Words and Pictures

with Elizabeth Walton

Green Games 2000


Take a close look at Sydney’s Green Olympics

In the year 2000, Sydney will bring the focus of the world to a central stage when the flame for the 27th Summer Olympics is ignited. Sydney’s staging of this prestigious sixteen day sporting event has already gained international attention for its promise to be the ‘Green Olympics,’in an attempt to show the world its vision for ecologically sustainable development (ESD). But what exactly is a Green Olympics, and how did an international sporting event suddenly become tied in with the green agenda? In 1992, representatives of many government and non government organisations from around the world met at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. During this conference, which was attended by more world leaders than any other event in history, the need for ESD was acknowledged. The convention concluded with the signing of Agenda 21 – an 800 page document that addresses the global environment and development dilemma.

Responding to the issues raised during the Earth Summit, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) decided to incorporate Agenda 21 into Olympic ideology, which is now a three tiered paradigm: sport, culture and environment. At around the same time, many countries began preparing bids to stage the 2000 Olympics – and the winner was Sydney!

IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch has since commented that Sydney’s success was largely due to its world class environmental guidelines, which were developed especially for the bid. The NSW Government has created two organizations to oversee the development of the games: the Olympics Coordination Authority (OCA), responsible for constructing the sites, and the Sydney Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games, (SOCOG), which stages the event.

To date, the OCA has chalked up an impressive slate of achievements. Around 200,000 tonnes of crushed concrete from on site demolitions will be reused, reducing the demand for raw materials in the construction process, and minimizing the hazards of delivery trucks on Homebush roads. Nine million cubic metres of toxic waste have been contained on site inside high tech landfills, which use a complex water collection system to prevent materials from leaching into the Bay. The OCA recently awarded Multiplex, the Australian construction company, the contract to build the main Olympic stadium. The design includes features such as underground rain water storage facilities; a unique lift shaft design which reduces air conditioning requirements, and the use of light scoops that reduce the energy needed to light the

building. The OCA has received awards from RiverCare 2000 and Clean Up Australia for its work at Homebush Bay. These awards formally acknowledge OCA’s outstanding work in restoration of the land. Many other organisations, including the Australian Heritage Commission and Greenpeace International, have praised the OCA for its environmental achievements. Locally, Greenpeace Australia have acknowledged Multiplex’s PVC free stadium design as a world class move, and commented on the outstanding achievements of the OCA to date.

There are pollution problems surrounding the site, however, and Greenpeace’s Olympic Project Coordinator, Michael Bland, has expressed concern regarding contaminated water in nearby Homebush Bay. ‘The problem at Homebush Bay,’ Mr Bland says, ‘is that the people of New South Wales have been left an environmental liability. We’ve found new chemicals, seemingly discharged locally by ICI…we could be wrong, but they’re one of the only companies in the country who produce phthalates. Now they’ve decided to move from the area. We have already seen Union Carbide leave behind a toxic legacy for the people of Sydney to clean-up. Inevitably it’s OCA’s responsibility to address this,’ Mr Bland said. In order to address such community and environmental concerns, the NSW and Federal Governments set up Green Games Watch 2000, (GGW2000), for the purpose of liaising with green groups. According to its coordinator, Peggy James, GGW2000 is the Olympics watchdog. Its purpose is to make sure the OCA adhere to the environmental guidelines. ‘At the recent community workshop held by GGW2000, the clear message was that members of the community felt left out of the planning process. Inclusion of the people of Sydney in preparation for the Olympics is extremely important’, Ms James said.

One Sydney-sider concerned with Olympic issues is Martin Byrne, a member of Auburn Greenspace, a group formed to protect community interests. ‘Our main concern is for the Newington armaments depot, which has been identified as the best remnant bushland of the Cumberland Plain. It must be protected by a buffer zone. We’re also concerned about transport issues’, Mr Byrne said. Concerns about transport are understandable. Trains will deliver up to 50,000 people per hour to the Homebush Bay site. By OCA’s estimation, the Olympic Games will attract half amillion visitors per day. These spectators will all be travelling by public transport, since private vehicle access will be banned whenever a large event is being held at the sports centre.

