Vancouver 2010: The Most Enviromentally Friendly Olympics Yet?

Posted by Mother Nature Network

main_olympicsEnvironmental friendliness has been a major concept at recent Olympic Games. Both Salt Lake City, in 2002, and Torino, in 2006, claimed that their events were carbon neutral. Beijing was, temporarily at least, able to clean up its almost unbreathable air in 2008. Tokyo used its bid for the 2016 Summer Games to offer a green Games that utilized solar power, pollution controls and a minimal amount of new construction. They, of course, lost out to Rio de Janeiro.London, meanwhile, promises to eclipse all other previous Olympic eco-efforts in 2012 with construction projects using sustainable timber, nature preserves near the Olympic Village and the reuse of 80 percent of the materials from demolished buildings. Take into account plans for renewable energy (which will supposedly provide 20 percent of the power for the Olympic Village and Olympic Park) and practices aimed at reducing carbon emissions by 50 percent and it is hard to argue with the self-awarded "greenest ever" label.But London's hosting duties are still more than two years away. Critics have already been dissecting the ambitious promises for several years.Vancouver experienced similar controversy (as has every city to host the Olympics in recent memory) but has pushed through some impressively green measures as it prepares for the opening ceremony in February. Some environmentalists laud Vancouver's efforts while others claim that they are merely cosmetic and more should have been done. Sustainable buildingsDespite scandals and budget troubles, Vancouver's new structures are ready for the Games. The Olympic Village in the city's False Creek area will be seeking LEED gold certification (second highest level of certification) for all of its buildings, except a community center, which will qualify for the highest platinum rating. The village is the first of a three-phase plan to create a new, sustainable neighborhood in an area that was formerly an industrial zone.The village's buildings will be fitted with solar panels and "green-roofs" that will use a rainwater collection system to become self-sustaining. In-slab hydronic heating systems have been installed in the building's floors. This system relies on high-efficiency boilers to heat water, which is then circulated under the floor to create a warming effect. Energy efficiency is part of the attraction of this type of heating, but it carries other benefits as well. Since fans are not used to blow warmed air, there are fewer particles (such as dust) circulating through the rooms.Half of the athletes will stay in a second village in the Whistler area. The Whistler Olympic Village will have many of the same features as its False Creek peer. Both villages will be converted into housing complexes once the Games are complete. According to the Vancouver Olympic Committee (VANOC), all Olympic venues have undergone a sustainability assessment. Many newly constructed buildings used locally sourced wood from trees that were destroyed by storms. The Richmond Oval, where the speed skating competitions will take place, was constructed using wood from trees that had been destroyed by a beetle infestation. Green wheelsThe hydrogen-powered Chevy Equinox will be the official automobile of Vancouver 2010. With the use of 20 hydrogen-powered buses as part of the Olympic transportation scheme (see below), hydrogen will sit squarely in the limelight during the Games. Flex-fuel vehicles, hybrids and traditional, fuel efficient cars will be part of the official fleet, which will number more than 4,500. Two Chevy Volts are also slated to be part of the show. Of course, this is a huge promotional opportunity for Chevrolet, but the choice of such an aggressively green car by VANOC fits with Vancouver's desired green image and British Columbia's planned development of a better infrastructure for hydrogen power. Environmental give and takeThe expansion of the so-called Sea-to-Sky Highway that connects Vancouver with Whistler, where many of the Olympic alpine events will be held, caused concern among some environmentalists. The project threatened to alter fragile wetland and forest eco-systems along the route. Though the construction work was arguably destructive, it was a necessary upgrade, according to VANOC. They note that the newly revamped road will be used by a fleet of 20 hydrogen-powered buses (worth $89 million in total) and will be part of Vancouver's new hydrogen infrastructure.Another controversy arose when critics took a closer look at the Olympic's carbon offset program. Vancouver has made good on its promise to offset the carbon that it produced in preparing for the Games (110,000 tons). However, over half of the total carbon count attributed to the Olympics will come from the hundreds of thousands of people flying from all over the world to Vancouver. VANOC will not account for these emissions with its investments, but will rely on visitors and competing countries to voluntarily invest in a fund. The fund is overseen by Offseters.ca. If enough people do not volunteer (they need to account for at least 190,00 tons), Vancouver's goal of offsetting 300,000 tons of carbon may be in jeopardy. The final result of the carbon neutral efforts will probably not be known until after the Games are completed and all the carbon credits have been counted.But it's already a green city…Vancouver has a lot in common with Portland, Ore. Both were well-planned and are known for their user-friendliness. Vancouver's central area is compact and pedestrian-friendly. The public transportation system makes it easy to get around the city without having to rely on a car, and the surrounding natural areas have not been completely eaten away by urban sprawl.The proof of Vancouver's commitment to the environment may lie in the small steps that are being taken to lessen the impact of the Games. Simple measures like encouraging public transit use by offering free unlimited rides to Olympic ticket holders on the day of their event may go un-noticed by environmentalists impressed with hydrogen and LEED certification. But these "little things" show that it is not all about PR. Maybe there is some substance to VANOC's green Olympic claims after all.

Josh Lew covers travel stories for the Mother Nature Network.
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Photo courtesy of ZUMA Press