Vancouver Olympics going for the green


As is normally the case for top city officials during the Olympics, Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson has a car and driver assigned to shepherd him through the whirl of the Winter Games.

But the 45-year-old former organic farmer, who earlier ran the Happy Planet juice company, has shown up for most Olympic events as he always does: on his battered but serviceable mountain bike, suit pants tucked into his socks.

Since he became mayor in December 2008, Robertson has doubled Vancouver’s bicycle infrastructure budget, set landmark electric-vehicle-charging standards for new buildings, and expanded the city’s “car-free” days.

It was probably a foregone conclusion that any city with Robertson at the handlebars was not only going to host a green Olympics, but would try for the gold.

The 2010 Winter Games, the Vancouver Organizing Committee announced, will generate fewer greenhouse gases during the seven years it took to organize and put on than what was emitted in only a few weeks in the 2002 Salt Lake City Games and the 2006 Games in Turin, Italy.

The 2010 Games also will be the first in history to achieve a “carbon neutral” status for not only the Games, but also the travel of the 7,000 athletes, coaches and officials.

To do it, the city is relying on renewable hydropower for 90% of its electricity and the most ambitious set of green building standards ever achieved at Olympic venues, along with a fleet of hydrogen-powered SUVs and buses, heat from a curling rink’s refrigeration plant to warm an aquatics pool and heavy dependence on mass transit -- there is no spectator parking at venues.

The Olympic torch is 90% recyclable and emits minimal greenhouse gases, and medals are made from recycled electronic waste. The Olympic athletes’ village this month received the highest environmental certification in the world, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, “platinum.” Powered by its own neighborhood energy utility that converts sewage to power, the residential complex for about 2,700 competitors features a “net zero” building that produces as much energy as it consumes.

“We feel like we’ve raised the bar,” Robertson said. “Some of these technologies will be a legacy for generations to come that will benefit cities all over the world.”

Robertson’s goal is not just to produce a green Games, but to use the Olympics to help develop a new clean-technology industry base in British Columbia. At least $3 million in carbon offsets -- investments in clean-energy projects whose climate change benefits “offset” the greenhouse gases generated by the Games -- is being provided by a private sponsor. With it, city officials hope to see a direct injection of money into local clean-technology companies, giving the region a potential leg up on cities like Seattle and Portland that are also vying to become hubs of the new-energy economy.

“The big gains in our Games came from the fact that everybody associated -- all our venue partners -- adopted the green building standards,” said Linda Coady, the Vancouver Organizing Committee’s vice president for sustainability. “We made a business case for it early on, making the argument that yes, there’s an incremental cost associated with building green buildings, but for the most part you could recoup those costs within the first five years.”

Two other venues, the day lodge at Whistler Olympic Park, which features an on-site wastewater treatment plant, and the Whistler Sliding Center, where waste heat from the refrigeration plant helps heat buildings, have attained LEED gold certification.

How well the sites are actually performing is already apparent, via a sophisticated software system installed at each venue that tracks energy usage minute-by-minute and compares it with how the building did last week and last month.

The first five days’ readings showed a savings of 112,700 kilowatt hours, or about 16%, compared with what venues built without energy-saving features would have used. Spectators and managers can click into the energy tracker on their mobile phones or at home for an instant readout.

For all the accomplishments, critics say the Vancouver Olympics missed an important opportunity to advance the Vancouver region’s transition from automobiles to transit, toppling thousands of trees to make way for a new highway and cross-country skiing trails.

And while the organizing committee’s sponsor is making investments in energy-saving projects around British Columbia to make up for the 118,000 metric tons of greenhouse gases generated by the Games, that represents just 44% of the Olympics’ total footprint.

Organizers will not compensate for an additional 150,000 tons of emissions generated by sponsors and the 1.6 million spectators traveling to Vancouver for the Games. They have, however, agreed to assume these emissions as part of the Games’ total, 268,000-ton carbon footprint.

The David Suzuki Foundation, which was invited to evaluate the environmental record of the 2010 Games and gave them a decent-but-not-great “bronze” medal, suggested that ticket prices could have been raised to pay for spectators’ carbon emissions.

But Coady said the committee already had built a day’s worth of free transit ridership into every ticket and was under pressure to keep from adding more to the cost.

Further, imposing a carbon surcharge on the majority of ticket buyers who live within B.C. wouldn’t have been fair, “particularly when you consider that British Columbia is the only jurisdiction in North America where local citizens are already paying a provincial carbon tax,” she said.

The organizing committee instead is encouraging spectators to take responsibility for their emissions by buying their own offsets.

The Olympic offset sponsor, Offsetters Clean Technology of Vancouver, has a Web calculator for ticket-holders to add up their emissions. The company hopes to place staffers at the airport as the Games wind down to hawk additional credits to spectators as they fly home.

Half the proceeds from the voluntary offsets get invested in British Columbia clean energy projects, such as a cement plant that burns construction debris, and a greenhouse heated with wood chips; the other half goes to offset endeavors around the world.

Though corporate sponsors have voluntarily offset about 75% of their share of carbon emissions, hardly anyone is expecting spectators to beat down the doors to buy credits.

“Will we take down the whole 150,000 tons?” Coady asked. “That would be a gold medal performance.”