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Foreign Policy Centre

Ideas for a fairer world

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Greening the Games

By Alfie Stroud.

Half revered institution, half travelling circus, the Olympic Games is currently in transit between Beijing and London. The governments and societies hosting its consecutive incarnations could scarcely be more different, yet their finished products will be endlessly compared – and in more than the grandeur of their opening ceremonies.

The competitive scrutiny to which the organising committees of great serial sporting events, and above all the Olympics, are increasingly subjected exists with good reason. On one hand, worldwide commitment to progressive cooperation in areas such as minority rights and climate change proposes obvious criteria by which to measure these major meetings. On the other, as the right to host complex occasions is shared increasingly with developing countries and cities too, the potential for failure and the need to protect against regression is acutely felt.

For these growing states, the chance to host the world for a week or two is a huge boost to their development. But it is a greater priority than ever among Western nations to ensure that this development is sustainable – a term encompassing a broad range of environmental, economic and social concerns.

As in debates about global carbon reductions however, this focus on development may even detract attention from the responsibilities of the advanced economies to meet difficult sustainability standards themselves.

The Foreign Policy Centre has marked the UK's emergence as Olympic host in a project reflecting on London's experience so far and its opportunities still to forge a sustainability-led Games. The insights produced have been consolidated and preserved in a Sustainability Charter for the organisers of international sporting events, which we hope may offer some direction both to London and its successors, while anticipating the challenges facing developing country hosts.

Anxiety about the capacity of even fast-developing economies to host the Olympiad has seen scores of bids for the 2016 games cancelled already from countries including Kenya, Qatar and India. Rio de Janeiro remains the only emerging economy candidate city for autumn's IOC selection.

But South Africa is already preparing to host the 2010 FIFA World Cup, which it inherits from Germany. The festival of football will be the first truly global sporting event ever held in Africa, with only the same country's 1995 Rugby World Cup offering anything approaching a similar preparatory experience.

Delhi meanwhile is to stage the 2010 Commonwealth Games, to follow Melbourne's production in 2006. Young India, in so many sectors battling to maintain its green and democratic credentials during its rapid ascent into the world's top rank economies, has managed to produce a blueprint for a sustainable sporting gathering of pioneering ambition.

The seal on its commitment came with the Organising Committee's decision to sign a partnership deal with the United Nations Environment Project to 'Green the Games'. A series of initiatives in areas from water conservation to promoting cycling are planned, while the Games' website has a dedicated 'Green Games' microsite detailing their sustainability vision and including a carbon footprint calculator.

For Delhi, the chance to practice sustainability in sport at the 2008 Commonwealth Youth Games in Pune was formative. The experimental launch pad proved a chance to explore green issues, and in particular to focus on rallying diverse communities and groups to a common but unfamiliar cause.

The UNEP has also secured a standing agreement for cooperation with the International Olympic Committee, and holds a biennial Global Forum for Sport and the Environment. But the practical planning and development challenges of any major sporting event must necessarily be borne largely by hosts and organising committees themselves, as they respond to echoed but unique local demands and contexts. London 2012 has yet to sign a bilateral UNEP agreement.

A panel discussion on 15 July at the Houses of Parliament chaired by FPC director, Stephen Twigg, explored the persistent and the unpredictable elements in ensuring sustainability at sporting events. It featured speakers: Rt Hon Tessa Jowell MP, Minister for the Olympics; Jo Willacy, Eurotunnel Director of Shuttle Services; Tim Yeo MP, Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee; Kulveer Ranger, Director of Transport Policy for the Mayor of London; and Fiona Harvey, Environment Correspondent at the Financial Times. The seminar reflected the concerns of the FPC's preparatory research in identifying a complex and extensive constellation of sustainability flashpoints among the arrangements surrounding major sporting events.

The green agenda naturally dominates sustainable thinking on international games, but extends beyond the obvious concern to construct and grow infrastructure with minimum environmental impact, to embrace the low-carbon legacy of these developments. Public awareness of the 'greening' process and of national responsibilities for sustainability should also be actively pursued.

And the sustainability of such a major undertaking in human and material terms must mean more than recycling and carbon efficiency. The impact of developments on local communities is critical among the considerations of a sustainable process, especially where, as in London, the very closest communities tend to be deeply deprived. Grand events cannot be simply a showcase for political and bureaucratic virtuosity, but must actively include groups physically involved as well as culturally implicated, if they are to foster in the first place any improvements in wellbeing to be sustained.

The dimensions of the pragmatic, long-term and cultural planning for international sporting events, then, seem to lie in key areas of inclusivity and access as well as greenness. These three themes accordingly shape the FPC's Sustainability Charter for the development of international sporting events, and each includes objectives diverse in means and ends.

The Charter's proposals range from quotidian travelling safety to generating a mindset shift in local communities' attitudes. But its final provisions stand for its ambitions: to prevent regression by drawing all host nations and all events onto a continuous cooperative path to improvement; and to place the sustainable care of our planet at the heart of the excitement and expectations that light up these great games.