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London 2012 – A sustainable gold medal?

With the London 2012 Olympic Games underway, Shaun McCarthy, chair of the Commission for a Sustainable London 2012, considers “the most sustainable Games ever” and asks if they deserve a gold medal.

SD Scene publishes news and comment on sustainable development from across government, business and civil society. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect government policy.

If you play a word association game with people over 50 and say “1976”, they will probably say “hot summer”. The driest summer for 200 years prompted the appointment of Denis Howell as Minister for Drought. His appointment was followed immediately by heavy rain and widespread flooding, possibly one of the most successful departments in history.

If you say “perfect ten” to the same fifty-something, they will inevitably say “Nadia Comaneci”. The 14 year-old Romanian gymnast took the 1976 Montreal Games by storm, scoring an unprecedented “perfect 10” and winning three gold medals. It was so unusual that the electronic scoreboard at the time was unable to record a number bigger than 9.99 so they had to record 1.0 to the world as Olympic history was made.

It is not necessary to be perfect to win a gold medal – you just need to be better than everybody you are competing against.

Sustainability medal contenders

When we consider sustainability and legacy there are two clear medal contenders. Sydney was the first to call itself the “Green Games” and is a hard act to follow. Some great initiatives involving solar energy and water use stood out in 2000. For legacy we go back to 1992. The Barcelona Games helped to regenerate the east side of the city by building the Olympic Village on the waterfront and creating a new beach resort. The Games also put the city on the map as a tourist destination and a great place of culture built on the legacy of Picasso and Gaudi. Beijing was never really a medal contender and Athens did not get past the heats.

London 2012′s holistic sustainability programme

London 2012 is the first Olympic and Paralympic Games to attempt to deliver a holistic sustainability programme from construction, through Games-time and into legacy.

It is also the first to open itself up to scrutiny by an independent commission such as ours. The Commission is the first (and hopefully not the last) body of its kind; empowered to assure all aspects of social, economic and environmental sustainability across all the organisations tasked with delivering the London 2012 venues, Games and legacy in the UK. I have had the honour to chair the Commission since its inception in 2006, and will do through a period of transformation work to March 2013. I report directly to the Mayor of London and the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport and have an independent voice to the public through our reports and website. We are empowered to report honestly to the public and we don’t allow any aspects of sustainability to be fudged or brushed under the carpet.

Sustainable construction for London 2012

From a sustainability perspective, London 2012 has been mostly a success. If we consider construction; there is no doubt that the ODA has delivered great sustainable venues. From the wonderful Velodrome, with 30% better energy efficiency than that required by building regulations and half the materials of the equivalent building in Beijing, to the less iconic but equally important energy centre with tri-generation, heating, cooling and non-potable water infrastructure throughout the Park. The Park has the UK’s first industrial scale membrane bio-reactor delivering non-potable water from the product of one of London’s main sewers which run under the Park.

The ODA’s learning legacy is making profound changes to the way the construction industry views sustainability. My only criticisms would be that the learning legacy is a bit sugar coated. At a recent event one of the architects of an iconic venue was asked what they have learned and what they would do differently. The answer was nothing at all. We learn best from our mistakes and nothing is perfect – such arrogance is unnecessary and does nothing to help us to improve. I would also have liked to see a more radical approach to the energy infrastructure. Great as it is, it requires natural gas as a primary fuel source and given the cancellation of the planned wind turbine, renewable energy is conspicuous by its absence.

The first low carbon Olympic cauldron

The Games have started now and the spectacular Danny Boyle opening ceremony had a climax that sent a powerful message about sustainability around the world. London 2012 has delivered the world’s first low carbon flame in the first low carbon Olympic cauldron. Beijing’s cauldron was a monster weighing in at 300 tonnes. The London 2012 cauldron is tiny by comparison – it is on a human scale. It is approximately 8.5 metres tall and weighs just 16 tonnes. Of course less material means less carbon in the manufacture and less natural resource required for the materials. The flame was pretty spectacular on the night, but then at other times, and especially overnight, the gas flow can be reduced very significantly. This means that it is possible to reduce the gas consumption from 100% down to 15%.

