(Image via rio2016.com)

Dr Anthony Horton questions how much consideration is given to environmental considerations when Olympic Games host cities are selected.

RECENT MEDIA ATTENTION on the parlous state of the environment in the vicinity of the Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games sites, and Brazil more generally, piqued my interest in researching the extent to which environmental issues are taken into account when deciding which city hosts the Olympic Games.

A report entitled ‘The 2016 Olympic Games: Health, Security, Environmental and Doping Issues’ published by the United States Congressional Research Service on 28 July 2016, highlights the environmental commitments made by the Rio de Janeiro Organising Committee for the 2016 Olympic Games and the assessment process that each city must successfully navigate in order to be awarded the right to host the Games.

This report was quite an eye opener for me and after considering the findings, I can only conclude that environmental concerns must be more heavily weighted in future decisions regarding which city hosts the Olympic Games.

Since 1999, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has adopted a two-stage process to assess cities wanting to host the Olympic Games. The first addresses a number of items including environmental conditions and impacts. As part of this assessment, cities must provide the IOC with the following information:

  • An assessment of current environmental conditions in the city
  • Details of ongoing environmental projects
  • An assessment of the environmental impacts of hosting the Olympic Games in the city or region
  • Information regarding any environmental impact studies carried out on prospective venues and if any legislation requires that such studies are performed

During the second phase, cities wanting to host the Olympics must provide additional details including:

  • Air quality reports
  • Information about protected nature reserves/conservation areas
  • Information regarding the roles and responsibilities of Governments
  • Environmental impacts of proposed construction work related to Games venues/facilities
  • Integration of environmental approaches into contracts with suppliers and sponsors
  • Estimates of rainfall, wind, temperatures and humidity levels during the Games

The IOC considers the above six factors to be critical to developing a "green games" and that all commitments from a city regarding actions, programs and policies are binding and should therefore be carried out by the city’s organising committee.

In their application for the 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games, the Rio de Janeiro bid committee developed an agenda structured around nine environmental factors:

  1. Water treatment and conservation
  2. Environmental awareness
  3. Use and management of renewable energy
  4. Carbon neutral Games and transport
  5. Protection of soils and ecosystems
  6. Sustainable design and construction
  7. Reforestation, biodiversity and culture
  8. Shopping and ecological certification
  9. Solid waste management

By the time the Rio de Janeiro Organising Committee was awarded the 2016 Olympic Games in 2009, it had made a number of pledges regarding the Games being environmentally safe and sustainable.

The Committee also pledged to prepare a Sustainability Management Plan addressing each of the above nine issues, identifying the government bodies responsible for managing them. The plan, published in March 2013, was focused on three "P"s:

  • Planet = a reduced environmental footprint — Reducing the environmental impact of projects related to the 2016 Games to result in a smaller footprint.
  • People = games for everybody — Planning and delivery of the 2016 Games in an inclusive manner, offering access to everyone.
  • Prosperity = responsibility and transparency — Contributing to the economic development of the state and city of Rio de Janeiro and planning, generating and reporting on projects related to the 2016 Games responsibly and transparently.

The Organising Committee committed to making sustainability criteria an integral part of the management of the Games — from design and planning through to post event review. The integration was to be based on four tenets:

  • Responsibility — social, environmental and economic activities associated with the Games will be conducted in a responsible manner
  • Inclusion — the Committee will strive for a respectful relationship will all parties interested in the Games regardless of age, sex, colour, religion, sexual orientation, culture or any other grounds for discrimination
  • Integrity — basing their actions on ethical principles consistent with international standards of behaviour
  • Transparency – communicating in a clear, accurate, timely and honest manner about our activities that affect society, the economy and the environment

In light of recent media attention highlighting the environmental conditions in and around the Rio de Janeiro Games sites, I would like to look closely at reforestation — one of the nine environmental issues that the Rio de Janeiro Organising Committee addressed as part of their hosting bid.

Reforestation is mentioned numerous times in the city’s Sustainability Management Plan, and across a number of locations ranging from Deodoro Olympic Park to the Atlantic Forest in Rio state. A section of the '2016 Olympic Games: Health, Security, Environmental and Doping Issues' report also details a ‘Rio Green Capital Program’ whereby a ‘Mass Reforestation Initiative’ is credited with having planted more than 5,000,000 seedlings covering an area of approximately 2,500 hectares across the hillsides of Rio de Janeiro. However, I find it curious that the Amazon rainforest is not mentioned in this plan.

Whenever Brazil and the environment are discussed in general conversation, it usually doesn’t take long for the Amazon rainforest to come up. The absence of any mention of it in the Sustainability Management Plan is particularly interesting given an interactive report recently published by the Council on Foreign Relations, a United States-based not for profit organisation.

This report highlights a relaxation of the Forest Code in Brazil in 2012 that resulted in less stringent conservation requirements — which many environmentalists suspect led to a 28 per cent increase in deforestation in 2013. Such an increase is significant given Brazil’s previously successful efforts to reduce deforestation in the Amazon by 80 per cent between 2005 and 2012.

It is clear that environmental issues are taken into account in the decision regarding which city hosts the Olympic Games. It is also clear that the IOC wants each Games to be "green" and that the IOC seeks binding commitments from the cities wanting to host the Games regarding actions, programs and policies. The Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games Organising Committee complied with the IOC and prepared a Sustainability Management Plan as part of its submission, subsequently being awarded the opportunity to host the 2016 Olympics.

I feel that the glaring omission of any discussion by the Rio de Janeiro Organising Committee regarding actions to prevent further deforestation of the Amazon rainforest, negates the compliance of the Organising Committee's bid to host the Olympics — raising questions regarding the process the IOC uses to assess cities wanting to host the Games.

Based on the Congressional Research Service report and the Council on Foreign Relations interactive report, I cannot help but conclude that environmental concerns must be more heavily weighted in future decisions regarding which city hosts the Olympic Games.

You can follow Anthony on Twitter as the Climate Change Guy @DrAnthonyHorton as well as his blog the Climate Change Guy.

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