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The organisers of next year’s 2024 Paris Olympics claim they will slash emissions in half and make a “positive contribution to the climate”.
But environmental groups have slammed this as “misleading”.
The climate toll of the Olympics has long overshadowed the games, which demand massive infrastructure, international travel and strains on resources.
So will the 2024 Paris Olympics really be sustainable?
How ‘green’ will the Paris Olympics be?
“We want to show that we can do these Games with half the emissions,” says Paris 2024’s director of environmental excellence, Georgina Grenon.
The organisers claim the event will emit around 1.6 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent, compared to the 3.5 million tonnes average from London 2012 and Rio 2016.
Emissions are broken down into travel, construction, and operations including accommodation, security and catering.
Paris is limiting its construction footprint by using existing or temporary infrastructures for 95 per cent of its needs. Many of these sites have been chosen for their public transport links, which organisers hope will curb emissions.
Electricity will come from renewable sources where possible. ‘Low carbon’ menus for spectators will offer dishes with less meat.
“Within the limits of what is technically feasible in 2024, we will have made every effort to reduce, reduce, reduce,” Grenon says.
But the strategy also relies heavily on carbon offsetting, a problematic solution that environmental campaigners say doesn’t address the root of the problem.
Can carbon offsetting make the games ‘climate positive’?
The organisers of Paris 2024 say carbon offsetting will cement the Games as a world leader in sustainability.
“By offsetting even more CO2 emissions than those we will emit, we will become the first major sporting event with a positive contribution to the climate,” they claim.
Offsetting involves investing in green projects, such as reforestation, that are designed to make equivalent cuts to CO2 in the atmosphere.
However, the impacts of these projects are difficult to qualify, vulnerable to changes over time and distract from more sustainable options, according to independent watchdog Carbon Market Watch. They can also have a negative impact on farmers and Indigenous people.
The organisers of the Olympics say they will rigorously assess their carbon offsetting partners. This option will only be used “for the emissions that we cannot reduce or avoid,” Grenon adds.
Sports ecology expert Madeleine Orr, who is a professor at the UK’s Loughborough University, says offsetting is an “acceptable option” but draws the line at calling the games “sustainable”.
“Even if they do everything right, a big international event can’t be perfectly sustainable,” she says. “The most sustainable event is the one that doesn’t happen.”
Lindsay Otis Nilles of Carbon Market Watch agrees.
“To say that an event has a positive impact on the climate is misleading,” she says.
“The event itself generates greenhouse gases that are bad for the climate. The financial support of the organisers to external projects does not change this.”
Could the Olympics do better for the environment?
In a study published in the journal Nature in 2021, researchers laid out three actions that could make the Olympic Games more sustainable.
“Significantly reduce the size of the event, rotate the Games between the same cities, and implement independent standards of sustainability,” the researchers recommended.
Orr also envisions a downsized event, with fewer spectators flying in from afar. By reducing “the size and scope of the event”, less infrastructure and waste would be required, she argues.
“The world loved watching Tokyo  and Beijing , even without the fans,” she adds. If viewers were to tune into TV broadcasts rather than travelling to the Games, they could be more sustainable.