The International Olympic Committee, one of the most influential sports organizations in the world, has made significant public commitments on sustainability over the past years. Most recently, the IOC has picked up the pace when it comes to turning those promises into action. It is also helping sports organizations the world over to do the same.
With two Olympics being held in the next 12 months, GreenSportsBlog felt now was the perfect time to have a conversation with members of the IOC’s sustainability team, Michelle Lemaître and Julie Duffus. Our wide-ranging agenda delved into the IOC’s:
Decision to become climate positive by 2024,
The climate-related initiatives being planned for Tokyo this summer and Beijing next February by the local organizing committees,
Work with athletes on their environmental- and climate-focused initiatives, and
Role in helping the UNFCCC’s Sports For Climate Action framework transition from words to action
The coronavirus pandemic has impacted…everything.
And everything of course includes the Olympics. Local organizers are pushing all possible levers, in concert with the IOC, to deliver safe Olympic Games in Tokyo in July and next February in Beijing.
Michelle Lemaître, the IOC’s Head of Sustainability and Julie Duffus, the Olympic Movement’s Senior Manager for Sustainability, of course understand that COVID is Priority #1…and #2 and #3. That said, the duo is laser-focused on ensuring that the organization makes good on its significant climate-related commitments.
It says here that its most audacious marker is to
reduce its direct and indirect greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 45 percent, by 2030.
That puts the IOC in sync with the 2018 IPCC report which stated the need to reduce emissions by that amount, in that time frame, if humanity is to avoid the most calamitous impacts of climate change.
IOC TO BE CLIMATE POSITIVE BY 2024, OLYMPIC GAMES BY 2030
There is no time to waste if the IOC expects to reach that – 45 percent by 2030 goal.
From 2016 to 2019 the IOC’s average annual carbon footprint, as far as its own operations are concerned, was about 53,000 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e). In order to achieve the 45 per cent cut in emissions, the IOC has set an intermediate reduction target of 30 per cent, to be achieved by 2024.
And that’s not all: The IOC has put another big target on its back, committing to reach climate positivity — which means taking out more carbon from the atmosphere than it emits — by 2024.
“We will get there in three ways: By emissions reductions, by offsetting more than 100 percent of our remaining emissions and by using our influence to encourage others within the sports world to take action against climate change,” related Lemaître. “We are going to reduce as much as possible, from the energy we use to the way we travel and conduct our meetings. The offsets will, for the most part, come from the ‘Olympic Forest’ project, which is part of the ‘Great Green Wall’, an existing UN-backed initiative to combat desertification in Africa’s Sahel¹ region”.
Planning is taking place now with planting scheduled for next year. The UN projects that the increased tree canopy and reduced desertification will lead to new opportunities for economic growth, enhanced food security and improved climate resilience for the region.
The Sahel, the semi-arid zone between the Sahara desert and the savannah, is the focus of efforts to build a “Great Green Wall” to hold back the desert and provide jobs and sustainable development for the impacted African nations (Photo credit: Daniel Tiveau/Center for International Forestry Research)
Beyond the Great Green Wall, the IOC will work to use its influence to inspire its stakeholders and the broader public to take on climate change. Per Lemaître, “this will involve, for example, promoting the development of innovative, low-carbon solutions in renewable energy, hydrogen, and the circular economy.”
All Organizing Committees from the 2030 Winter Olympics² and beyond will also be contractually obligated to deliver climate positive games. Tokyo, Beijing, Paris 2024, Milan-Cortina 2026 and LA 2028 have all committed to carbon neutrality.
COORDINATING CLIMATE MESSAGING WITH LOCAL ORGANIZING COMMITTEES IN TOKYO, BEIJING
Did you know that Olympics provided the biggest ever platform for showcasing climate change?
I know what you’re saying: “That can’t be right.”
The Opening Ceremony at the Rio 2016 Summer Olympics featured a climate-themed vignette that was seen by a global audience estimated at 1 billion people. Nothing has come close since.
Will the Tokyo and/or Beijing organizing committees bring climate into their Opening Ceremonies? GSB reached out to each organization about their plans; neither has yet responded.
While what happens on the ground during an Olympic Games is the purview of the local organizing committees, the IOC’s sustainability team is collaborating with Tokyo and Beijing organizers to make sure that the Games are organized in as sustainable a way as possible. The IOC’s goal is to help showcase sustainable solutions, including those that impact climate, to as wide an audience as possible on site and around the world.
“Circular economy messaging from the Tokyo Organizing Committee has already begun to reach the Japanese public,” noted Lemaître. “For example, they are encouraging the Japanese society to increase recycling rates by highlighting the fact that the medals that will be given out to the athletes and the podia on which the athletes will receive them will be made from recycled materials. And they’re showcasing the transition to cleaner transportation that is ongoing in Japan through the use of hydrogen-fueled buses and hydrogen refueling stations during the Games.