Ground-breaking sustainability initiatives

LOCOG has made meticulous plans to deliver unprecedented levels of sustainability through a variety of ground-breaking initiatives. An example of this would be the implementation of the Sustainable Sourcing Code and the Diversity and Inclusion Business Charter. Together these initiatives are driving the supply chain to unprecedented levels of environmental and socio-economic sustainability.

The food vision and zero waste plans also work well together to transform the catering and waste industries. The food vision sets new levels of sustainability through the chain of custody and the zero waste target requires all food packaging to be bio-degradable. Even though LOCOG has gone to great lengths to make the waste process as simple as possible, we have seen problems in test events which we said we expected to be ironed out for the Games. We are out in the venues every day during the Games to review these things and report back.

The local community and communities across the UK have benefited from jobs, skills and employment opportunities through a partnership between the delivery bodies, local authorities, skills agencies, job centres and community groups. This required detailed planning and forecasting of skills requirements and the combined resources to deliver work-ready and appropriately skilled people at the time they are needed. This is a big challenge and requires all the parts to come together at the right time. Any major project, event or venture would benefit from this approach but be warned; it is not easy.

The first public transport Games

London 2012 will be the first public transport Games and the recent publication by the London Legacy Development Corporation of their sustainability guide provides good evidence of their commitment to making the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park “a blueprint for sustainable living” as promised at the outset.

Areas for future improvement

Not everything is perfect and there are some issues which will not be resolved by London 2012 and need to be addressed in future. These include: a low carbon fuel source for the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park; addressing labour standards in the supply chain, particularly for merchandise; and dealing with wider stakeholder concerns about the corporate behaviour of commercial partners. The innovative sponsorship opportunity for “Sustainability Partners” has not been wholly successful and we would recommend that similar initiatives are much more explicit in their commitments, so the partner “earns” the right rather than just paying for it.

Inspiring sustainable behaviour

We have always maintained that an Olympiad can only be considered sustainable if it can influence more sustainable behaviour beyond the Games.

We have recorded some early encouraging signs and plan to review this aspect in more detail after the Games. In order to help facilitate this we propose a series of events after the Games entitled “Beyond 2012”. The roundtables, which will take place in late 2012 and early 2013, are intended to unlock new thinking and challenge established views around sustainability. By timing these events after the Games we believe we can deal with issues too controversial or sensitive to be dealt with before the Games where there is too much at stake. Output from the series will benefit large corporations, major global event planners and governing authorities. Each roundtable will be professionally facilitated and will focus on one topic. Areas include transport, construction and infrastructure, supply chain, food, sponsorship, legacy, events and assurance. To ensure that each roundtable provides valuable and actionable insights, the Commission will be inviting expert individuals from a range of backgrounds and organisations to have an honest conversation about where London excelled and where things could have been done better. We want to break down the barriers and polarisation that can often influence much of the sustainability agenda and instead take a more collaborative approach to advance sustainability thinking in the years ahead.

Embedding sustainability

London 2012 has demonstrated what can be done when sustainability is embedded in a systemic way in early planning. However, we cannot ignore the fact that this is the first time this type of holistic lifecycle approach has ever been attempted on this scale, and naturally some initiatives did not work as planned. This is why this initiative is so important for us to learn from – both the good and the not so good. Insights gathered from our Beyond 2012 series will be compiled into a publicly available report detailing key recommendations, case studies and areas for further consideration.

No “perfect 10″ but a gold for London

2012 may also be remembered for a hosepipe ban followed by the wettest summer in history but it will also be remembered for the London Olympic and Paralympic Games. Although not a “perfect 10”, London 2012 can claim a gold medal for the most sustainable Games ever.

User comments

  1. Joseph Borza says:

    Well done to London 2012 on gaining a “gold” on the sustainability front. It was a pity to think the olympic flame could not be fuelled by biogas to make it 100% renewable, as this would have been a very public commitment to reducing carbon emissions.

    Best of luck to Rio 2016 in being an even greener games and with the Amazon on the doorstep it really is an opportunity to promote green tourism for Brazil.

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