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Behind the lie of the Beijing Winter Olympics being green

The IOC and China are teaming up to perpetuate a myth of carbon neutrality.

Opening Ceremony - Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics Day 0 Photo by Fred Lee/Getty Images

The Olympics are one of the most wasteful and irresponsible events any country can actively sign up for. Billions of dollars are spent on infrastructure that never pays for itself, often left to rot for generations. The lives of citizens are affected, and even displaced in service of the games. The proposed economic gains and benefit to a host country are never fully realized.

In reality, the only people getting rich off the games are developers who win contracts to build facilities, and the IOC itself. None of this is a surprise to anyone who’s dug into the wastefulness of the games, but the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics are taking this to unprecedented levels.

The biggest source of waste is the host location. The majority of events will be held in the mountainous region roughly 100 miles northwest of Beijing. The issue is that these areas get no snow, at all. Zhangjiakou, for instance, where skiing and snowboarding events will be held is extremely arid, seeing on average less than 4 inches of precipitation a year. This has meant that in order to accommodate the games snow needs to be artificially created, using billions of gallons of water pulled from regional reservoirs, then trucked up to 50 miles to the foot of these mountains, before then being pumped to the top so there can be snow.

To make matters worse: Organizers couldn’t even just put snow on the mountain. The ground is so dry that powder would not stick, so the soil had to be soaked ahead of time and allowed to freeze. Every step of this requires an immense amount of energy and water waste.

The Chinese government and the IOC claim the energy and water uses are all renewable, and the games are carbon neutral. In fact, there’s a whole page on Olympics.com dedicated to espousing how green the games are — but experts are highly doubtful of the accuracy of these claims. The majority of venues were constructed using energy off the Beijing power grid, which is almost entirely coal powered, which can’t be mitigated by the solar and wind power being used during the games. The amount of renewable energy installed is purported to also have been planned prior to the Olympic bid, so this is more a case of re-routing the only renewable energy from Beijing to the games, rather than games actually having no effect on emissions. So while the games are technically green-powered, Beijing burns fuel at a rate that offsets this neutrality.

In addition there is creative energy accounting being used, like the government claiming they planted trees to offset emissions during the games — which experts caution against. This allows the host to make wide claims about carbon neutrality, then when nobody is paying attention anymore, reforested areas can be logged and torn down with no outcry.

The energy waste is unparalleled, but that’s not all. In 2015 when Beijing won the Olympic bid and venues were planned, Chinese scientists asked officials to move, or re-route the planned ski slopes, as they ran through a nature reserve. Olympic officials said they chose to have the slopes run next to the reserve, but not inside of it. Naturally, following a similar pattern, this was a creative lie. Instead of actually moving the slopes, the government simply cut wide swathes of land out of the nature reserves, reducing their size by as much as 25 percent, so ski slopes could be built on land that’s not a protected area — because they were simply removed from protection.

As an offset, the government spread the protected land outwards around the perimeter, claiming it had increased habitats by 31 percent — but environmentalists say this is largely pointless. The core habitat of the golden eagle on the peak of Xiao Haituo mountain, the second highest in China, had been turned into a ski resort as part of planning for the games. It will be decades before the environmental impact of destroying this habitat is known.

Inside all this is the IOC’s complicity in presenting the Beijing games as “green” and “carbon neutral,” ignoring the unparalleled impact holding the Winter Games on an arid mountain will have on the environment. Just like their overt willingness to ignore the human rights atrocities that have caused 11 countries (including the United States) to engage in a diplomatic boycott of the games. Every step of the organization and execution of the Beijing Winter Olympics has been wasteful, irresponsible, and horrendous — but as long as the money keeps flowing, the IOC is more than happy to turn a blind eye.

We can enjoy the athleticism of the games — I certainly will for the next two weeks. But we also need to be aware of the waste and damage the games cause. The pressure needs to be on the IOC not just when the Olympics happen, but through the selection process to not make stupid, nonsensical, wasteful decisions that make the cost of the games come at the expense of citizens, the environment, and the climate. This shouldn’t be that difficult.