After being delayed a year to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games begin later this week. With all the extra time to prepare and plan, officials are optimistic that this year’s games can be as sustainable as they are competitive.
Outside of splashy announcements—like podiums being made out of recycled plastics and hundreds of Olympic medals made from recycled electronics—and a huge investment in carbon offsets, organizers are pushing toward making the games, venues and celebrations as eco-friendly as possible. Here are some of the biggest ways the Olympics will be making a sustainable impact this summer.
Electric-drive transportation for officials and competitors
One of the biggest logistical concerns for the Olympics outside of building venues and scheduling events is transportation. To ensure Games officials, athletes and staff can make it from location to location, the International Olympic Committee needs a robust fleet of vehicles to transport everyone efficiently. Making sure that the fleet is as eco-friendly as possible was one of the organizers’ top priorities for this year’s games.
Of the nearly 2,700 passenger vehicles used for transportation throughout the event, 90% of them will be highly sustainable electric-drive vehicles, including a mix of gasoline hybrid, plug-in hybrid and fuel cell vehicles. In addition to providing the bulk of the hybrid vehicle fleet, Toyota, the Olympics’ official mobility partner since 2015, is providing around 500 of their Mirai hydrogen fuel cell sedans and another 100 of their Sora hydrogen fuel cell busses for transportation. The hope is that their use can inspire the world and serve as a blueprint for the “realization of the hydrogen society.”
Energy powering the games will be 100% renewable
One of the Olympics’ biggest efforts toward combating climate change is through the use of renewable energy (p36). Dozens of new and existing venues for the 2020 games will be powered directly by one of three solar energy power plants or a biomass power plant connected to the grid with the Olympics energy provider. Some facilities and partners may also receive renewable energy from on-site installations.
However, not every venue or building used by organizers is able to be powered from the two types of renewable plants or their own installations. To combat this, the games are procuring green power certificates, which act as a way of offsetting emissions from more conventional energy sources. Every green power certificate officials purchase goes directly toward cleaner energy investment and helping citizens acquire more energy-saving devices, all while allowing the games to claim their energy as renewable. While it may not be the ideal solution, it's an admirable one that organizers and Tokyo citizens are excited about.
Combating food, plastics and other types of waste
Large sporting events are notorious for generating a lot of waste — food, plastic and otherwise. Organizers of the games recognize this, and have put forth efforts to ensure those competing or attending the games can do their part to curb the amount of waste being generated.
Self-sorting waste stations are everywhere through the Olympic village and venues, with clear signage outlining what can be composted or recycled versus what needs to be thrown away entirely. Officials hope that attendees can rally around this type of self-sorting, known in Japan as bunbetsu, as a way of contributing toward sustainability together.
In addition to on-site sorting efforts and encouraging food and other vendors to use more sustainable and reusable materials, Tokyo 2020 organizers have also taken steps to reduce the amount of goods and other resources used. From building fixtures to tech devices to furniture and more, goods that aren’t able to be leased or rented will be resold or donated to the city of Tokyo or to private companies as a way of combating waste.
Pandemic may also play a significant sustainability role
Outside of the Olympics robust sustainability plan, this year’s games may be even more sustainable than first intended due to event changes as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Out of concern for public health, organizers announced that international spectators (those who live outside of Japan) are barred from attending the games. With fewer travelers, there will be a significant reduction in global carbon emissions typically associated with travel and accommodations. Olympics organizers estimate that approximately 340,000 tons of CO2 will be saved (p. 35) because of this.
Venue capacity has also been significantly reduced, with venues capped at 50% of their maximum, with 10,000 people as the absolute max for larger arenas. Fewer attendees and spectators also means significantly less food and materials waste, leading to a ripple effect of sustainability, even in the face of an ongoing global crisis.
Olympic sustainability critiques
Amid all the progress the International Olympic Committee and Tokyo 2020 organizers have made to make this year’s games environmentally friendly, many people say more could be done. Critiques on the sourcing of food and timber and the lack of clarity around air conditioning usage in notoriously warm Japanese summers bring to light the challenges of making a multi-billion dollar global event as sustainable as possible.
But even with opportunities left on the table for future games to take advantage of, scientists and environmental advocates agree that the Olympics sustainability pledges and plans have resulted in real progress—progress that can hopefully set a powerful example on the world stage.