Beijing 2022: can China deliver clean Winter Olympic Games?

With the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics about to start, China is under the spotlight as it seeks to deliver on its promise of holding the first ever carbon-neutral Olympic Games.

Less than six months after the Tokyo 2020 Olympics in Japan, which ran one year behind schedule due to the coronavirus pandemic, elite winter sports athletes from all around the globe are making their way to China for the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. For the second time in under two decades, Beijing will be hosting the Olympic Games – after the 2008 Summer edition – and in the process becoming the first city to host both Summer and Winter Olympics.

The Games will start two days prior to the February 4 Opening Ceremony in Beijing, with preliminary competitions in curling and ice hockey, and end on February 20 with the Closing Ceremony. However, not all events will be held in the capital but rather will be spread between the neighbouring mountain areas of Yanqing and Zhangjiakou, which will host competitions that require more snow and mountainous terrain. For just over two weeks, all eyes will be on the People’s Republic as they attempt to juggle hosting a global event during a pandemic, whilst at the same time delivering on their pledge to make these Games “green, inclusive, open and clean.”

ski run in Beijing 2022
The event requires snow and mountainous terrain © Matthias Hangst/Getty Images

For the Chinese President, Xi Jinping, the Winter Olympics could therefore provide a valuable opportunity to reach a global audience and demonstrate the country’s stance as a superpower and leader in the fight against climate change. On the other hand, the spotlight has also come with increasing scrutiny, and inevitable criticism, particularly over China’s track record on human rights and environmental issues, both of which have featured heavily in news stories in the build-up to the Games. In fact, scepticism around China’s ability to deliver truly sustainable Winter Olympics remains high. Not only in terms of ensuring a limited ecological and material footprint but also with regards to guaranteeing social justice, both of which are pillars of sustainability.

“Green” Winter Olympics?

Environmental sustainability featured heavily in Beijing’s initial bid to host the Olympics, with organisers stressing the event’s potential to act as a catalyst for reducing emissions and air pollution, providing sustainable mobility and improving urban planning. One of the main pledges made by China in its 2015 bid was that it would deliver the first-ever carbon neutral edition of the event. To achieve this organisers have worked to ensure that all Olympic venues are powered by 100 per cent renewable energy, over 700 hydrogen fuelled vehicles are used, and any excess emissions arising from the event are offset through initiatives such as afforestation projects in Zhangjiakou – which are said to have already had a significant impact in reforesting the area.

In terms of renewables, China is certainly well-positioned to deliver on its pledge. The People’s Republic currently produces more solar panels and wind turbines than any other country in the world. Although its aim for 25 per cent renewable energy generation by 2030 is considered too little by critics, it would be a step in the right direction for a country that still uses coal for over 50 per cent of its energy consumption.

Beijing Winter Olympics
Organisers have worked to ensure that the event is powered by 100% renewable energy © Carl Court/Getty Images

Hebei province, which surrounds Beijing and is home to Zhangjiakou, where numerous mountain events will be held, has invested in a new power plant that can convert renewable energy and generate 14 billion kilowatt-hours of clean electricity every year, similar to the annual energy consumption of Slovenia. In this context, the Winter Olympics are seen as a stage from which to showcase the huge progress that is being made in the country’s energy transition and tackling issues such as air pollution, whereby unsafe levels of PM 2.5 have been a cause for concern for decades. The combination of an increasing share of renewable energy generation and measures taken to ensure that industry in the area clean up and limit emissions has led to authorities in Beijing declaring that they met state air quality targets for the first time in 2021, lowering the concentration of dangerous PM 2.5 particles found in the air by 63 per cent between 2013 and 2021. Although a significant step in the right direction, and a source of relief for athletes travelling to compete in the area, it is also worth noting that current levels are still almost twice the World Health Organization’s (WHO) recommended limit.

Reservations remain about the environmental sustainability credentials of Beijing 2022, not least of which considering the track record of past Winter Olympics. The 2014 edition, held in Sochi, Russia, was evaluated as one of the “least sustainable” Olympics ever held by an external impact assessment, published in the peer-reviewed journal Nature, which looks at the extensive damage inflicted on the Russian city during the construction of Olympic venues, as well as the high environmental cost of imported snow, which plagued the event. International Olympic Committee (IOC) officials have also voiced their concerns about the availability of snow with regards to Beijing 2022, particularly in reference to holding the downhill skiing and slalom competitions in Yanqing, as well as the cross-country skiing, ski jumping and snowboarding in Zhangjiakou: “[They] have minimal annual snowfall and for the Games would rely completely on artificial snow.”

Worryingly, Beijing went 107 days without snow in 2014, the third-longest winter stretch on record, and this year the first snowfall of the season only came on January 14, three months behind schedule. Hardly what you would expect from the Winter Olympics. Creating artificial snow venues will require large amounts of energy – which officials say will be provided by renewable energy sources – and copious amounts of water, which some fear will mean dipping into local water resources and hence exacerbating ongoing water scarcity issue, particularly as Beijing suffers from endemic water shortages. Reports have already emerged indicating that water has been diverted from local residents and farmers with estimates putting the total water needed for Beijing 2020 at 49 million gallons for the production of artificial snow and ice.

