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The Winter Olympics, threatened by climate change

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“All aspects of society will be affected by global climate change and sport is no exception.” It is the first sentence of a study carried out by an international team of researchers led by the University of Waterloo (Canada) and published by the journal ‘Current Issues in Tourism’. Among the experts’ conclusions, it stands out that global warming is already reducing, and will reduce even more in the coming decades, the list of locations where the Winter Olympics can be held in optimal conditions for athletes.

“If global greenhouse gas emissions are not drastically reduced, by the end of this century, only one of the 21 cities that have so far hosted the Winter Olympics could again host the Olympics with fair and safe conditions for athletes: Saporo, in Japan”, concludes the report.

The study leaves a door open to hope: if the Paris Agreements are fulfilled, in particular, achieving a low emissions scenario and not exceeding 1.5ºC above pre-industrial levels, the number of historic venues that could host the Winter Games again would be nine in 2050 and eight at the end of the century.

The researchers – Canadian, Austrian and American – have collected historical data, climate change forecasting models and assessments of 339 elite athletes and coaches from 20 countries.

Athletes expressed concern for the future of sport and the need for the world of sport to be “a powerful force to inspire and accelerate climate action.” And they advocate “a serious change in the world.”

Support decarbonization

“The geography of the Winter Olympics will change under all climate change scenarios – radically if global emissions remain on the trajectory of the past two decades,” the researchers warn.

“The much more moderate impacts associated with low-emission pathways consistent with the 2050 net-zero goals of the Paris Climate Agreement offer yet another reason to support the rapid decarbonization of the global economy“, adds the text.

“The growing threat that climate change poses to the Winter Games and sport in general cannot be solved by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), sports organizations and athletes and coaches alone, but requires “a response of the whole society to this great challenge”, collects the conclusions section of the study.

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However, in their comments on the survey, athletes and coaches emphasize that international sports organizations, such as the IOC, are “the most responsible and influential in the sports community for leadership on climate change.”

“The highly influential sports community and its famous athletes are a potentially powerful force for unite, inspire and accelerate the change needed for one of the most important social transitions in history“, add the scientists. In fact, the IOC has already recognized the risk that climate change represents for the Games and its responsibility to lead climate action.

The research details that there is “limited but growing evidence” on the interconnections between sport and climate change. On the one hand, “sports infrastructure, organizations, events, and athlete participation and development are and will be increasingly affected by regional manifestations of climate change.”

low carbon sport

On the other hand, many aspects of sport (infrastructure, events, team/player travel, sports tourism…) are “highly carbon intensive and will be affected by climate policies, such as national and subnational carbon pricing and emission reduction targets, particularly for transportation and buildings.”

The objective must be to move towards “a low-carbon and climate-resilient sport that is aligned with the Paris Climate Agreement”indicate the authors of the study, entitled ‘Climate change and the future of the Olympic Winter Games: perspectives of athletes and coaches’.

But there are still knowledge gaps: “The direct and indirect implications of climate change impacts and responses from governments, businesses, sports organizations and fans for the global sports tourism market, which according to some estimates could reach more $1.8 trillion in 2030, remain largely unexplored,” the paper says.

The report highlights that the United Nations, in collaboration with various sports organizations and almost 300 other organizations, launched the ‘Sports Framework for Climate Action in 2018’ (UNFCCC, 2018), whose general objective is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions related to sportsin accordance with the science-based targets set out in the Paris Climate Agreement, to that sport becomes a “unifying tool to promote literacy and climate action among the world’s citizens”.

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Achieving ‘climate neutrality’

Among the commitments made by the promoters of the framework are incorporating climate change in an integral way in its commercial strategy, measuring the emissions associated with its organization and events, and develop a strategy to achieve ‘climate neutrality’. The first step would be to reduce emissions by 50% by 2030 (from the 2019 baseline) and reach net zero by 2050 at the latest.

“Beyond a show that people from all over the world will follow, this year’s Winter Games (they have been held since last day 4 in Beijing) should spark debate about the future,” details another study carried out in the United Kingdom by researchers from the Sport Ecology Group at Loughborough University and the Protect Our Winters association.

The conclusions are identical to those of the Canadian investigation. “The risk is clear: warming caused by human activities threatens the long-term future of winter sports” Y “reduces the number of host venues adapted for the Winter GamesOf the 21 venues that have hosted the Winter Games since 1924, only ten could host them in 2050 with sufficient natural snowfall, and only six in 2080 under a high emissions scenario, the study authors conclude.

The 2022 Winter Games should spark debate about the limits of making artificial natural environments“, add the British researchers, referring to the fact that the Beijing Games will be the first to rely heavily on artificial snow.

According to the report, also published in ‘Current Issues in Tourism’, more than 100 “fake snow” generators and 300 cannons will work tirelessly at the Chinese headquarters to cover the ski slopes, with the energy and water expenditure that this requires. .

Canadian study: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/13683500.2021.2023480

British study: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/13683500.2014.887664

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