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Olympic Carbon Emissions: Tokyo 2020 Environmental Impact

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olympic podium with rosette and athlete

The postponed Tokyo 2020 Olympics start on 23rd July 2021. With the COVID 19 pandemic and Climate Change impacting events worldwide, these Olympics will be unique as well as contentious. Large-scale sporting events are coming under increased scrutiny due to their environmental impact and large carbon footprints. How will the rescheduled Tokyo 2020 Olympics fare overall when it comes to carbon emissions? Let's take a look to get a clear idea of Olympic carbon emissions, and go beyond the vague press releases and greenwashing.

Are you looking for statistics? To skip ahead to the summary of the main statistics presented in this article, you can click here!

Calculating Average Olympic Carbon Emissions per Spectator

When thinking about Olympic carbon emissions, it's clearly important to find reliable statistics and references for comparison. Traditionally, those attending the Olympics as spectators have a carbon footprint similar to that of an international tourist. This is fairly understandable since both carbon emission sources have a great deal of commonality.

Olympic spectators and international tourists both generally fly to their destinations. Once they have arrived, both visitor types will stay in hotels or rented accommodation and use a mixture of public transit and taxis to get around. For this reason, we can use carbon footprint data from the tourism industry in Japan to get an idea of the typical Olympic carbon emissions coming from a single spectator.

In 2017, the Japanese Environment Ministry estimated that tourism contributed a little over 10% of total carbon emissions in Japan. Therefore, tourists and their related activities generated about 136 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions in 2017. Using this information, we can divide the number of tonnes of carbon emissions by the number of tourists that visited Japan that year to get a reference point for the Olympic carbon emissions for an individual spectator.

travel luggage

With Nikkei Asia putting the number of yearly international visitors to Japan at 28.6 million, this means that the average equivalent Olympic carbon footprint per visitor sits at around 4.75 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions.

However, since the rescheduled Tokyo Olympics have been affected by Covid-19 pandemic restrictions, the above estimate carbon footprint of 4.75 tonnes of CO2e emissions per international spectator has to be amended. This year's Olympics are underway with the following restrictions in place:

  1. Japan has closed its borders to anyone traveling to see the Olympic Games.
  2. Olympic event attendance is limited to 10,000 people per event.
  3. Only domestic attendees will be allowed to spectate the Olympics this year.

Since spectators for this year's Olympics in Tokyo will only come from inside Japan, the individual Olympic carbon footprint estimate will be lower than the previous estimate. Accounting for a reduction in Olympic carbon emissions linked to the lack of international air travel, the updated statistics of a single domestic spectator attending the entirety of the Olympic Games onsite shows a carbon footprint of about 3 to 3.5 tonnes of CO2e emissions.

Additionally, with many seats offered to local schools and institutions, it seems that the average carbon footprint of an Olympics audience member will be closer to 3 tonnes of carbon emissions. This assertion hinges on the fact that the makeup of an Olympic audience in 2021 will be very much regional or local.

The shorter the distance a spectator has to travel to attend the events and the reduced need for long-stay accommodation reduces audience carbon footprints.

How to estimate Olympic Carbon Emissions

Estimating Olympic carbon emissions for the Tokyo 2020 Games has been complicated by the changing COVID 19 restrictions in Japan. For this reason, using historical attendance figures or venue capacities is now out of the question.

Starting with the stated venue capacities, the Olympic committee has established a 50% occupancy limit, with an absolute maximum of 10,000 socially distanced spectators. Accounting for attendance measures as well as restricted opening hours is the key to get representative carbon emission estimates that reflect the unique circumstances of these Olympic games.

It's worth noting that the 50% occupancy restriction also applies to the reporters and photographers covering this year's games. However, the organising committee has stressed that the number of media outlets attending these Olympic games has not changed.