Organisers insist that the water used for artificial snow will be taken from special cisterns that gather mountain runoff and rainfall water during the summer. “We are all self-sufficient and ecologically circular,” says Wang Jingxian, a member of the 2022 Games planning committee when talking to Reuters about the issue. However, not all are convinced. When talking to The Guardian, Carmen de Jong, a geographer at the University of Strasbourg, claimed that: “These could be the most unsustainable Winter Olympics ever held. These mountains have virtually no natural snow […]. To create events without the primary resource it depends on is not only unsustainable, it’s irresponsible.”

Furthermore, questions remain not only about the amount of water and energy used during the Games but also the legacy of hosting them in a region with such small amounts of snow. If these areas become established ski resorts, then unsustainable practices involving artificial snow may continue into the future.

Beijing 2022. A matter of rights

Ensuring a sustainable event is not just about environmental credentials but also about social justice. One of the biggest news stories in the build-up to Beijing 2022 has been China’s human rights record which has led several countries to announce a diplomatic boycott of the Games, whereby government officials will not attend the proceedings in Beijing. Although the majority of attention has been on the treatment of the Uighur Muslim ethnic group, with the United Nations estimating that over a million people, mainly from the Uighur and other Muslim minorities, have been detained in camps in Xinjiang, there is also concern over forced evictions due to the construction of Olympic venues and other infrastructure related to the Games, including renewable energy projects. In a recent statement, Amnesty International expressed their concern around “forced evictions, illegal land seizures, and loss of livelihoods related to the loss of land” with regards to wind and solar energy development plans, an issue that may also be manifesting in China as large scale renewable energy projects are deployed.

China has taken measures to help local populations when implementing renewable energy infrastructure, such as linking solar farm development with poverty alleviation programmes, whereby villagers get free electricity when solar panels are fitted to their houses. Although the programme’s initial goal was to help over two million households out of poverty, there have been accusations of widespread corruption at a local level leading to fewer people benefitting than initially planned and any opposition to the Communist Party endorsed ideas facing strong pushback and dissidents being pressured not to voice their reservations.

Repression of voices that challenge the Chinese central authority came to the foreground once again when stories of the disappearance of the three-time Olympian tennis star Peng Shuai – after posting online that she had been a victim of sexual assault by a former government official – emerged. Although Peng has since reappeared, in a 30-minute call with IOC president Thomas Bach where she claimed she was safe and well, questions about her wellbeing and China’s ability to deliver socially just Winter Olympics remain.

2022 Olympics
A sustainable event is not just about environmental credentials but also about social justice © Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

Dealing with the pandemic

Another key issue for Beijing 2022 has been how to deal with the pandemic, particularly as the number of coronavirus cases in China is at its highest level since March 2020, due to the spread of the Omicron variant. China’s “zero Covid” policy, which has meant that borders have been closed for over two years, will be tested to the limit as around 3,000 athletes and their teams descend on Beijing in the coming weeks.

One of the provisions taken by Chinese organisers has been to ensure that Beijing 2022 is held under a “closed-loop”, whereby all participants will remain within a network of official venues and isolated from the rest of Chinese society. From designated buses and hotels to daily testing organisers hope to maintain a “zero Covid” policy. This also relies on all participants being either fully vaccinated or undergoing a 21-day quarantine before entering the Olympic loop which has raised questions about human rights issues related to vaccine passes. Amnesty International recently questioned anti-Covid rules and how they discriminate against unvaccinated people and their right to education, work and medical treatment.

Finding the Olympic spirit

Notwithstanding the controversy and issues that surround holding large scale events such as the Olympics, they are undoubtedly important moments that are rich with symbolism and opportunity, with the potential for creating unity and acting as catalysts for change. The Winter Olympics can provide compelling stories, such as the new chapter in the heartwarming tale of the Jamaican bobsled team, made famous by the movie “Cool Runnings”, and which this year makes a return to the Olympics with a four-man Jamaican bobsled team competing for the first time since the 1998 Nagano Olympics in Japan.

2022 Beijing Winter Olympics
The Olympic Games are at the forefront in the field of sustainability © Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

The Olympics can also provide a platform for the discussion of issues of gender, with Beijing 2022 increasing the female quota and adding mixed-gender competitions in freestyle skiing aerials, snowboard cross and ski jumping, as well as a mixed relay in speedskating for the first time. At the same time the IOC’s new guidelines – which state that there is no need for trans women to lower their testosterone to compete in the women’s sports category – have come under scrutiny with some claiming that it “ignores the science on sex, gender and performance and focuses mostly on inclusion,” fuelling a debate which also emerged during Tokyo 2020 when the weightlifter Laurel Hubbard became the first openly trans women to compete in the Olympics. All these issues are part and parcel of bringing discussions around sustainability to the foreground, a key part of the IOC’s Olympic agenda which aims to ensure that “the Olympic Games are at the forefront in the field of sustainability.”

Looking at how Beijing 2022 manages to deliver on its sustainability goals can help advance climate issues and inform future events. However, with difficulty in defining sustainability and a lack of coherent guidelines that establish universal criteria with which to measure the sustainability of past and future Olympics, it will be hard to evaluate whether China has delivered “clean” and “green” Olympics. Research indicates that more sustainable Olympics are possible in the future if certain rules – such as downsizing the event, rotating the Olympics between a set number of cities and finally improving sustainability governance so that universal criteria are established – are followed. Until this happens, understanding the true cost of Olympic events will remain elusive.

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