Olympic logo in Tokyo 2020

Tokyo 2020 Olympics paved the way for decarbonised sports events, study says

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A study on the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games has given clues on how international sports competitions can reduce their environmental impact.

The Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games have demonstrated that major international sports events can significantly reduce their carbon footprint, if organisers are willing to make some changes, according to a new study by Japan's Chukyo University.

A team of researchers reached this conclusion after looking at the impact that the Covid-19 pandemic had on the carbon emissions of last year's Olympic Games – pushed back from their original date of 2020 due to international lockdown measures. 

The results showed a dramatic decrease in the competition's environmental impact, compared to that of previous years, and shed light on possible steps that large international events can take in the future to contribute to decarbonisation efforts.

Due to the pandemic, the number of inbound event-related personnel who attended the Tokyo 2020 Olympics was significantly reduced, from 141,000 to 41,000 attendees.

The researchers did not look at the number of spectators, who were not allowed to fly into the country to attend the Games. Instead, they looked at the numbers of people that attended the competition as part of the International Olympic Committee, as well as officials including referees and judges, media, and marketing partners.

According to the study, this reduction of personnel saved 129,686.0 tCO2 in travel emissions.

“Our results indicate that acting to reduce the number of event-related personnel attending the Olympics is an important strategy that aims to mitigate the carbon footprint of mega sports events,” said Professor James Higham, one of the authors of the paper.

To determine the emissions reduction of the recent Olympic Games, researchers first identified the number people visiting Japan with temporary visitor visas in July last year and subtracted the number of Olympic athletes, followed by the visitors to Japan in June to account for non-Olympics-related visa-holders.

Then, the team estimated the return flight distance (miles) and CO2 emissions (kg) per passenger between the main and hub airports of each country and region and Narita International Airport using a flight carbon calculator, and calculated the results by multiplying the number of inbound (international) Olympics-related personnel (30,212) by the air travel carbon emissions per passenger for each country and region.

“It shows that there is enormous potential to reduce the carbon footprint of the Olympic Games in terms of transportation and people travelling internationally to be in attendance,” Higham said. 

While the paper does suggest that all future events should be held in empty stadiums, the researchers did point out that reducing unnecessary personnel and taking action to address carbon emissions caused by major sports competitions can have a great impact on the environment. 

Some of the report's suggestions to decarbonise international sports events include sourcing local or regional officials, offering opportunities for live virtual reality streaming and online press conferences, and ensuring that all unavoidable event-related emissions are costed. Higham also pointed out that event sponsors could be challenged to declare their event-related emissions to harness their commitment to a low-carbon event.

“We need to challenge ourselves to decarbonise these types of sports events,” Higham said. “Small first steps will inevitably lead to more significant changes over time.”

In addition to a reduction in Olympics-related personnel, the organisation of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games also demonstrated a commitment to sustainability by re-using or recycling 99 per cent of non-consumable items procured for the Games, utilising hydrogen to fuel the Olympic torch and making the 5,000 medals awarded to athletes from precious metals extracted from discarded electronic devices. 

The Games also involved businesses in its decarbonisation plans. By establishing a cap-and-trade programme as well as the Saitama Target Emissions Trading System, as many as 217 businesses provided certified Excess Reduction Credits, amounting to 4.38 million t-CO2 available to offset the Games. This amount exceeded the calculated total carbon footprint of the competition, 1.96 million t-CO2, by 2.42 million t-CO2. 

Moreover, in order to ensure that future Olympics Games continue on the sustainability path, the International Olympic Committee has pledged to plant an "Olympic Forest"  over the next four or five years. The forest will be formed of over 350,000 trees spanning an area of over 2000 hectares across close to a hundred villages in Mali and Senegal in what is better known as the Sahel region, the Committee has said. 

Some of these measures could possibly be applied in the future to other sports events, such as the football World Cup. According to a 2020 study, FIFA staff have the largest individual carbon footprint during the organisation of this competition, a number that could be brought down by decisions similar to those taken by the organisers of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.

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