The Olympics are hard on the environment: new construction, athletes and spectators flying in by the thousands, and the energy required to operate a massive sporting event.
This year, China is aiming to become the first Winter Olympics to achieve carbon neutrality, in a technological showcase of wind and solar energy, hydrogen fuel cell transport, and the world’s largest hydro energy storage battery.
Since China was awarded the Winter Olympics in 2015, the country has seen a renewables building boom that has exceeded expectations and put China ahead of the rest of the world as it moves closer to its goal of peak carbon emissions by 2030.
According to People’s Daily, a Chinese government outlet, powering the Olympics will use 400 GWh (0.4 TWh) of renewable energy, diverted from the 14,000 GWh (14 TWh) estimated to be generated each year by a renewable energy project in Zhangbei, 150 miles northwest of Beijing. This estimate does not include the energy consumed building or retrofitting Olympic venues, and covering mountains in artificial snow.
2021 was a banner year for renewables in China. On Dec. 25, 2021, China connected its largest wind farm—134 turbines off the coast of Shanghai—to the power grid. The project will generate enough electricity annually to power 900,000 households. In 2021, according to calculations by Carbon Brief, China added nearly 17 gigawatts (GW) of offshore wind capacity, for a total of 26 GW, or more than what the rest of the world built in the last five years combined. In addition, it has 21 GW of onshore wind power.
China’s solar power generation likewise continued to climb. The country installed 54.9 GW of solar power in 2021, bringing the total solar capacity to over 305 GW, about 30% of the global total of installed solar power.
So far, renewables still make up a minor share of the energy mix in all countries.
Of the 40,170 TWh of energy China consumed in 2020, 15% came from renewable energy, including nuclear, hydropower, wind, solar and others. In the US, 17% of the 23,927 TWh of energy consumed came from renewables.
And China’s red-letter year for renewable production coincides with a record year of coal use. According to China’s National Bureau of Statistics, the country produced 4.07 billion metric tons of coal in 2021, a 4.7% increase from the year before. Coal is the dirtiest of the fossil fuels, emitting about a third more CO2 than gas per unit of energy.
A paper published at Nature, the science journal, in April 2021 analyzed the sustainability of Summer and Winter Olympic games going back to 1992. It found that the games have become increasingly less sustainable since the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics in 2002. As each subsequent Olympic event became bigger—more sports, more events, more and larger venues—to fulfill the host country’s ambitions to dazzle, they wiped out the gains eked out by greener technology.
The Tokyo organizing committee says the 2020 Summer Olympics, which took place last year, achieved carbon neutrality, but there has not been an independent assessment of the event’s footprint, which can diverge from a self-assessment.
Using renewable energy to power the Olympics is a step forward, but the cleanest energy is the watts-hours that aren’t burned at all. Nature’s sustainability analysis recommends scaling down the games, holding games in the same city using the same venues every four years, or holding fewer games by extending the number of years between each event, would go a long way in improving the sustainability the Olympics. The ongoing pandemic may mean that one of the largest contributions toward keeping the Beijing Olympics’ environmental footprint low might be the tightly sealed border, part of China’s anti-covid rules, keeping international spectators from flying to the games.