Let's take a closer look at who is attending the Olympics this year:

  1. About 11,000 athletes
  2. About 79,000 staff
  3. About 2,700,000 Japanese spectators

It's worth noting that, initially, almost 4.5 million tickets were sold for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. However, after numerous ticket refunds and cancellations, the number of tickets sold has fallen to roughly 2,7 million tickets. For this reason, we are using the updated net ticket sales for the Olympic games as an audience indicator. Additionally, the total spectator number lines up with the new venue capacities and the number of Olympic events that are slated currently - more than 300.

Total Tokyo 2020 Olympic Carbon Emissions

By combining recent Japanese tourism carbon emission estimates with attendance figures by category, we can understand the Olympic carbon emissions Tokyo 2020 will generate.

Since the large majority of the 10,000 athletes will be coming to compete from overseas, we can compare them to the conventional carbon emission estimates for a foreign tourist. The same goes for half of the Olympics support staff coming fro abroad, which rounds up to around 40,000 people.

When it comes to the spectators, they will all be Japanese nationals meaning that they are likely to travel smaller distances and use Japan's more environmentally-friendly forms of transportation, such as trains. Carbon emissions estimates for spectators will reflect that accordingly.

Tokyo 2020 Carbon Emissions Estimate Breakdown
Category Number of People Individual Carbon Emission Estimate Aggregate Carbon Emission Estimate
Athletes 10,000 4.75 tonnes CO2e emissions 47,500 tonnes CO2e emissions
International Staff 40,000 4.75 tonnes CO2e emissions 190,000 tonnes CO2e emissions
National Staff 39,000 3 tonnes CO2e emissions 117,000 tonnes CO2e emissions
Spectators 2,700,000 3 tonnes CO2e emissions 8,100,000 tonnes CO2e emissions
Total Estimated Carbon Emissions ------ ------ 8,454,500 tonnes CO2e emissions

Sources: International Olympic Committee, The Guardian, Inside The Games

The total olympic carbon emissions for the Tokyo 2020 games is expected to be around 8,454,500 tonnes of CO2e. This works out to be more CO2e emissions than the entire country of Costa Rica as of 2016. Around 96% of this will come from the 2.7 million spectators expected to attend.

While these emission statistics only take into account the human related emissions, it paints a larger picture as to how much the Olympics actually contribute to global emissions. For more information on what emissions the typical stadium produces, please visit our article on How much energy does a World Cup stadium use?

IOC Plans to Offset Olympic Carbon Emissions

The International Olympic Committee has put sustainability front and centre in its future vision of the Olympics. At the core of IOC's Climate Positive Strategy is the "Olympic Forest" which will be planted over the next four or five years, as part of the Olympic Agenda 2020+5.

The Olympic Forest will span over 2000 hectares across close to a hundred villages in Mali and Senegal in what is better known as the Sahel region. There is no doubt that the Olympic Forest is an impressive undertaking with over 350,000 trees to be planted through this IOC initiative.

olympic forest carbon impact infographic

The International Olympic Committee intends to offset 200,000 tonnes of carbon emissions through the Olympic Forest plans between 2020 and 2024. Essentially, 50,000 tonnes of carbon emissions will be captured by a third of a million trees per year.

According to the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the goal of the Olympic Forest is to offset more than the total "unavoidable" carbon emissions the IOC generates. To try and illustrate the number of carbon emissions to be offset by this new forest, IOC quoted that it is equivalent to 32,000 international flights between its head offices in Switzerland and Tokyo.

However, when we place the carbon offset figures of the Olympic Forest in the context of Tokyo 2020, they only cover part of the emissions for the athletes, journalists and staff that flew in for the Olympic Games. The lion's share of the Olympic game-related carbon emissions come from the spectators themselves.

The Olympic Forest is an encouraging first step to address the carbon footprint and environmental impact of the Olympic Games. However, for more impactful environmental benefits, the International Olympic Committee needs to coordinate on a much larger scale and potentially reenvision what the Olympic movement means and how international sports events are organised. Until then, it seems like the world is stuck with piecemeal initiatives and vague promises.

References: The Guardian, International Olympic Committee, Graduate School of Environmental and Information Studies, Tokyo City University

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