cleaner, smarter transportation methods — including canoe and horse-drawn carriage — were employed for relaying the Olympic Torch around the world.

In addition, a corporate sustainability programme rewarded responsibility among sponsors, such as Coca Cola, which was praised for its waste diversion programme, and Panasonic, which offset an estimated 377 tonnes of carbon emissions.

However, some felt Vancouver’s efforts were not enough. David Suzuki, the renowned environmentalist, was disappointed that VANOC had reneged on its initial pledge to “neutralise up to 300,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions from the games”, instead offsetting only the 118,000 tonnes generated by its own operations (in other words, not those produced by sponsors and spectators).

The organisers’ great intentions were also stymied by unseasonably mild weather, which meant that snow had to be brought in from further north using lorries and helicopters. The fact that the road to Whistler — site of the downhill events — was widened rather than a new high-speed railway line constructed also came under attack from some quarters, with concerns that it could encourage urban sprawl around Vancouver. In addition, 20 fuel-cell-powered buses were used to provide transport in Whistler, with the hydrogen to power them bought from Quebec. Environmentalists were especially unhappy that some of the games’ sponsors and partners, including Petro-Canada and TransCanada, had interests in Canada’s notorious tar sands.

So will London get it right? Its plans are certainly impressive. For the first time for a summer games, a study has been undertaken to try and estimate what the Olympics’ carbon footprint will be, so the organisers can look at ways of mitigating and reducing it throughout the whole process, from building to staging. The Olympic Delivery Authority is already reducing potential emissions from construction work by 15% across the site and by more than 50% on the Olympic Stadium project.

The total carbon footprint, after reduction measures have been taken into account, is 1.9m tonnes of CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent), which is spread over the seven-year duration of the project. To put this in perspective, it amounts to just 0.05% of the UK’s total emissions.

London is also committed to sustainable sourcing, which requires its suppliers and licensees to ensure that products and services are sourced and produced under a set of internationally acceptable environmental, social and ethical guidelines and standards. It means, for example, that hotels will need to show they are optimising energy efficiency and using low-carbon and renewable energy sources where possible.

London’s aim is to positively improve and enhance the site for the future. The Olympic Park is being established in an area of previously contaminated industrial land in east London. When the games are finished, it will become a new, green space for people to enjoy and for wildlife to flourish. A new rail and water infrastructure and pedestrian and cycle routes are also being created.

The London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games (LOCOG) recently published an updated Sustainability Plan, “Towards a One Planet 2010”, covering the strategies for five identified themes: climate change, waste, biodiversity, inclusion and healthy living.
Vancouver’s Olympic-approved hotels had capped room rates and London is following suit.

The 2012 UK Event Industry Fair Pricing and Practice Charter, launched by VisitBritain and supported by LOCOG, is designed to prevent unfair price hikes and the negative impression these can create among visitors. The charter will be used “to allow event decision-makers to readily identify UK event venues, destination management companies, producers and suppliers that have made a commitment to reasonable and fair trading terms during the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games period of 2012.” Signatories to the Charter must honour its commitments, which include “to promote the benefits of supporting sustainability within the events industry and elsewhere” and “to give all due consideration to the requirements of BS8901:2007 concerning ‘Specification for a Sustainable Event’ in the planning and delivery of their respective products or services.”

The first hotel group to sign the charter was Macdonald Hotels & Resorts. It is hoped that such a scheme will prevent the huge price increases seen in Athens, in 2004, which contributed to empty rooms post-Olympics.

LOCOG has chosen Holiday Inn and Holiday Inn Express (part of InterContinental Hotels Group) as its official hotel services provider to accommodate and provide meeting rooms for the Olympic family, sponsors and media. All Holiday Inn hotels will therefore have to conform to LOCOG’s Sustainability Plan, which includes ethical and local sourcing of food and drink as far as possible, ensuring high standards of animal welfare, procuring products bearing certification marks relating to sustainability (eg, Soil Association or Rainforest Alliance), using non-chlorinated paper and FSC-certified timber, recycling and re-using where possible, minimising water and energy usage, and optimising transport efficiency.

12,000 new rooms are estimated to be opening in the capital in time for the games, which will more than meet demand. These range from top-of-the-range to affordable. Travelodge, having just launched a new hotel at London Waterloo, has pledged to open a further 18 hotels, amounting to 7,000 rooms, before the games begin. One of the sustainable initiatives the new Waterloo hotel is trialling is a free cycle service using Gocycles, the world’s lightest electric bikes, a low-cost, no-emission way to get around town.

Hoteliers are also advised to recruit early—including sourcing personnel who speak a number of languages—and to make sure staff are properly trained in customer service. Speaking of the Olympics at the recent Hotelympia event, Margaret Hodge, Minister of State for Culture and Tourism, stated: “We have to get our welcome right by not having long queues and by ensuring people are polite. The media—both accredited and non-accredited—will be huge and if they have a good time in the hotels and restaurants… it will provide a huge boost to inward investment.”

Christopher Hale, vice-president of marketing and communications at InterContinental Hotel Group, advises hotel managers to “boost business by transforming car parks into banqueting spaces, upscaling spa and gym facilities and extending food and beverage opening hours to accommodate spectators arriving back late from events.”

A website has been launched to help tourism businesses benefit from the games: see www.Tourism2012Games.org

For those who fear that, post-Olympics, rooms will be left empty, Robert Barnard, head of hotel consultancy at PKF, says, “London is an amazing destination for both business and leisure customers and, even now, during the financial crisis hoteliers are doing very well, with occupancy rates around the 80% mark. So they won’t have to work too hard to fill rooms during the games because of the international focus on London, and things should just revert to normal afterwards.”

He continues, “The legacy of the games is the important thing: a whole area of London is being regenerated and will become a destination in its own right. Years ago, people would have laughed if you’d suggested building a hotel on the South Bank or in Canary Wharf, but now they’re thriving hotel communities. The same will happen in East London.”

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