Tokyo Olympic stadium

Will Tokyo 2020 be the greenest Olympics?

Image credit: Getty Images

The organisers of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games firmly believe that this year’s event will be the most sustainable to date, but is this true? Some of the world’s leading environmental organisations think not and accuse the Tokyo Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games of greenwashing.

As one of the largest sporting events in the world, the Olympic Games has a big responsibility to showcase just what can be achieved when sustainability is prioritised.

The organisers of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games recognise this. “From the outset, Tokyo 2020 has been dedicated to leveraging the opportunities provided by hosting the Olympic and Paralympic Games to help build a more sustainable society,” says Yuki Arata, senior director of sustainability at the Tokyo Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (TOCOG).

High expectations were set in the Games’ sustainability progress report: “The road to contributing to a sustainable society will be fraught with various difficulties, but the resolve of the many people involved with the Games will make it possible to overcome these challenges,” said Yoshiro Mori, who was Tokyo 2020 president at the time of publication.

Mori went on to state that Tokyo 2020 “will not only pursue sustainability initiatives and pass them on to future Games while continuing to engage in dialogue with the multiple stakeholders involved with the Games, but also create vivid memories of the value of sport in the minds of the people of the world and help realise the sustainable society of tomorrow”.

It’s a brave declaration, and one that has been backed up with a comprehensive sustainability strategy. Leading with the concept to “be better, together for the planet and the people”, the strategy outlines how it will contribute to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals concerning climate change, resource management, natural environment and biodiversity, procurement and more.

On paper, it all looks great. Sixty-three municipalities across Japan, for example, have joined Operation BATON (Building Athletes’ village with Timber Of the Nation). The project promises to construct the Village Plaza using sustainably sourced Japanese timber donated by local authorities across Japan, before dismantling it after the Games in order to return the timber for reuse in the communities – for example, as a public bench or part of a school building.

Tokyo 2020 says it is working to reduce CO2 emissions in the delivery of the Games too. In addition to avoiding and reducing emissions through advanced energy-saving technologies and a commitment to 100 per cent renewable energy systems at venues, it has partnered with the Tokyo Metropolitan Government and Saitama Prefecture to launch a project aimed at offsetting all CO2 emissions that will be generated across Tokyo during the four days of opening and closing ceremonies of the Games.

Hydrogen energy will also feature heavily. In addition to 500 Toyota fuel-cell electric vehicles being used during the Games, hydrogen will be the fuel for the Olympic and Paralympic Cauldrons and Torches during part of its journey through Japan. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government will also use hydrogen energy in some Olympic/Paralympic Village facilities.

Then there’s the Tokyo 2020 Medal Project, which has seen the collection of used electronic devices, from which the precious metals they contain will be extracted and recycled to create the gold, silver and bronze Olympic medals. More than 18,000 collection boxes have been installed at offices of participating businesses and Games partners, government departments, and chambers of commerce across the country. They have also been provided at post offices and special events hosted by Tokyo 2020. In addition, 1,618 local authorities – approximately 90 per cent of Japan’s total – and 37 host town local governments have taken part. Tokyo 2020 partner companies are also cooperating in a variety of ways, such as by donating their employees’ used mobile phones.

In addition to all of this, the Japanese team will wear kit made from recycled clothing and, in partnership with consumer goods giant P&G, podiums will be made from recycled materials too. 24.5 tonnes of used plastic and around 400,000 laundry detergent bottles have been donated by the public and collected from the ocean in preparation.

Meanwhile, recyclable paper containers for serving meals will be provided to spectators, and Tokyo 2020 will also promote proper waste sorting to achieve its target of reusing and recycling 65 per cent of Games-time waste.

That’s without mentioning the re-use of existing venues, which Hirokazu Shibata, technology and sustainability leader for Dow Sports Marketing Solutions, believes is playing a major role in the sustainability of the Games. “As a Worldwide Olympic Partner and the Official Chemistry Company of the Olympic Games, Dow is committed to using our materials science expertise to enhance the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 experience for everyone, while delivering a sustainable legacy,” he says. “That legacy includes uniting the old with the new, proving that leveraging the latest technologies enables enhanced performance and sustainability.”

‘The true fruits of Tokyo 2020’s sustainability work will be measured not only in outcomes that are directly part of the Games, but in terms of long-term legacy and social impact.’

