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Vancouver 2010: Going for Green?

By Arlene Gregorius
BBC News, Vancouver

People running along Vancouver's watefront
The Winter Olympics are set to open 12 February 2010

Will green be the new gold, silver or bronze?

The organisers of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver and Whistler are hoping for gold stars as they seek to set new environmental standards for the Olympic movement.

Linda Coady, from the Vancouver Organising Committee (Vanoc), points out that after sport and culture, "the environment is the third pillar of the Olympics".

But can a huge event like the Olympics, with all the extra construction and travel this entails, ever be green? Or at least green-ish?

Ms Coady, who is Vanoc's vice-president for sustainability, says the 2010 Games will be "pretty green".

There are many challenges: from carbon-emissions and waste-generation, to the construction of venues and of the two Olympic villages in Vancouver and Whistler, British Columbia.

Ian Smith, the Manager of Development for the Olympic village of the city of Vancouver, is pleased with what they have achieved with the Vancouver village.

"All the buildings are going for gold, and they're going to get it," he says.

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Bill Law interviews Ian Smith on how green the Olympics will be

The 1,100 apartments, plus commercial space for shops and restaurants, will form a residential neighbourhood for 3,000 people after the Olympics.

Some of the flats will become available at what organisers say will be affordable below-market rents, while the top-end ones are expected to sell for several million dollars.

Carbon offsetting

But what about all the extra carbon and waste that the Games will generate?

There had been a target of diverting all extra waste away from landfill, such as by recycling or composting. This has proved impossible, so now that target has been lowered to 85% of the waste. It is too early to say whether this can be achieved.

We've seen very little evidence that the environment is really a high priority
Prof David Suzuki

Ms Coady says they hope their programmes for reducing and offsetting carbon emissions will set a new standard for the Olympic movement.

Her team has been working with a forecast of about 330,000 extra tonnes of carbon.

They expect a third of that to come from their own operations, and two-thirds to be indirect emissions from air travel for the Games. They hope to revise the total forecast down to 300,000 extra tonnes.

The aim is to offset this, or rather, the aim was.

Canadian scientist and environmental activist David Suzuki is "very disappointed" that Vanoc's new carbon offset sponsorship deal will now "cover only about 110,000 tonnes".

"They have indicated that they will not take responsibility for the remaining 190,000 tonnes," he says, "which includes spectator air travel and other emissions that occur as a result of the Games".

Olympic village front of block of flats

Ms Coady, however, says that they are working on a voluntary programme for people participating in and attending the Games to help them offset their indirect emissions from air travel.

But Prof Suzuki is pessimistic.

"Voluntary initiatives on this scale typically have very low participation rates," he says.

He points out that Vanoc's sustainability budget, listed on its own website, is put at roughly $15.6m out of a total budget of $1.76bn.

That is only about half of what the arts and cultural programme of the "cultural Olympiad" is expected to cost.

With most construction completed, Vanoc says it is now working to ensure its venues and transport operate in an ecologically efficient way.

But here, too, Prof Suzuki is unhappy about some of the choices Vanoc has made, such as their choice of hydrogen buses as part of their vehicle fleet.

While the focus on transport is welcome, hydrogen vehicles are "an expensive and unproven distraction from where we really need to go with our transportation policy," he says.

Green legacy

What about the environmental legacy of the Games? Both organisers and critics have high expectations on this front.

People walking past Canada Place in Vancouver
How many of the visitors to Vancouver will be offsetting their travel carbon?

Ms Coady hopes that their programmes set a new standard, and that sustainability, as opposed to environment alone, will be a priority for future cities bidding to host the Olympics.

In particular, she wants "green planning and buildings, green event management, and new approaches to carbon management" to be part of the legacy.

Prof Suzuki agrees with these hopes and adds that he would like Vanoc to "inspire the world to get involved in environmental solutions".

As an estimated three billion people will watch the Games, he wants Vanoc and its TV sponsors to implement an outreach programme.

"What could be more powerful than to have respected Olympic athletes talking on TV, in between sporting events, about the Games' environment initiatives and inspiring spectators and the public to make similar changes in their own lives?"



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