The Beijing Organizing Committee has also made climate one of the central tenets of the 2022 Winter Olympics, committing to running a carbon neutral Games.
“One of the Beijing Committee’s signature advances will be the use of natural CO₂ as a refrigerant alternative to freon at the ice venues,” Lemaître shared. “It is a promising low-impact, non-toxic, and non-flammable technology with no net greenhouse gas effect. This will be a first for an Olympics, and a first for China.”
But, as mentioned above, the IOC’s environmental messaging goes beyond the Olympic markets.
“We are already using our own media to communicate about these initiatives, along with other environmental and climate issues to international audiences,” Duffus said. “For example, on World Oceans Day last year, we held an ‘Instagram Live’ with British Olympic sailing gold medalist Hannah Mills which got about 10,000 views. She spoke about her passion for the ocean and her efforts to protect it. Just this week, we posted an extensive interview with Hannah about her passion for sport and sustainability.”
GIVING OLYMPIANS AN ASSIST ON THEIR OWN ENVIRONMENTAL INITIATIVES
Lemaître and Duffus realize that, while the IOC and the local organizers have tremendous influence, it is the athletes who have the real power to change culture.
An increasing number of Olympians have expressed interest in launching their own nonprofits — some of which are environmentally- or climate-themed. The IOC, through its Young Leaders Program, has begun to serve as an incubator of sorts for those startups, providing education and financial support.
“From an environmental perspective, I again want to highlight Hannah Mills, as in 2019 she launched the ‘Big Plastic Pledge’, which asks athletes to pledge to do three things to reduce plastic waste,” offered Duffus. “We supported Hannah with her launch by providing technical expertise and communications support. We’re also happy to support Seyi Smith, an Olympic sprinter and bobsledder from Canada who started “Race To Zero”, a program that brings sustainability to grassroots track meets in Calgary. We plan to expand the Young Leaders program going forward so more Olympians can express their passions and make sure their voices get heard.”
IOC TAKES LEADERSHIP ROLE IN SPORTS FOR CLIMATE ACTION FRAMEWORK
The IOC made sure its voice would be heard when it became a developer and early signatory of the UNFCCC’s Sports for Climate Action Framework.
Two years and 200 other signatories later, the framework’s emphasis has necessarily moved on from merely committing to the framework’s five principles³ to acting on them. The IOC is helping to lead the transition by chairing one of the working groups, encouraging the Olympic Movement to join the Framework and providing support and expertise as needed.
“We are now involved in all four of the Sports for Climate Action working groups to help turn these principles into actions by the signatories,” shared Duffus.
One working group is setting specific, climate-focused key performance indicators (KPIs), including customized targets for measurable climate reductions. The second is helping signatories develop strategies to achieve climate neutrality. The third is focused on accelerating innovation surrounding responsible consumption. And the fourth deals with education and advocacy — how best engage all stakeholders, from athletes to fans, from employees to partners on climate action.
GSB’s Take: Kudos to the IOC for taking a leading role on the Sports For Climate Action Framework’s working groups — this is helping the sports world accelerate the process of moving from climate commitments to climate action. The organization also earns high marks for its commitment to become carbon positive by 2024 in terms of its own operations and for ensuring that all Olympic Organizing Committees, starting with the 2030 Winter Games, will do the same.
GSB believes that the most important part of the IOC-Sports For Climate Action puzzle still to be filled in is the media piece, especially the vast worldwide audience the Olympics commands. The IOC is already delivering climate and other environmentally-themed content on its own channels.
We would love to see the IOC take this to the next level by partnering with future Organizing Committees and the companies around the world that broadcast the games to ensure that compelling, relevant climate-related content is aired during the Games, thus reaching the widest possible audience.
By so doing, the IOC, the local Organizing Committees and the networks would show the audiences they most covet — millennials, GenZ and GenAlpha — those who are 11 and younger.
¹ The African Sahel is a semi-arid 3,360 mile west-to-east belt that spans from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea
² The winning bid for the 2030 host city will be announced at the 140th IOC Session in Mumbai, India, in 2023. Cities/regions that have expressed interest are Barcelona-Pyrenees; Lviv, Ukraine; Salt Lake City, Utah; Sapporo, Japan; and Vancouver, British Columbia
³ The five principles of the Sports For Climate Action Framework are 1) undertake systematic efforts to promote greater environmental responsibility, 2) reduce overall climate impact, 3) educate for climate action, 4) promote sustainable and responsible consumption, and 5) advocate for climate action through communication
Photo at top: Olympic rings are formed with sprouting seed boxes, part of the climate vignette during the 2016 Rio Olympics opening ceremony (Photo credit: AP)