Yuki Arata, Tokyo 2020 Organising Committee

The Tokyo 2020 cityscape features new construction and Tokyo 1964 venues that are retrofitted with advanced building technologies to help bring the over-50-year-old facilities to the cutting edge. In both types of venue, Dow says it has collaborated with local customers to prioritise sustainability, implementing the latest innovations in high-performance building solutions to better insulate, seal, connect, and protect Olympic infrastructure. The repurposed buildings include the Olympic Stadium, the Olympic Village, the Equestrian Park and Saitama Super Arena, to name but a few.

“Retrofit venues at Tokyo 2020 honour their history and are reimagined to serve the city and its residents for the next decade and beyond,” says Shibata. “With technology solutions that exist today, like those incorporated throughout Tokyo’s retrofitted venues, we can improve the energy efficiency of structures, reduce embodied carbon and help leave a positive legacy backed by the power of sport and science.”

All these elements add up to a seemingly gargantuan effort. Yet is it enough to declare that Tokyo 2020 will be the greenest Games ever? It is certainly under debate.

“Our research shows that Tokyo’s sustainability record will just be about average, compared to the long-term record,” says Martin Müller, a professor of human geography at the University of Lausanne, and author of the first long-term study of the (un)sustainability of the Olympics. “Ironically, Tokyo’s biggest contribution to sustainability might be unplanned: the adjustments made as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. They show that one can run an Olympic Games with fewer bells and whistles and, likely, with fewer visitors.”

In short, Müller believes the sustainability philosophy of the Olympic Games organisers is to clean up after themselves and make a big show out of it. “For example, making victory podia from recycled plastic is very visible in the media, but this plastic should, of course, not have been used in the first place,” he says.

He believes the sustainability effort at the Tokyo Games is oriented towards spectacular measures that are easy to communicate to a large public. Yet it avoids asking the really hard questions: can an event that displaces hundreds of people ever be socially sustainable? Can a cost overrun of billions of dollars ever be financially sustainable?

“At best, the Olympic sustainability measures produce a fuzzy good feeling with > < spectators and calm the bad conscience of having flown halfway around the world to watch one’s favourite swimmer compete,” he says. “It suggests that everything is all right, and we can go on consuming as before, just as long as we recycle our waste and offset our emissions.”

At worst, Müller argues, these spectacular sustainability efforts simply legitimise business-as-usual by distracting from bigger, structural issues. “Can the Olympic Games be serious about sustainability when their main sponsors are the world leaders of sugary drinks (Coca-Cola), mass-produced, meat-heavy fast food (McDonald’s), and pesticides and plastics (Dow Chemical)?” he questions. “This line-up certainly suggests that profit goes before sustainability. If the Olympic Games organisers are seriously about sustainability, they need to put their money where their mouth is.”

Aerial view of Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Village site 2018 - inline

Image credit: Getty Images

Müller isn’t alone in his opinion. Masako Konishi, a meteorologist and expert director for conservation and energy at WWF Japan, says that she is disappointed by the procurement policies for sustainability made so far. “While I would say the efforts towards zero carbon are commendable – and the best of any Olympic Games so far – the procurement policies for timber, fish, paper and palm oil in particular leave a lot to be desired,” she comments. “As a member of the Working Group set up to assist in developing world-class protocols, I tried incredibly hard to push for robust guidelines, but instead TOCOG has opted for a watered-down version that is far below the global best practice and inappropriate for a global event such as the Olympics.”

The outrage in response to TOCOG’s policy on timber procurement has been particularly fierce, with eight non-government organisations (NGOs) coming together to accuse the Tokyo 2020 organisers of fake sustainability practices and greenwashing.  

Junichi Mishiba, executive director at Friends of the Earth Japan – one of the NGOs – says he is incredibly disappointed. “In principle, TOCOG’s timber procurement standard is to procure ‘certified timber’ but, in practice, it is not limited to this,” he explains. “The organising committee has accepted timber without taking any measures to prevent the use of high-risk products sourcing from tropical forests, which are threatened by rapid deforestation worldwide, and on the basis of certification only. With this in mind, I believe that the TOCOG’s timber procurement standards do not work in order to achieve sustainability at all.”

Toyoyuki Kawakami, of the Rainforest Action Network in Japan, explains further: “The Games has used large quantities of tropical plywood, which has been linked to rainforest destruction. Supply chain analysis of the factory that had manufactured this plywood showed that about 40 per cent of the logs used to produce plywood came from tropical forests that had been cleared and converted for the development of coal mines and oil palm plantations,” he says. “The Tokyo Olympic organisers have clearly violated their sustainability pledge by fuelling the destruction of rainforests in south-east Asia, and they have refused to take any responsibility, including through the use of their grievance mechanism.”

