While the athletes competed for gold, silver and bronze, organizers for the Rio 2016 summer Olympics worked to make green this year’s most important color. With an abundance of symbolism and a raft of commitments, organizers sought to make the environment the 31st Olympiad’s key political issue.
The question, now that the circus has left town, is whether anybody will be around to fulfill those promises.
The threat posed by global warming and rising ocean levels was featured prominently in the opening ceremony, the most symbolic night of the 17-day event, in a video narrated by Judi Dench and broadcast to the world.
The foreboding video was followed by a gesture of hope with the announcement of the “Athletes’ Forest,” which claimed that one tree seed will be planted in Rio’s Olympic Park for each of the more than 10,000 athletes participating in the Rio games.
The opening ceremony message is just a part of the Rio organizers efforts to reduce the Games’ environmental impact, a perennial source of criticism for organizers. In October 2014, it was announced that the total estimated carbon footprint for the Rio Olympic and Paralympic games, including emissions from spectators, construction and venue operation, is 3.6 million tons.
Rio 2016’s plans to offset that entire carbon footprint includes a carbon offset partnership with the Dow Chemical Company, itself a top polluter. Two million tons are supposed to be compensated through the partnership with Dow, while the remaining 1.6 million tons will be addressed by the Rio de Janeiro State Government.
According to Dow, the chemical company committed to mitigate 500,000 tons of carbon during the games and “aspires” to mitigate the remaining 1.5 million tons that it is responsible for by 2026. One program that Dow touts often is a program with farmers in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso to modernize agricultural techniques and reduce synthetic fertilizer use.
For the organizer’s part, they committed to using sustainable suppliers in the run up to the Games and finding renewable energy solutions where possible. Even the medals that the athletes are competing for were considered: they’re made from recycled materials and precious metals produced by sustainable mining methods.
Yet many of the environmental protection promises made by organizers were unfulfilled by the start of the games. The deadline for cleaning up Guanabara Bay has been pushed back from 2016 to 2035. By the time the Olympics began, only a fraction of the promised 34 million trees had been planted. Now, with Brazil facing a political and economic crisis, critics of the Games worry that these promises will be forgotten.
Jules Boykoff, a professor of politics at Pacific University and the author of Power Games: A Political History of the Olympics, has been a vocal critic of the Rio organizer’s actions.
Boykoff coauthored “The Olympics, Sustainability and Greenwashing: The Rio 2016 Summer Games”, a paper published in the peer-reviewed Capitalism Nature Socialism. The paper describes the historic disconnect between Olympic rhetoric and applied environmental measures, and argues that Rio organizers have only shown lip service for sustainability efforts. Take this excerpt from the paper as an example.
However, a monstrous abyss emerged between Rio 2016’s bold environmental promises and on-the-ground reality. This is especially poignant in light of the fact that Rio de Janeiro suffers from the intense inequitable distribution of environmental basics such as clean water and sewage.
Moreover, Cariocas had heard many these promises before: in winning the right to stage the 2007 Pan-American Games, bidders promised water cleanup and revamped housing, but the waterways remained polluted and the athlete village was built on ecologically sensitive peat land.
Boykoff also cautions that the creation of the athlete’s forest and the inclusion of a climate change warning in the opening ceremony don’t mean Rio organizers are really committed to tackling these problems.
“I would really hesitate to take too much away from the opening ceremony,” Boykoff said. “I was happy to see it acknowledged at all. But I definitely don’t think that it’s any kind of indication that the International Olympic Committee is serious about addressing climate change in any kind of meaningful way.”
For Boykoff, the biggest opportunity missed by Rio organizers was the chance to clean up Guanabara Bay.
“This was the biggest whiff on the green front of the Olympics, and for me it might’ve been the biggest whiff of the entire Olympics,” Boykoff said. “If they would’ve actually followed through and had 80 percent of the water flowing into the bay cleaned and treated, that would’ve such an incredible advance, such an amazing legacy for the people of Rio.”
Olympic organizers have said that work on environmental projects will continue even though the games are over. Boykoff said he finds this hard to believe, given the history of Olympic “legacy” projects, the breakup of Rio 2016’s sustainability committee and Brazil’s ongoing political strife.
“A lot of what can get done for the Olympics, what can be positive environmental legacies, is done because of the important deadline that the Olympics impose. Whereas when the Olympics are in the rear view mirror, we don’t have that deadline anymore, and so it makes it much more politically difficult,” Boykoff said. “You toss into that the fact that Rio, and Brazil more generally, is facing a massive political and economic crisis that I don’t have to tell you about, and there are just other big things on the table besides pressing the leaders to push for their environmental follow through around the Olympics.”
Boykoff pointed out that the Rio games are not the first instance of Olympic organizers failing to make good on green initiatives.
“The green gestures we’ve seen out of Rio 2016 chime perfectly with the overall approach of the International Olympic Committee,” Boykoff said. “These are Olympic problems. Greenwashing is an Olympic problem, just as much as it was a Rio 2016 problem.”
Michael Sol Warren is a Boston-based freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter @MSolDub