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Beijing 2022: No snow at the Winter Olympics? You’d better get used to it

Climate change is making winter sports increasingly unviable – but the industry prefers the fig leaf of social responsibility to meaningful change

David Goldblatt
28 January 2022, 12.00am
The 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics start on 4 February
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PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

The promotional slogan of Beijing’s successful bid to host this year’s Winter Olympics, “joyful rendez-vous on pure snow and ice”, sounded like something from the pages of a ski holiday brochure. That’s entirely in keeping with the spirit of the games, which have always served as an economic tool of the winter tourism industry.

Beijing 2022 is no different, and for all the global grandstanding at the games, these Olympics are primarily serving a domestic economic agenda. As part of the Chinese government’s plans to shift the country’s economy from manufacturing to services, considerable effort has been put into developing a winter sport’s industry, centred around the country’s north-east, where the games are being held.

But however many people attend the joyful rendezvous, pure snow will be in short supply. In fact, there won’t be any at all. Given the near-drought conditions in the area – made worse by climate change – all of the skiing events will rely on the production of huge quantities of artificial snow, created by a massive array of fans spraying chilled water mist, which requires more than 222 million litres of water. This has accumulated into long white ribbons sitting on bare brown earth, though the runs are sufficiently large and landscaped to give the illusion of complete snow coverage on television.

This is the reality of a lot of winter sports events. The 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi was almost entirely dependent on artificial snow, as was last year’s Biathlon World Cup circuit. It is already the case that skiing seasons, for both sport and leisure, are getting shorter. In the USA, they are due to have halved in length by 2080. Combined with the increasing frequency of extreme weather, more events are being rescheduled or cancelled – such as the 2020 Finlandia Ski Marathon.

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There will be a lot more of this in the future. Rising global temperatures mean that winter sports destinations everywhere will receive less snow, less often. Researchers at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, reported that of 19 prior Winter Olympic locations, only 10 or 11 would still be reliable hosts in 2050, and perhaps just six by 2080. Artificial snow will not be enough to save most of them. Not only does it offer a poorer surface to race on, contributing to higher injury rates amongst athletes, but its requirements for energy, water and associated infrastructure are so large that many resorts will become uneconomic. This is already happening in Australia, for instance.

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Given that Beijing 2022 is a portent of the death of winter sports, it is a grim irony that the hosts are billing the games as the ‘greenest and cleanest’ yet. If true, they would be bucking the trend. Researchers at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland, recently reviewed the social, environmental and economic sustainability of the Olympics over the past 30 years and found that in all three areas, blips aside, there has been a steady decline in performance as economic benefits have evaporated and environmental costs have risen. This has occurred despite the fact that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and its host cities have, since Norway’s Lillehammer declared itself the first ‘green games’ in 1994, been making ever more grandiose environmental claims.

To give the organisers of the Beijing games their due, there has been a real commitment to the use of hydrogen-powered vehicles and renewable electricity supplies. Yet while China’s strict COVID measures and the West’s diplomatic boycott will make a small dent in the games’ use of aviation and its huge carbon footprint, it will, like every Olympics, still produce the equivalent of the annual emissions of a small Caribbean island.

A better guide to the environmental impact of these games was the fate of Songshan nature reserve and its rare Shanxi orchids, whose legal protections were ignored as biodiversity was sacrificed to ski runs. This is standard form for the Winter Olympics.

Vancouver 2010 built over sacred indigenous lands. More than 80% of the mountain venues for Sochi 2014 fell inside Russia’s protected Sochi Natural Park and Sochi State Natural Reserve, until their boundaries were entirely redrawn to accommodate ski jumps and hotels. Pyeongchang 2018 required the cutting down of thousands of ancient trees on Mount Gariwang, itself a sacred site in South Korea.

The IOC’s Get Out of Jail Free card for all of this deforestation, and for the soaring carbon emissions incurred in each Olympics, is its promise that the games will be carbon zero, perhaps even carbon negative. That claim is based on the purchase of carbon offsets in the form of investments in the Great Green Wall of Africa. The Green Wall is an African Union project to create a transcontinental 15km-wide strip of forest along the southern edge of the Sahel, from Senegal to Ethiopia, sucking up carbon from the atmosphere and halting the southward spread of the Sahara desert.

It is an admirable vision, desperately underfunded, administratively fragmented, and fiendishly complicated to actually make work on the ground. After almost 20 years, less than 5% is complete. The IOC is kidding us and itself. Even were its small investments to prove productive, the carbon absorption that new forests bring will not happen for another 30 years, by which time the winter sports extravaganza that funded it, and the industry it promotes, may have been consigned to climate history.

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