From the BrainSTEM, Science & Technology

Winter Olympics 2022: Mother Earth returns empty-handed

After the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing ended with a grandiose closing ceremony on Feb. 20, it is time for a review—not so much of the sports, but rather of the ecological impact of the quadrennial event. Some may wonder as they read this: Didn’t the International Olympic Committee (IOC) assure us that these would be the most sustainable Games in history? They certainly did, but if anyone is still unclear about what “greenwashing” is, here is exhibit A. 

While Beijing boasted about its renewable energy efforts and the IOC published a 130-page sustainability report on the Olympics, nothing can erase the startling image of a completely artificial ski slope rising up amid a semi-arid landscape. The almost post-apocalyptic picture has been trending all over social media, sparking indignation and shattering the eco-friendly myth Beijing tried to spin. Far from being the most environmentally friendly games in history, the only title that Beijing 2022 managed to earn is being the first winter games to fully rely on artificial snow

But what exactly is artificial snow? Joe Schwarcz, director of the McGill Office for Science and Society, explained that snowmakers produce droplets of ice, each with a diameter of about one ten-thousandth of an inch, by quickly releasing water and compressed air, which then expands. The temperature drops and freezes the water, thus releasing heat. 

“This should be obvious when we realize that in order to melt ice we have to add heat,” Schwarcz wrote in an article for the Office for Science and Society. “The heat released is taken up by the expanding compressed air. Incidentally, this is why the ‘snow making’ pipes are always high in the air. If the snow were made close to the ground, the heat released by the freezing process would actually warm up the ground and melt some of the snow.”

The process of snow-making itself is not environmentally harmful: The IOC has ensured the absence of chemicals in artificial snow. The biggest problem with artificial snow is the massive amount of natural resources needed to produce it: 185 million litres (49 million gallons) of water is required to generate enough snow for the Games. 

This is a significant demand from a region that receives only 300,000 litres (300 cubic metres) of water per capita per year, more than two-thirds below the UN’s water-scarcity threshold, which is 1,000 cubic meters per capita per year. Hosting the snow-based events in Beijing could require enough water to fill 800 Olympic swimming pools.

To add to the environmental catastrophe, China has also made the decision to establish its ski domain in the Sonshang nature reserve in Yanqing, causing the decimation of 20,000 trees, the equivalent area of 1,000 soccer fields. On top of that, the IOC’s commitment to transplanting all the felled trees reveals, once again, the crucial lack of commitment the Games has to environmental issues—not the slightest consideration was given to the impact of such a decision on the region’s biodiversity. This doesn’t come as a surprise, as the IOC’s primary mission is the “democratization of sports”—with its market of 1.6 billion people, China turns out to be a purely strategic choice to fulfill this goal. 

The tug-of-war between profit and environment is on display. And yet again, profit wins. But is this struggle even worth the price? Unless greenhouse gas emissions are drastically reduced, only one city out of 21 host cities surveilled—Sapporo, Japan—could feasibly host the event by the end of the century. It seems like the IOC should start worrying about ecological concerns, for its own survival.

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