The sustainability goals of the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro were to improve the social, physical, and environmental fabric of the city and its citizens’ lives. The Sustainability Management Plan Rio 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games agenda was structured around several issues:

  • Water treatment and conservation
  • Environmental awareness
  • Use and management of renewable energy
  • Games neutral in carbon, air quality and transport
  • Protection of soils and ecosystems
  • Sustainable design and construction
  • Reforestation, biodiversity and culture
  • Shopping and ecological certification
  • Solid waste management

sailboat at rio olympics

Brazil’s Special Committee on the Environment was formed with representatives across federal, state, and municipal levels of government, the Brazilian Olympic Committee, and citizens. The  “Green Games for a Blue Planet” initiative promised, among many items, clean energy, clean city streets, preserved natural spaces, upgraded slums, functioning utilities, and reliable public transportation.

So, what’s the sustainability report card on Rio 2016?

Crawling in traffic; contaminated waterways

What has been will be again.  So Mike Hower on Green Biz relates, as Rio, “like many Olympic host cities before it, has failed to follow through on these lofty promises.”  While Brazil is a leader in commercially viable recycling, multiple environmental issues overshadow its occasional sustainability successes.  According to Katie Yoder on Grist, Olympic waters were found to have virus levels 1.7 million times higher than what would be considered worrisome in the U.S.  Contaminated waterways, trash, and even body parts diminished environmental conditions at water sport venues.  Large amounts of untreated sewage flowed into Guanabara Bay,

The fourth most congested city in the world, Rio is a traffic nightmare. Dom Williams of The Washington Post says is the traffic “chaos” is result of a “lack of long-term planning.” Rebecca Ruiz and Ken Beldon, in a August 2016 New York Times article, observed that the traffic caused by the Olympic Games turned a 30 minute commute into “hourlong journeys.”

Seeking carbon neutrality at Rio 2016

Dow Chemical, Rio 2016’s official carbon partner, intended to make the Olympics carbon neutral.  To do so, Dow would have needed to balance the projected 3.6 million tons of carbon dioxide generated by construction projects, spectators, and operations with sustainability programs.  As stated on Olympic.org, “Dow’s portfolio of projects enables businesses to enhance productivity and conserve energy by switching from fossil to renewable energy sources, optimising resources in agriculture and livestock farming and building capacity for more energy-efficient infrastructure, leading to long-term changes in the market.”  To offset the remainder of the carbon targets that Dow Chemical could not meet, Rio pledged to reforest degraded areas of the Atlantic Rainforest.

According to Louis Vega, vice president for Olympics & Sports Solutions at Dow, as reported in Midland Daily News, “We have been working, are working, continue to work to make the Games carbon-neutral, carbon-balanced.” He added that Dow is well on the “way to helping leave a positive mark on Rio because these aren’t programs that end when the games.”

With all this feel-good hype, it might be easy for some people to forget that Dow agreed to pay a $2.5 million civil penalty to settle alleged violations of the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) at its chemical manufacturing and research complex in Midland, Mich (source: EPA).  But let’s not forget, and let’s keep track of Dow Chemical’s overall data analysis of Rio 2016 sustainability results as information is released to the public.

And what do the bureaucrats say?

Rio’s mayor, Eduardo Paes, has denied that the Olympics failed to deliver an environmental legacy. He recently cited the controversial golf course, constructed in a protected area, as evidence of improvements.

Ah, the public relations, professed image of sustainability isn’t always consistent with what’s good for the environment, is it?

Photo Credit: Rodrigo_Soldon