Tokyo Olympics, The Greenest Games Ever? 

August, 2021 - Njabulo Mchunu

The Tokyo Olympic Games have been dubbed the greenest Games to date. Despite some criticism levelled against the claims of their eco-friendly nature, it is notable that the Tokyo Olympics Organising Committee has made significant strides to minimise the Games’ carbon footprint. However, the long-term sustainability of the Games, as well as the possibility of sustaining, duplicating or improving upon the eco-friendly efforts made by the Organising Committee of the 2021 Games, remains to be seen.

Tokyo has committed itself to promoting energy savings and the use of renewable energy as much as possible. According to the organisers, the number of carbon credits purchased to offset the Games’ greenhouse gas emissions actually rendered the Olympics “carbon negative”.

Electricity used in competition venues and the athletes’ village was 100% renewable. Transportation with lower environmental load was promoted by utilising public transport and fuel cell vehicles. During the Games, the organisers, delivery partners and everyone attending was required to aim for “zero waste” through the three “Rs”: reduce, reuse and recycle. Interestingly, a 3D-printed podium made of recycled, donated plastic waste was used.

Organisers said that sustainable materials were used in the building of stadiums, accommodation and the medals to be awarded. These sustainable materials were made from raw materials harvested from “urban mines”, such as mobile phones. The Olympic medals are made from recycled metals and the trays used to hold the were made from recyclable thermoplastic polymer. The athletes slept on cardboard beds, which will be recycled after the event. The mattresses are also fully recyclable. Hydrogen, which emits no carbon dioxide when burned, was used as fuel for the Olympic torches and cauldrons.

The event organisers also devised a Sustainable Sourcing Code for products (eg, timber, paper, fish and palm oil) and services to be procured for the Games.

Sustainability of the Games

Although the eco-friendly efforts made by the organisers of the Games are truly commendable, it does bring into question the issue of the sustainability of the Games. This has drawn mixed reactions. Some environmental groups applaud the efforts that have been undertaken by the organisers to lighten the impact that such an enormous event would have on the planet. However, other groups are of the view that the organisers of the Games are simply greenwashing the true impact that the Games have had on the environment.

A recent study on Olympic sustainability conducted by a researcher from the University of Lausanne in Switzerland shows that sustainability in all dimensions has been decreasing over time from 1992 to 2020, despite the fact that environmentalism and sustainability are some of the core pillars of the Olympic movement. The study suggests that the concerns over sustainability often take second preference to corporate profits and the desire to consistently put on bigger and more impressive Olympic spectacles.

Despite the efforts made by the organisers, the Games will inevitably produce some harmful gas emissions. Flying out thousands of athletes from various parts of the world and sourcing seafood to feed athletes will certainly contribute to the Games’ carbon footprint and the ecological degradation of marine wildlife and the marine environment.

Although the organisers have gone to great lengths to purchase carbon credits to offset the Games’ carbon emissions, some critics argue that this is insufficient. This is because, despite the purchase of carbon credits, harmful carbon gas is still being emitted into the atmosphere and tree-planting somewhere else on the globe will not necessarily eliminate the emissions that have already been produced.

To this end, an environmental group named the Rainforest Action Network has said that it traced tropical plywood from the construction of an Olympic stadium in Tokyo to Indonesian forests, where deforestation has been a rampant issue. As such, the argument is that even though the Games considered their sustainability from the perspective of Japan, they failed to consider their global sustainability with respect to other parts of the world, where some of the material was sourced.

Despite this, we can agree that the issue of sustainability is a difficult subject. The organisers of the Games are doing many things right, but there are certainly areas that can be improved upon. Ultimately, the sustainability of the 2020 Games, and indeed all other Olympic Games to come, is one that remains to be seen. In the end, the most sustainable Games will be those that consider, not only the domestic impacts of their actions, but also the global impacts and consequences of their actions.

Lloyd Christie
Natural Resources and Environment Executive
[email protected]
+27 82 210 2159

Njabulo Mchunu
Natural Resources and Environment Candidate Legal Practitioner
[email protected]
+27 72 790 3240


Link to article


WSG Member: Please login to add your comment.