Isao Sakaguchi, a law professor specialising in fisheries governance at Tokyo’s Gakushuin University, meanwhile, explains his concerns around the fish procurement strategy.  “The Games’ sourcing code for fish recognises not only the more stringent Marine Stewardship Council and Aquaculture Stewardship Council standards, but also untrustworthy local certification schemes, Marine Eco-Label and Aquaculture Eco-Label.”

Sakaguchi says that, in practice, these local schemes are effectively certification vending machines. “They issue certifications for almost all kinds of wild-capture and aquaculture fishery in Japan,” he explains.

“In addition, the code does not even require certification by approving wild-capture fishery managed under a national or local government-recognised plan for resource management and aquaculture fishery managed under the plan for maintenance and improvement of the fishery environment,” he continues. “Both plans are voluntary management systems designed by fishermen or aquaculture farmers based upon government guidelines which, in any sense, cannot ensure sustainability and do not have any transparency mechanism, as these plans are not made publicly available and do not have a periodic review system of effectiveness.”

The concerns do not end here. Clare Perry, a campaign leader at the Environmental Investigation Agency activist group in the UK, raises issues with the Games’ climate policy. “The sustainability concept focuses on energy savings and use of renewable energy, but it leaves a significant oversight: the use and emissions of fluorinated gases such as hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) that are used widely in refrigeration and air-conditioning,” she says.

“Given the Olympics are taking place in July in Tokyo, one of the hottest and most humid months of the year, there will be significant refrigeration and air-​conditioning requirements. If these are met with HFC refrigerants, there will be a huge climate impact. The Olympic committee should be ensuring that all sites are cooled with HFC alternatives, namely climate-friendly energy-efficient natural refrigerants, as well as seeking to reduce the demand for cooling where possible. But, as far as I can see, there is no mention of cooling or refrigerants in any of the reports from the Games organisers.”

Perry also questions the Games’ plastic policy. Like Müller, she believes a truly ‘green’ Olympics would focus on an absolute reduction in material use, for example, through reuse and refill, rather than fixes that focus on biodegradability or energy recovery. “Japan is behind the Osaka Blue Ocean vision, which pledges to ensure zero plastic is entering the ocean by 2050 – thus a priority for the Olympics should be eliminating single-use plastic items and minimising waste where possible,” she says. “This can be achieved through things like water refill stations, cup deposits and provision of reusable bottles rather than single-use items. They should also be ensuring that they aren’t promoting pointless plastic freebie giveaways.”

Perry concludes that the policies and initiatives are not in place to make this the greenest games ever. “Actions speak louder than words. My only hope is that this serves as a big lesson learned for future Games organisers.”

TOCOG’s Arata firmly disagrees with this analysis. She criticises Müller’s paper, arguing that it makes illogical comparisons between Games held in different seasons. “The research paper in question evaluated sustainability at both Summer and Winter Olympic Games held since 1992. Due to factors including the difference in scale between Summer and Winter Games, the widening scope of stakeholder involvement in every edition of the Games and constant updates to sustainability policies and initiatives, we believe one-to-one comparisons between successive editions of the Games are fundamentally impossible.”

She is adamant that efforts made at Tokyo 2020 will not only surpass previous Games, but will also pave the way for future sustainability endeavours.

Arata cites the Tokyo 2020 Medal Project as one pre-Games example contributing to a lasting sustainable legacy. “This project played an important role in encouraging Japanese citizens to get involved and take action to build a sustainable society, as well as raising awareness about the importance of a circular economy. The project will carry on the work of collecting and recycling devices and other small consumer electronics all over Japan by providing support to local governments who collect these electronic devices and holding recycling promotion events,” she says.

Ultimately, Arata says, the Games organisers are aiming to make a positive impact in many fields not only in Tokyo but also throughout Japan, in Asia and around the world. “Japan faces universal sustainability challenges including climate change and depletion of natural resources. Tokyo 2020 considers it an important responsibility to show leadership in leveraging the power of sport to solve these challenges and build a sustainable society,” she says. “The true fruits of Tokyo 2020’s sustainability work will be measured not only in outcomes that are directly part of the Games, but in terms of long-term legacy and social impact. This is where Tokyo 2020 hopes to see real and lasting progress.”

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