Beijing To London: Passing A Dubious Green Torch

04/15/2009 10:45 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Beijing has been proud of its 'green' Olympics. One stat gives pause, however. The Olympic Torch Relay (the torch flew in a private jet when not actually being carried) put an estimated 11 million pounds (over 5,000 tons) of CO2 into the atmosphere.

And that's just the torch - there's no single carbon calculator keeping track of the sum of carbon emissions from all the athletes, journalists, visitors (an estimated 3 million in total) and the transport, logistics, heating and cooling, food and stuff they required.

In this era of climate change concerns, the CO2 emissions represented by the games doesn't seem sustainable. The London 2012 Olympics committee is well-aware of the challenge to truly 'green' the Games, and is already trying to figure out its carbon footprint in order to see if it can be 'neutralized'. Ditto Vancouver, site of the Winter Olympics in 2010.

Nobody likes the suggestion that the idea of the Games has become unsustainable, however. Right now globally and nationally we're still willing to trade off the economic and environmental hits of the Olympics in return for the pomp, the splendor, the medals. And some of the infrastructure and/or environmental improvements that may accrue.

China spent a considerable amount of money ($20 billion on 200 measures in the last decade) to clean up Beijing's smoggy skies. The last, frenzied efforts to clear the air included booting 1 million cars off the streets, controlling construction, closing the worst polluting factories within a radius of hundreds of kilometers, and forcing rain to wash away the smog.

And while Beijingers are enjoying the temporary respite from bad air to relatively good, once the Games are over thethe cars, at least, will be back on the road. Some past Olympics haven't lived up to the ideal of a post-Games positive glow for citizens that subsidized the build up. In Athens, a recent Daily Mail report showed an Olympic region of Helliniko that was like a ghost town (though new inner-city subway infrastructure benefits Athenians daily).

By the time we get to London - this weekend marks transfer of the Olympic flag from China to the UK - will we have realized a green, sustainable Olympics is practically impossible? In London's Stratford/East London region where the Games will be centered, construction is already underway - construction that was said to meet the "incredibly ambitious" 90% recycling goal for construction waste. On the other hand, construction vehicles are not regulated for emission controls.

Artist's rendition of the use of London Olympic facilities after 2012

Tony Webb of Ethical Corporation wonders if the other building targets (currently to meet or exceed EU standards) are stringent enough, and whether London as a center for climate change concerns will regret the money spent and the massive carbon footprint of 2012.

There are things to learn from Beijing's level of green: solar photovoltaic panels every 10 meters in the Olympic village, solar and wind powered resources on the roofs, water from the roof of the iconic Bird's Nest stadium collected and used for irrigation. The authorities say 1.2 million to 1.5 million tonnes of CO2 have been abated through energy conservation, renewable energy from solar and wind, and 500 vehicles powered by electricity or hydrogen that contribute to the zero emissions area in the Olympic Park and Athletes' Village. But more is needed.

It seems like if as a society we still want to award medals to athletes who push their physical capacities to their limit, we should also have a 'go for the gold' mentality (and real medals!) for people who make it possible for London 2012 to far surpass Beijing and be the first sustainable, even carbon negative, Olympic Games.