Paris aims for the most sustainable Olympic Games to date. Organizers acknowledge that the plan is not perfect

PARIS (AP) — Of all the decisions Paris Olympics organizers made about where to hold which sport, sending surfing competitions to the other side of the world — in the Pacific waters of Tahiti — provoked the strongest reaction . Tahitians and others protested the construction of a new observation tower on Teahupo’o Reef, fearing it would harm marine life.

But organizers say it wasn’t just the world-class waves that lured them to the French territory 10,000 miles away. Paris Olympic officials had set an ambitious target to halve their overall carbon footprint compared to the 2012 Games in London and 2016 in Rio.

Tahiti’s surf reef is too far offshore for fans to see the action clearly from the beach, so organizers say they calculated most would be watching the television instead of fleeing, a major source of CO2 emissions.

And fewer spectators would require little new construction, another major source of emissions, they said.

“We’ve done the math,” said Georgina Grenon, director of environmental management for the Paris Games. “There was less impact on Tahiti compared to other metropolitan areas.”

Tahiti’s selection offers insight into the approach taken by the Games organizers to achieve their goal of reducing emissions, the driver of climate change. It also underlines an inherent tension in the pursuit of sustainability: there are trade-offs, and cutting emissions doesn’t necessarily mean preserving the environment.

The organizers’ goal is to limit emissions to 1.58 million tons of CO2 equivalent for the period from July 26 to August. 11 Games and Paralympics to follow. That’s still a lot of pollution — equivalent to that of about 1.3 million economy passengers flying one-way from New York to Paris on Boeing 787 jets, according to myclimate, a climate and sustainability consultancy.

However, it is a lot less than the footprint of previous games.

Organizers say they are thinking about the future of the Games, and not just the planet. Fewer cities voluntarily spend billions on infrastructure that sometimes falls into disuse. Paris and the next host, Los Angeles in 2028, were the only cities still in the race when they were chosen in 2017. For organizers, staging less wasteful Games is crucial, along with including more inclusive, youth-focused events such as skateboarding.

Paris is under additional pressure to be a sustainable model: the city hosted the 2015 UN climate talks that resulted in the Paris Agreement, the most important international climate accord to date. Delegates agreed that the world must limit average global temperature increases to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) above those of the 1850s, and ideally to 1.5 degrees (2.7 Fahrenheit) – a goal that is increasingly unattainable seems.

Independent experts say Paris appears to be decarbonizing in the systematic way companies do: calculate total emissions and then start cutting back, including countless small CO2 savings that add up significantly. Organizers focused on reductions in three categories: construction, transportation and operations.

“They seem to be taking a very thoughtful approach,” says Adam Braun of Clarasight, which builds carbon planning software for businesses. “They are trying to do something that is indicative of how many organizations will hold themselves accountable.”

The biggest change compared to previous Games is in construction. Organizers say 95% of facilities are existing or will be temporary. Two new buildings were deemed inevitable: the Olympic Village, which would house athletes and later become housing and office space, and the water sports center in the deprived northern suburbs of Paris.

The use of wood, low-carbon cement and salvaged materials has reduced emissions by 30% compared to traditional methods, Grenon said.

The reduction in activities includes food. The average meal in France – prepared in a restaurant or at home – produces around 2 kilograms of CO2, says Philipp Würz, head of catering for the Games. Paris wants to halve that by sourcing 80% of ingredients locally, reducing transport emissions and offering spectators 60% plant-based food.

Winning both minds and taste buds can take a lot of work. “Locally grown food and supporting local farmers are beautiful things,” says tennis player Victoria Azarenka. But “when people make these big gestures, I’m not fully convinced of the impact,” she added of Paris’s overall climate efforts.

Another source of emissions savings is energy. Energy will represent just 1% of emissions, organizers said. They plan to use 100% renewable energy from wind and solar farms, plus solar panels in some locations.

Stadiums and temporary locations receive power from the electricity grid instead of diesel generators, which produce a lot of CO2. Major power outlets at venues will remain in place after the Games, eliminating the need for generators at future events.

Reducing transport-related emissions is perhaps Paris’s biggest challenge. Tourism officials expect 15.3 million visitors for the Olympic and Paralympic Games, including 1.9 million from outside France, with at least 850,000 on long-haul flights.

In Paris, there are low-carbon transport options – cycle routes, metro trains, buses and other public transport – to all locations.

But the inability to control how people attend the Olympics, or any major event, raises questions about whether humanity can afford such gatherings at the cost of further climate damage.

“Maybe things like the Olympics need to be reconsidered,” said Seth Warren Rose of the Eneref Institute, an advocacy and research group focused on sustainable development. “It is very intensive to bring millions of people together in one area.”

Rose said the organizers’ efforts are commendable, but they should have gone further: cutting emissions by more than half and finding more ways to make sustainability a central fan experience.

Some critics have also questioned some sponsors. Air France, port operator CMA CGM Group and metals giant ArcelorMittal are leaders in carbon-intensive industries. They all advertise their Olympic sponsorship and sustainability efforts on their websites.

The Upright Project, a Finnish company that creates and analyzes data to evaluate companies’ impact on the world, looked at sponsors and assigned scores for positive and negative environmental impacts, health, employment and other measures.

The sponsors’ emissions had a total negative impact of tenfold on the environment.

“I find the current sustainability discourse, where we effectively celebrate companies’ tiny sustainability adjustments and greenwashing efforts as if they actually make a difference in climate change, to be extremely harmful,” Upright Project’s Annu Nieminen said in a statement. “If the sponsors of Paris 2024 are praised by the organizers for their ‘sustainability’, it contributes to the same harmful discourse.”

In a statement, organizers said the Games “provide a unique opportunity to encourage partner companies to adopt more responsible practices.”

For emissions that cannot be reduced, Paris plans to offer compensation – a practice called offsetting. For example, planting trees could help remove CO2 from the atmosphere created by the Games. But offsets markets are not well regulated, and investigations by news organizations have found some projects to be fraudulent, while others have miscalculated the amount of emissions captured.

Organizers say they will continue to adjust sustainability plans as they go, including those in Tahiti. The metal judging tower, which replaced the aging wooden tower that Tahiti previously used to host surfing competitions, was scaled back in size in response to concerns about environmental damage, organizers say. The tower was completed earlier this year and will be dismantled after the Games. It will be built and reused when Teahupo’o hosts world surfing events.

Organizers say they expect about 1,300 people with Olympic accreditation on the island, including 500 who will fly in. That total, likely much smaller than if the competition were held off the French coast, includes surfers, judges, journalists and Games staff.

“We say sustainability is a collective sport,” said Grenon. “Will everything be perfect? No right? We cannot say that. We are still working very hard to get as far as we can.”


Prengaman reported from New York. Howard Fendrich and Sylvie Corbet in Paris contributed to this report.


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