In addressing local air pollution issues, the OCA has already provided a Diesohol operated shuttle. Given the OCA’s consideration of the environmental guidelines, are we to expect a higher commitment to low emission vehicles? Dr Colin Grant, OCA’s environmental executive director, says the organization will be trialling low emission buses over the next few years. ‘However,’ he adds, ‘buses have to be purchased with the public purse, and integrated into the fleet as money and technology allows.’ Unless the Government is about due to replace its fleet, the locals of Homebush Bay might not be as lucky as Atlantan residents, where the Department of Transport has borrowed 300 Alternative Fuel Vehicles to be used during this year’s Games. Unfortunately, this resource is not as readily available in Australia as it is in the US, where there is a large national fleet of alternative fuel vehicles to draw upon.

Comparison between Atlanta and Sydney is regarded by GGW2000 as essential to implementing the environmental guidelines. Peggy James says environmental benchmarking is critical to achieving objectives outlined by Michael Knight, NSW Minister for the Olympics. ‘In his speech to the Lillehammer Forum on Sport, Environment and Development, the Minister said that the Government’s aim was to ensure that Olympic developments set higher environmental benchmarks for future development,’ she explains. ‘To achieve this, the Government must determine the environmental performance of existing comparable facilities, in order to make fair comparisons between competing tenders, and to demonstrate in the year 2000 that the Minister’s vision has been realized.’ But according to Minister Knight’s staff, benchmarking can be ineffective. ‘Competitive Best Practice is our benchmark’, Dr Grant commented. The point is, he says, if a 20 percent improvement on energy use is dictated, then the likelihood is that 20 percent will be achieved. ‘If on the other hand we ask for the best possible environmental standard, the competitors don’t know what the others are doing. So they go full bore to produce the very best, and what we get is 30, 40, 50 percent.’ This stance is not exactly welcomed by Ms James, who feels it would be inappropriate for the OCA to rely purely on competition in the market to provide environmental quality. ‘Market theory recognizes that competition alone cannot guarantee high quality environmental outcomes. The process of setting environmental standards itself can help to stimulate development of the innovative technologies that the OCA is seeking’.

Dr Grant’s has further cautions against trans-global benchmarking. ‘It’s all relative to what’s there at the place’,he says. For example, a country without a high level of technological sophistication may host the Olympics in the future. ‘Say that country has limited sewerage infrastructure, but it offers to develop and run a stadium which has standard sewerage, and in developing that standard, it takes it to a nearby village and treats it, rather than having it run into a nearby river. That’s clearly not at the level of development that we are doing, but it’s better for that country’. This reasoning is understandable, though we must surely be careful not to miss opportunities for demonstrating excellence in environmental management for the future. The ACF’s National Biodiversity Campaigner Peter Wright, for example, has suggested that suitable vacant roof spaces could be installed with solar collectors. This could display how wasted space could potentially reduce national greenhouse gas emissions, in a country which has one of the worst per capita uses of greenhouse gasses in the world. This initiative is not a move welcomed by the OCA. ‘Why say it’s got to be solar?’ Dr Grant asks. ‘Government is about balance and cooperation. It is not about dictatorially picking one winner, one product, one approach over alternatives which may be equally as good. It’s called competition, and that’s how our society operates.’

There is another key factor to consider when implementing the Environmental Guidelines. Paul Orton, Manager of Policy at the Australian Business Limited, says innovations needs to not only be environmentally sound, but also economically viable. ‘We don’t want to move so far ahead of current commercial realities that we are compromised. We have to give consideration to tax payers and other funding bodies…at the end of the day, somebody has to pay if there is a cost penalty. We must also ensure that Australian product is used,’ Mr Orton said. Australia already has world class capabilities in many areas of sustainable production, though sometimes it makes bad economic sense to use these products because they are too expensive, or not yet commercially available.

