Let the Sustainability Games Begin
Even though the London Olympics just ended, preparation for the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro has begun. For most people, the Olympics stand for astonishing displays of athleticism, outstanding sportsmanship and national pride. Most people might not think past the events and the medal counts. But for host cities, the Olympics are a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reinvent themselves, to boost their local and regional economies and to set a forward-thinking example of sustainability for the rest of the globe.
I am headed to Brazil today where I’ll have the honor of keynoting the Greenbuilding Brasil International Conference and Expo in São Paolo. There is a passion in Brazil for sustainability, one that is perhaps unparalleled throughout the world. Rio de Jainero was home to this year’s Rio+20 Earth Summit, and since the ‘90s has been an epicenter for global environmental policy and a meeting place and melting pot for the world’s most dedicated environmental advocates. The country’s natural beauty makes Brazil a model for modern conservation and sustainability efforts.
I can’t think of a better setting for the 2016 games, and Brazil has already laid out their sustainability framework. Their Olympic bid called for carbon neutral development based on green design, sustainable construction, and reforestation for carbon offsetting, along with innovative water conservation efforts, renewable energy use, and recycling and waste management. They are also using LEED guidelines and certification for new structures.
Some ideas from the bid, like the reforestation project, are already underway. Others are in very early development. Rio’s Olympic Park design competition winner, for example, focuses on environmental preservation, makes use of existing structures in the area, and envisions uses for at least 70 percent of the new infrastructure beyond the games. Other sustainability measures will be enacted in preparation for the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil: 11 of the 12 World Cup stadiums are pursuing LEED, and financing for these venues was related to LEED certification.
Brazil’s efforts are a welcome step forward: the Olympic Games have often had a spotty sustainability record. The 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville, Canada were panned as an “environmental disaster,” where new infrastructure was built on once-heavily forested areas filled with vulnerable wildlife. And the 2004 Games in Athens were rightly criticized for making the environment an afterthought. Poor planning left the city stuck paying maintenance bills for poorly designed stadiums that are now vastly underused.
This year London made sustainability a top priority. They kept permanent construction to a minimum and opted to use existing venues and temporary ones wherever possible. In situations where new venues were needed, as with the Olympic Park, building took place on reclaimed areas of contaminated industrial land with plans that minimized construction supplies and used lightweight steel and recycled materials. What’s more, London built these structures to last, designing them to accommodate sports, entertainment, cultural and community events. For all of these reasons and more, some are hailing the 2012 Summer Olympics as the “greenest” Games to date.
There is still a lot of room for improvement, though. A study projecting the carbon footprint of the London Olympics estimated they would produce 3.4 million tons of carbon dioxide. Unfortunately, London officials ended up abandoning their attempt to offset carbon emissions. But when you look at the differences between Albertville and London, or even Athens and London, there’s no question that there has been astonishing progress in “greening” the Olympics.
That is the global green building movement at work. Today, we’re cheering Rio on as they gear up for 2016. In four years, spectators will no doubt be inspired once more by extraordinary athletic performances. But I have high hopes that they’ll be equally awed by the vibrant examples of sustainable building that we’ll see in Rio.
So, let the sustainability games begin…