The Greenest games? Can large scale events be carbon neutral?
Authored by Climate LinkUP Energy Correspondent & Ambassador, Kieran Heeley
When the Commonwealth Games descended upon Birmingham this summer (2022), it brought a great buzz and an excellent two weeks of elite level sport to the UK’s second city. It also claimed to be the greenest ever, going as far as pledging to a carbon neutral legacy. But this raises the question of how an event of this magnitude can reach carbon neutrality and is it even possible at this time or is it just a level of greenwashing?
The games took on a reduction first approach to achieving decarbonisation, identifying emissions hotspots and looking to find ways to minimise these emissions when organising the event. This included the inclusion of public transport with games tickets and providing free trips on the local hire bikes during the games to reduce emissions from spectator transport. The use of battery, biofuel and hydrogen generators to provide mobile power to venues and other events around the city, as well as the hydrogen and battery electric vehicles for transportation. There was also an effort to minimise new venues and focus on short term hire to minimise construction materials and the emissions that come with them.
These are all excellent commitments that are should definitely be considered for similar events going forward. However, this is still a long way from achieving complete neutrality as much of the transport, construction and energy consumption would still produce carbon emissions. Given society is still largely reliant on fossil fuels for much of the energy production, it would be unreasonable to be able to completely remove all of this economically in 2022. Therefore, to meet their carbon neutral goals, the games promised to offset these remaining emissions by planting 2022 acres of forest across the region and supplementing any further emissions with tradable voluntary carbon credits.
Creating a new area of woodland would remove carbon from the atmosphere as it matures and storing it for as long the forest remains intact. If done correctly with a diverse mix of local trees, then it can also provide a boost for biodiversity and provide a nice environment for the local community. However, the amount of carbon removal that can be achieved globally by reforestation is limited compared with the total that is required to hit net zero, as there is limited land that can be used without impacting current ecosystems or food production. So, while in this case it does provide a lot of positives, it should be taken with caution in the future and not used to avoid removing emissions at the source.
Voluntary carbon credits involves funding external projects that remove emissions to offset the ones produced by the organisation purchasing them. Much of this is reforestation or forest restoration projects, which are far from perfect (as discussed above) but do remove carbon from the atmosphere. Unfortunately, this is not the case with all the projects. For example, some projects involve replacing gas burners with biogas produced from agricultural wastes. While this is a good project and will provide a carbon neutral replacement in that scenario, it does not remove any carbon from the atmosphere. Therefore, the carbon is not offset and the goal of the organisation purchasing the credits to reach carbon neutrality is not reached.
Overall, the Commonwealth Games made some great progress in achieving a carbon neural games, especially their focus on reducing the emissions and use of new technologies for power and transport. However, they still required a large reliance on offsets which can be problematic, especially with carbon credit trading which should be treated with extreme caution whenever they are used to express carbon neutrality.