On the other hand, using these technologies could be a sound long-term investment, if interest generated in Australian products during the Games leads to sales. Atlanta has built a permanent education centre which demonstrates and promotes new environmental products. Solar equipment, heat pumps, alternative fuels, and power management techniques will be showcased with a view to maximising the advertising potential for technology displayed at the centre. Mr Orton says he certainly likes the idea of exploring new opportunities, however he adds that using new technology in the Olympic site will not necessarily convert products to commercial viability. Another interesting suggestion has come forward from the bicycle lobby. Ian Mackendoe is the convener of Bicycle New South Wales’ Cycling 2000 team. He says the group would like to see Homebush Bay become the hub of a cycling network stretching between Newcastle in the north, to Wollongong in the south, for the benefit of cyclists both during and after the games. ‘The Government hasn’t taken into account the safety of cyclists’, he said. ‘When they arrive at a destination, people need to be able to leave bikes in a secure lockup.’ His vision is for a cyclists’ venue which could operate like a club, with facilities such as showers and lockers, similar to the aquatic centre at Homebush Bay. This would allow visitors to cycle to Homebush Bay, attend footy games, have a picnic, return after five or six hours, change back into their cycling gear and cycle home again, without burning any fossil fuels in the process. ‘Now that would be really imaginative,’ he says.

Other environmental groups have suggested using alternatives to plastic takeaway food containers at the site. SOCOG’s spokesperson Richard Palfreman says these are all decisions which will be made at a later date. ‘However, if we decide we don’t want glass bottles used for example, we’re free to put that into the caterers’ contracts…it can be written in.’ Since SOCOG can write specifications into its contracts to exclude materials it deems undesirable, can the OCA specify that contractors, who were awarded tenders on the basis of their promise to purchase electricity from renewable sources, must continue doing so? Dr Grant puts it simply: ‘No. In the market place, they are free to operate those facilities as they see fit, within the context of making them a viable operation. We are calling for innovative design which might not call for so much energy in the first place.’ As indicated by the praise the OCA has received from many international bodies to date, the tendering process is encouraging outstanding efforts in environmental design. But does this necessarily represent the highest achievements possible, when seen in context of the opportunity to showcase ESD? After all, it

was Sydney who designed and recommended the environmental guidelines. It would be disappointing to fall short of what some believe to be a full interpretation of them. ‘Remember, they are guidelines’, Dr Grant said.

‘We are taking a rubbish dump, an abattoir, and a munitions depot, in the middle of the city, and turning it into the jewel in the crown, with environmental standards better than most in the world…what other benchmark do you want to judge us by?’

As part of its extensive restoration efforts, the OCA has created an Environment Strategy for Homebush Bay, which makes recommendations for the protection of the wetlands, which were almost destroyed during years of industrial abuse. The report advocates that the use of HCFCs and CFCs should be minimized throughout the site, and that all contaminated groundwater seeps should be intercepted and contained. It also says that there will be a call for diversity of plant species in order to encourage natural means of pest control.

With all of this sound expert advice, the OCA still appears capable of making comments conflicting with their advisors, on issues such as the effects of artificial lighting on wetlands. Dr Grant says ‘Lights are unlikely to have any great effect. We tend to anthropomorphically suggest that animals are affected in the same way that we are…but studies the world over are tending to show that animals don’t have the same level of sensitivity to things that cause us concern. So for example, quite a number of birds roost in cities in busy places, and it doesn’t seem to bother them.’ Yet the Environment Strategy says light pollution should be minimized.

The OCA’s advisors on this matter, The Royal Australian Ornithologists Union, say artificial lighting can adversely affect bird life during nesting periods, by highlighting young birds to potential predators. Peggy James feels this is exactly the sort of issue her watchdog organization is there to address. ‘Provision of clear, reliable, and accurate information to the public, as well as opportunities for participation in decision making about the environmental management of the Games implies nothing more than entering into the Olympic Spirit – the spirit of mutual understanding, friendship, solidarity and fair play.’

Dr Grant says his vision isn’t any different. But within that context, other objectives exist, such as delivering facilities on time and within budget. ‘There are limits to time,money and technology, and that will always leave somebody with a view that something better could have been done. But on what model is that based? A hypothetical, a vision. Visions have to be turned into operational realities. The reality is always much more complex to achieve than carping from the sidelines.’ ‘When we’re judged’, he says, ‘we’re either getting a brickbat, or abouquet. So far, we’ve had bouquets. I don’t believe there will be a case for brickbats. Are we going as far as a few interest groups might want? Perhaps not – someone might want solar arrays on every roof. It won’t happen. Have we achieved that person’s ideal? No, I don’t believe so. Are we wrong? I would argue we are not. Anyone can say throw another million at it and give me this! I am quite convinced we are doing our best. I’m prepared to be judged by it, and I’m proud of it.

Feel free to leave a comment. All comments require approval before they appear on this site.