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Can the Winter Olympics withstand the climate crisis? Environment | Environment | All topics from climate change to conservation | DW

Can the Winter Olympics withstand the climate crisis? Environment | Environment | All topics from climate change to conservation | DW

Bare mountainsides contrast with snow runs

The downhill skiing and snowboarding portions of the Winter Olympic Games begin on February 4 at mountains near Beijing that traditionally have very little snow — a problem that also beset the 2014 games in subtropical Sochi in Russia.

The first time that artificial snow is used in the skiing events will be on the mountainside of Yanqing and Zhangjiakou, which are usually barren.

The cannons used to produce the snow are not only energy-intensive, but are fed with water from over 30 kilometers (about 19 miles) away, notes Carmen de Jong, professor of hydrology at the University of Strasbourg who has researched environmental impacts of the Beijing games.

De Jong doesn’t just call this year’s Winter Olympics “the worst ever.” She also This describes the heavy erosion caused by tree-felling to create ski runs in nature reserves, despite a large Tree replanting effort; and the fact that villages and infrastructure such as roads and parking lots were mostly “constructed from scratch” using near 10 million tonnes of CO2, a “conservative estimate,” she says.

Beijing Organizing Committee (BOC), have promised aLow carbon eventWhen possible, run on renewable energy. De Jong said that while there have been solar farms and wind turbines built on the site, there is still a strong reliance. Carbon offsetsTo square the emissions ledger.

Meanwhile, the “energy-intensive” pumping of water uphill to make snow in the arid region has not been included in the climate neutrality calculations, she says.

Ultimately, the “problem is that the climate in Beijing is not appropriate for snow-making,” according to de Jong. The high winds that blow up dust in the dry region, and which settles on the snow, means that double the artificial snow is required than would be produced in European Alps.

“So the snow guns are running longer than usual [and]De Jong stated that they need to use a lot more water than the average person in the Alps.

This problem is becoming more severe as the games are moved to dry, water-, and snow-scarce Asian locales, with most potential European and North American venues. Bidding is no longer allowedGames due to cost and environmental impact.

Global heating threatens future of winter games

Beijing’s dependence on artificial snow is not a new phenomenon. The 2014 Sochi and 2018 Pyeongchang Games required artificial snow. 80 and 90%respective machine-made snow cover. At the 2010 Vancouver winter Olympics, helicopters were used to transport snow from high elevations because it was too warm to make fake.

Even if the snow-making equipment are to be run on renewable energies, it is still a new study shows that failure to dramatically reduce global greenhouse gas emissions may mean only one of the 21 previous Winter Olympics host cities can provide “fair and safe conditions” for the games by 2100.

Bare mountainsides contrast with snow runs

Snow runs made entirely by machines for the Beijing ski events contrast with barren mountainsides

If the Paris Climate Agreement emission targets can be met, however, the number of climate-reliable cities increases to eight.

This study is unique because it combines climate modeling and responses from athletes about the safety of skiing in warmer environments. Even within 30 years, current heating trends mean the number of viable Winter Olympics locations will quickly diminish.

“If you go down the high-emission pathway, by mid century we are left four that are climate stable,” said Daniel Scott who is a professor of geography at the University of Waterloo. He was also the lead author of this study. Sapporo, Japan would be the last viable location by the end of the century.

Scott said that Solchi made no sense climatologically, referring to the 2014 games that were not climate reliable. But global heating will make many once reliable venues untenable. Many ski athletes “have real concern about the future of their sport,” he said.

Future-proofing of games requires systemic changes

However, making Olympic venues more climate-friendly won’t solve the problem.

“Focusing on the games’ impact and lightening the carbon load of one mega-event every two years alone isn’t going to slow global warming,” said Sören Ronge, coordinator of Protect Our Winters Europe, a climate advocacy group based in Innsbruck, Austria.

POW wants to see the International Olympic Committee, along with diverse winter sports stakeholders and enthusiasts, “come together to play a vital role in pushing governments to enact systemic changes to the way that we source, distribute, and consume energy,” said Ronge.

Infografik Schnee Olympische Winterspiele Beijing 2022 EN

US skier River RadamusThe three-time Youth Olympic Games gold winner, he is currently competing in Beijing. He has also donated funds to POW.

“As an collective we can push large manufacturers and corporations, that’s how we really effect change,” stated the 22-year old. Radamus describes temperatures at 60 degrees Fahrenheit (15.5° Celsius) during races in Europe this season, which presented challenges to the International Ski Federation (which manages the events). Radamus said, “They couldn’t pull off a racing event because it was too warm in middle of winter.”

Ronge stated to DW that “the science is more than clear.” “We need to reduce emissions immediately if we want to save winter sports and see future Olympic winter games.”

Felix Neureuther is a former world champion downhill skier and hails from Munich in south Germany. He has also spoken out about the environmental impact of winter sport, critiquing the practice of training at glaciers in the middle of summer; and the destruction of forests to create downhill trails.

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He stated, “The Olympic Games must be more sustainable or they will die out.” In October, while releasing DocumentaryOn the impact of global heat on the European Alps. 

Stay local, but act globally

According to Daniel Scott, the International Olympic Committee and ski competition organizers need to localize training and schedule consecutive events in the same regions to minimize travel — which for Neureuther, means to stop training on glaciers on the other side of the world.

Scott said that while athletes who have dedicated their lives to the sport feel “forced to compete,” they see “contradictions in the amount carbon-intensive travel they must perform both to compete and to train for 12 month.

A young man wearing gloves and a ski suit holds his head

River Radamus is one young skier who fears for the future.

River Radamus claims that one of the benefits of the pandemic is that the US Olympic Team was forced to stay at home in order to train.

“It’s made us a little more resourceful and not so wasteful in our training process,” said he, adding that he had previously traveled abroad to Chile and New Zealand in previous years.[It’s] a small step, but you know a bunch of small steps can make a big difference,” he said of being more “climate frugal.”

But for Soren Ronge of POW, individual effort will not be enough without systemic climate mitigation.

“If no drastic measures are taken to reduce emissions and bring us on path to a 1.5 – 2 degrees Celcius climate scenario, not only the future of Winter Olympics, but the future of winter sports in general is at risk,” he said.

Daniel Scott agrees that staying close to the Paris targets will be vital if the industry to survive. “All bets are off when we get into the realm of a plus 3 or 4 degree world.”

Sam Baker provides additional reporting
Edited By: Tamsin W. Walker

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