“Clean and green” was China’s promise for the Winter Olympics, which begin in Beijing on 4 February. Yet to allow the world’s best skiers and snowboarders to show off their prowess, China has felled 20,000 trees from a nature reserve and will create all of its snow artificially using masses of water and a handful of chemicals.
Snow lines retreating and glaciers melting because of climate change is nothing new. Neither is artificial snow. Anybody who has been skiing in the past 20 years is likely to have seen the snow cannons blowing. The fake stuff was first used at the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid in the US in 1980, and today 95 per cent of ski resorts rely on it to some extent. But the Beijing Olympics will be the first to deploy almost solely man-made snow.
A basic understanding of geography makes it obvious that most of China, and certainly not Beijing, is not the natural home for the Winter Olympics. The downhill sports will take place well outside the city, where there may be slopes but very little snow. The Alpine ski site is adjacent to the 4,600 hectare Songshan National Nature Reserve, a protected forest ecosystem and home to species such as the golden eagle, the imperial eagle and the golden leopard.
China‘s bid won over the International Olympic Committee (IOC) largely with its promise to attract 300 million new Chinese people to winter sports, says Madeleine Orr, a lecturer at Loughborough University and founder of the Sport Ecology Group. Getting more people active is an important part of the IOC’s stated mission.
Given the location, the Beijing Winter Olympics cannot be considered anything other than “unsustainable”, says Orr, but once that has been acknowledged China has worked to meet its own carbon-neutral criteria. The venues will be powered by renewable energy, the majority of the vehicles will be “fuel-efficient” and run on “clean energy” and natural carbon dioxide will be used for cooling instead of chemicals with high global warming potential. Even most of the trees that were removed have been replanted, China claims.
Still, there is no getting past the fact that wherever the energy comes from to create artificial snow, vast amounts of it is needed and producing it means using huge quantities of water in a region that already suffers severe shortages. Beijing is one of the most water-scarce cities in the world.
“The crisp slopes outside Beijing mask an unfortunate truth: they will be the result of an estimated 49 million gallons of chemically-treated water frozen through snow machines, an energy intensive process that is costly and potentially damaging in water-stressed areas,” says a report published this week by Orr and her colleagues.
If China were to fulfil its aim of encouraging millions of its people to take up skiing, the dilemma remains that there are very few snowy mountains close to where most people live. Orr’s report estimates that the goal would only become reality “if artificial snow use was harnessed across whole seasons and different resorts, dwarfing the use across one event such as the 2022 Games”. Once the spotlight was turned off, it is unclear whether China would continue to prioritise renewable energy.
“This is the first time the sports world has really had to face public health goals being at odds with environmental goals,” says Orr, but now climate change is high on the political and public agenda, “this question will keep coming up”. She cites Qatar, where air conditioning may still be needed at this year’s football World Cup even though it has been pushed back to late November to avoid the worst of the heat, and Los Angeles, which will host the 2028 Olympics and is synonymous with atrocious air quality.
[See also: Can the world trust China on climate change?]
It would seem that the IOC and Fifa, football’s governing body, need to wake up and start grappling properly with questions of sustainability, climate change and just exactly what is the purpose of these big sporting events. Both organisations have pledged under a UN initiative to reduce their carbon emissions and reach net zero by 2040, but as the Beijing Winter Olympics show, such commitments can mean everything and nothing.
The turning point may, however, be coming, as increasing numbers of elite athletes start to question both the impact of climate change on their sports and the apparent solutions being deployed in their name.
“The snow is now very unpredictable compared to 20 years ago,” Zoe Gillings, a British snowboarder who has competed in four Olympic Games, tells me from a chairlift in the French Alps. “We have to go higher up the mountains to find it and competitions are getting cancelled. Artificial snow is a good back-up, but it doesn’t react in the same way as real snow. It is more slippery and less forgiving if you fall.”
Lesley McKenna is a former Olympic snowboarder and programme manager for GB Snowsport, which works to create the stars of tomorrow. She is a firm believer that events like the Olympics are important for much broader reasons than who is top of the medals table, and would like countries to think more deeply about how big sporting events can be handled differently. Sport at all levels can further collaboration, knowledge-sharing, play-based learning and thinking about humanity’s place in the environment, she says.
Perhaps, I only half joke, it is time for a woman to step in and lead one of the big sporting bodies (neither Fifa nor the IOC has ever had a female head), and bring some new ideas to the field.