Back in 2008, when Beijing held its first Olympic Games, the big worry was smog. Athletes were worried about breathing it in while competing. This time around, the concern is about the snow — and the environmental impact of making lots of it.
These Winter Games will be the first Olympics to use completely manufactured snow. That’s because Beijing is in a really dry region. In the winter, it gets almost no natural precipitation.
Since November, snow cannons have been running around the clock on Olympic ski slopes. An estimated 49 million gallons of water, some of it pumped in from wetter regions, have been used to make snow for downhill, ski-jumping and snowboarding events. Technicians prepare snow to exact specifications for density and moisture for each snow event.
Manufactured snow for the Winter Games is not new.
Maddy Orr, the founder of Sports Ecology Group, said manufactured snow has been used at the Winter Olympics since the 1980 Games in Lake Placid, New York.
“Using it 100%, meaning every single snow surface is 100% composed of artificial snow, that's new.”
“Using it 100% — meaning every single snow surface is 100% composed of artificial snow — that's new.” she said.
Organizers say they have enough water available for now. But Orr is worried about the water scarcity that could be caused in the region if snow-making continues to draw water away from agricultural or domestic use.
“Beijing was awarded these Games on a promise to bring 300 million new participants into the sport, which on paper looks awesome,” she said. “The winter sports community is really excited about that new market. But there's an environmental cost to that.”
Environmentalist Zhang Junfeng agrees. For the past few years, his organization Le Shui Xing, has been monitoring the region’s water supply.
I’m worried about the long-term impact of snow sports that are so water intensive."
“With the growing effects of climate change, this region will only become more dry, and I’m worried about the long-term impact of snow sports that are so water intensive,” he said.
Making snow is also one of the reasons that hosting the Olympics is a very energy-intensive endeavor. This year, Beijing pledged to make the Games the greenest and cleanest ever. They even said these Olympic games will be the first carbon-neutral ones.
Organizers are repurposing old Olympic venues, while building newer low-energy ones. They’re using electric and hydrogen-powered vehicles and high-speed train lines.
They’ve built a renewable energy grid and are offsetting emissions by planting trees. They say they are monitoring their carbon emissions and will publish a report after the Olympics conclude.
Observers say this plays into China’s pledge for the whole country to be carbon neutral by 2060.
"A lot of the local officials in Beijing, and even central government officials, are claiming that the Beijing Olympics [are] going to be a model of China's carbon neutrality future,” said Yifei Li, author of a book on the Chinese government’s green goals.
He thinks Beijing’s focus on green technology and new buildings exemplifies the government’s top-down approach to environmental sustainability.
“What is problematic is this single-minded focus on hard infrastructure,” he said. “These new technologies can only work if they are working together with an assortment of other efforts from the ground up.”
Instead, he said, as China touts its sustainability, it silences critical voices. Back in 2015, after scientists criticized the location of an Olympic venue right in the middle of a nature reserve, the government scrubbed their posts from social media.
Outside China, scholars are questioning whether any Olympic Games can really be green. Researcher Sven Daniel Wolfe worked on a study measuring the sustainability of Olympic Games from 1992 onward. He said they’ve actually gotten less sustainable, not more.
“Organizers and authorities are saying one thing, but the results, unfortunately show something different,” he said. “Each [of the] games are ‘the green games' or ‘the games in harmony with nature’ or ‘the most sustainable Olympics,’ and they have worse and worse outcomes.”
He and other scholars are calling for independent monitoring of the Olympics —to prevent this greenwashing.
Years after the 2008 Olympics, China’s air quality has, in fact, improved. But whether Beijing 2022 will be seen as an important step in achieving China’s carbon neutrality target or just another green public relations pitch is still yet to be determined.