Turin Aims to Host Greener Games

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
February 10, 2006
Organizers of the Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy, promise that their
games will be "the greenest ever."

They have vowed to put together a "carbon neutral" event—meaning it will have no net impact on climate change—by investing in forestry, energy efficiency, and other measures to offset carbon dioxide emissions from the event.

Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas blamed for trapping heat in the atmosphere and causing global warming.

"This is the first time an Olympic event will be able to offset all the carbon emissions produced during the event," said Ugo Pretato, the head of environmental programs for the Turin Games.

Environmentalists have generally applauded the green credentials of the Turin games. But they also warn of a larger environmental crisis looming in the Alps, the region in which this year's games are held.

As snow lines—the lowest edges of snowfields—climb higher due to global warming, many low-altitude ski resorts may risk going out of business.

Some experts say the ski industry itself is partly to blame.

"Ski-related tourism is responsible for heavy traffic on Alpine roads, for the growth of urban sprawl encroaching [on] valley floors and high plateaus, and for the waste of energy for construction work and artificial snow," said Sergio Savoia, director of WWF's European Alpine Program in Bellinzona, Switzerland.

Green Certification

The environmental impact of the Olympics has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years, prompting the International Olympic Committee to publish a guide last year designed to help event organizers become "greener."

The Turin games are the first sporting event to be environmentally certified for measures to cut greenhouse gas emissions, minimize water use in snowmaking, and promote eco-friendly hotels, among other things.

"Environmental protection was considered a high priority since the very beginning of the games' organization," the Turin Games' Pretato said.

"We committed ourselves to designing and building venues and infrastructure with [minimal] impact on the environment and landscape."

The organizers calculate that the games, which run from today to February 26, will generate the equivalent of just over 110,000 tons (100,000 metric tons) of carbon dioxide.

The main sources of emissions will come from transportation and the operation of the Olympic venues.

To offset these emissions, organizers are investing in a variety of renewable-energy projects not just in Italy but also in such far-flung places as Mexico and Eritrea.

The offset involves a system of carbon credits, tradable units of "saved" carbon emissions that allow groups, companies, or countries to "pay for" greenhouse-gas emissions they make elsewhere.

"We expect [to generate] about 300,000 tons [272,000 metric tons] of carbon credits, allowing us to offset also the emissions produced by spectators," said Pretato.

But Theodore Oben of the United Nations Environment Program in Nairobi, Kenya, says carbon emissions are just one way of looking at the environmental impact of an event.

There is also the issue of waste generation and the use of water and energy prior to the games.

"The ecological footprints are extensive," Oben said.

Tracks and Jumps

Environmentalists have been generally positive about the green credentials of the Turin Games.

"I think these games show that if the political will is there, you can have events of this magnitude without inflicting insufferable damage on the environment," WWF's Savoia said.

"Still there will always be an impact," he added.

One advantage of the Turin Games is the city itself, he notes.

"For once the Games were not set in some far-off mountain resort or medium-scale Alpine town," Savoia said.

"Turin is a real city, and this has made it easier to accommodate people and infrastructure without impacting pristine areas or fragile Alpine habitats."

But he is critical of the decision to build new bobsled tracks and a ski jump for the event because they will be of little use after the games.

"Did we really need a ski jump facility in Piedmont, Italy, when a seldom-used one is lying idle in Albertville, [France] just across the Alps?" Savoia said.

Higher Ground

Keeping the Olympics green may have little impact on the ongoing environmental problems facing the Alps, however.

Global warming is expected to become stronger in the Northern Hemisphere during the winter months, making mountain-based winter tourism particularly vulnerable.

Scientists estimate that half of the glacier ice in the Alps has disappeared in the past century. (Read an excerpt of "Meltdown: The Alps Under Pressure")

Scientists also say the levels of snow falling in lower-lying mountain areas will become increasingly unpredictable over the coming decades.

"Low-altitude ski resorts will simply go out of business, and skiers will have to go higher and higher to find snow," Savoia said.

He believes ski-resort operators have a responsibility to reduce carbon dioxide and other emissions linked with global warming.

"I think they're slowly waking up to the fact that global warming has serious local consequences, not only in environmental terms but also in cold hard cash," he said.

"In the future the ski industry could become a de facto ally in the struggle to fight climate change globally and in adapting to its consequences locally."

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