The Olympics Are Hard on the Environment. Will the 2022 Beijing Games Continue the Trend?

In Brief

The Olympics Are Hard on the Environment. Will the 2022 Beijing Games Continue the Trend?

The Olympics are becoming less sustainable, and the winter games in Beijing are no exception. Can organizers make them more environmentally friendly as the climate crisis intensifies?

China and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) have touted the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing as the “greenest and cleanest ever,” but many experts and activists have criticized the host city for unsustainable practices. Concerns about the environmental toll of the Olympic Games have been mounting for years, intensifying as the threat of climate change grows.

What are the concerns about the Beijing Olympics?

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The Winter Olympics require ample snow on the ground for sports such as skiing and snowboarding, but the three sites for the 2022 games—Beijing, Yanqing, and Zhangjiakou—have arid climates. While snow reliability is declining globally because of planetary warming, Beijing is particularly unsuited for the winter games because it doesn’t have much precipitation in the first place. The 2014 Sochi Olympics and 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics were criticized for similar reasons.

To compensate, Beijing is largely relying on artificial snowmaking, a process that consumes large quantities of water and electricity, which can lead to greater carbon emissions. Carmen de Jong, a geographer at the University of Strasbourg, estimates that snowmaking for the games’ two outdoor venues—Yanqing and Zhangjiakou—will require up to five hundred million gallons of water. “To have games in a site or region without snow is unsustainable. To create events without the primary resource it depends on is not only unsustainable, it’s irresponsible,” de Jong says.

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The snowmaking has reportedly resulted in water being diverted away from local residents and farmers, who are already strapped for the resource because Beijing suffers from an endemic water shortage. Artificial snow also destroys native vegetation and can cause erosion and landslides, exacerbating the already-harmful environmental impact of constructing ski runs in natural landscapes. If the Olympic venues are converted into permanent ski resorts as planned, these unsustainable practices will likely continue long after the games. Environmentalists in China raised an uproar after learning that planned ski runs ran through the core of the Songshan Nature Reserve, a protected forest ecosystem in Beijing. 

What has Beijing said about the winter games’ environmental impact?

Chinese officials say the 2022 Olympics will be the most sustainable ever, pointing to the widespread use of renewable energy, hydrogen-powered vehicles, and preexisting venues. While many activists and scientists see this as a step in the right direction, they say these are superficial measures that amount to “greenwashing,” a public relations effort to mask broader sustainability shortcomings. The heavy cost of snowmaking is just one of the environmental concerns regarding site construction and energy consumption.

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Like some previous hosts, Beijing also plans to use carbon offsets. These are carbon-reducing measures, such as planting trees, taken to make up for increased emissions. But scientists question their efficacy and criticize the IOC for poor oversight of host cities’ fulfillment of carbon-neutral promises.

How has the environmental impact of the Olympics evolved?

Studies have shown that the Olympics have generally become more harmful to the environment in recent years, particularly as they’ve expanded in size and scale. More athletes, spectators, events, and venues emit more carbon and consume more natural resources. Olympics-related construction has also reshaped ecological landscapes and displaced residents.

The Olympic rings appear on a ski hill that lacks snow.
One of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics venues in Zhangjiakou is seen without snow in November 2021. Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

In addition, the Olympics are increasingly hosted by countries where renewable infrastructure and environmental protections are less established. The attraction of mega-sized prestige projects has driven some host governments to steamroll domestic opposition to the games. Experts say the Sochi Olympics and the 2016 Rio Olympics notably caused ecological damage due to construction, toxic waste disposal, and unsustainable building practices. By contrast, many developed democracies are balking at hosting the games because of the potential for ballooning costs and environmental damage. For the 2022 Olympics, Beijing was selected as the host above Almaty, Kazakhstan, only after Oslo, Norway; Stockholm, Sweden; Krakow, Poland; and Lviv, Ukraine, withdrew their bids due to lack of public support.

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How will climate change affect the Olympics?

Scientists expect the number of cities able to host the Summer and Winter Olympics will decrease considerably as the planet warms. One study found that without a significant drop in emissions, by 2080, an increase in temperatures would make it so only eight of the past twenty-one cities to host the Winter Olympics would be able to do so again. Meanwhile, the heat could also affect where the Summer Olympics are held. By 2085, only an estimated 5 percent of currently viable cities in the Northern Hemisphere would be considered cool enough for athletes.

Can the Olympics be held sustainably?

To increase the sustainability of the Olympics, experts have recommended organizers consider several actions:

  • Select one city or a few cities to host the games every time and reuse existing infrastructure. (Some have suggested rotating the games among representative cities from each continent, such as Los Angeles in North America, London in Europe, and Tokyo in Asia.) 
  • Hold the games less often.
  • Reduce the number of events and competitors.
  • Restrict the number of tourists to reduce travel footprint.

However, many observers remain skeptical that governments and the IOC can pivot, given the financial and reputational incentives. “The chance to display your nation as a great nation on the world stage is hugely valuable,” says Sven Daniel Wolfe, an urban and political geographer at the University of Lausanne. “I don’t think that other nations will want to give up that prize.”

Michael Bricknell created the map for this In Brief.

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