Offsetters co-founder still seeking further gains after helping Vancouver 2010 become first carbon neutral Games
By Mike Rowbottom
As chief executive of Offsetters, the first official carbon offset supplier to an Olympic Games, you might expect Dr James Tansey to be gung-ho about his company’s role in helping the Vancouver 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games to become the first carbon neutral Games in history.
In fact, although he is clearly proud of that distinction, he remains keenly aware of all the environmental ambitions that proved impossible to achieve at those Games, and of what needs to change to realise them in the future.
“There is still room for improvement,” he told insidethegames. “Particularly in the area of spectator travel.”
The footprint of the 2010 Winter Games was an estimated 118,000 tonnes of direct carbon emissions – that is, emissions directly attributable to the Games including venue construction, facility heating, and athlete travel.
Additionally, this event produced an estimated 150,000 tonnes of “indirect” emissions – emissions that were largely attributable to flights and accommodation for spectators, media, corporate sponsors and their partners.
Having committed to a carbon-neutral event, Vancouver 2010 appointed Offsetters to help them to assess the unavoidable greenhouse gas emissions from all their operations leading up to and hosting the event, and then to work on either reducing the emissions or offsetting them.
The latter process involves the funding of environmental projects which take greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere or which stops them being emitted in the first place.
“One method of offsetting is the planting of more trees, and stopping trees from being cut down,” Tansey explained. “They pull CO2 out of the atmosphere.” One of Offsetters most effective projects operates in the Great Bear Rainforest, where carbon offset funds allow protected areas to be established and logging levels to be reduced.
Another area of operation for funded offsets is in India, where carbon offset funds are being dedicated to the installation of 53 wind turbines across Tamil Nadu and Karnataka which will provide clean, renewable energy to a region currently dependent on fossil fuels.
Offsetters, was jointly set up by Tansey, a Professor at the University of British Colombia, when he witnessed a growing demand amongst Canadian corporations for a dependable source of high-quality offsets, and noted that many offset providers were operating with unwieldy overhead costs and profit margins.
To offset the direct emissions from the 2010 Winter Games, the company created a unique portfolio of projects through local expertise in new, clean energy technologies. These projects were created to prevent a verified minimum of 118,000 tonnes of carbon emissions from entering the atmosphere. Vancouver 2010 and Offsetters worked closely with partners, sponsors and participants to further offset the estimated 150,000 tonnes of indirect emissions resulting from the Games.
Tansey believes their work in Vancouver has taken understanding of the issues beyond the mere need for more sustainable Games, and has set the bar for future large sporting events. But he is clearly frustrated that even more could not have been done three years ago.
“The official carbon footprint of the Vancouver Games was around 118,000 tonnes, all of which was offset,” he said. “The spectator footprint was 150,000 tonnes – we made a small dent in that.
“What we have to do is to educate people so that they all take personal responsibility for their carbon emissions and understand the value of doing it. But this is still in the early stages.
“We did run a programme which enabled spectators to offset their own carbon emissions.
“We think we covered somewhere around 80 per cent of air emissions.
“Most of top sponsors bought into our scheme, and we had some high profile customers. We supplied them with offsets from our portfolio.
“But there is still room for improvement, particularly in the area of spectator travel.
“The challenge is – how do you reach a quarter of a million spectators arriving at an airport?
“The only way to do that, we believe, is to offset it through ticket prices.
“For spectators arriving in Vancouver, the average carbon emission was calculated at 0.7 tonnes per traveller, which meant that, given the rate of £10 ($15/€ 12) per tonne, a £7 ($11/€8) additional charge would cover the required offset.
“But if you are a local person, it is probably only a matter of a few pence required to offset your carbon footprint.”
Vancouver 2010 was the first Olympic Organising Committee to track and report its carbon emissions from the day of winning the bid until the closing of the Games. This meant reporting, reducing and offsetting carbon over a duration of seven years from planning to holding the world event - not just the 27-day time period of the Games themselves.
In total, Offsetters worked with Vancouver 2010 to reduce 268,000 tonnes of direct and indirect carbon emissions generated as a result of the Games. To put that into context, reducing 268,000 tonnes would be the equivalent of taking 49,084 passenger vehicles off the road or eliminating the electricity needed to power 37,171 homes for a year.
Vancouver 2010 used approximately 500 fewer diesel generators than previous Games. This reduced diesel power GHG emissions by 90 per cent.
One tonne of GHG emissions (tCO2e) equals:15 kilometres of the Torch Relay – including emissions from torch fuel, support vehicles, community celebrations and each torchbearer’s heavy breathing; 10 days of running one snow-maker powered by a diesel generator; approximately 11 tanks of petrol for a car, or nine tanks of diesel fuel (40L).
Offsetters works in a wide range of areas, including motor sport, but Tansey describes its Olympic operation as its “flagship”.
He added: “We have been talking to the Rio 2016 organisers, and we have had quite a lot of dealings with Sochi 2014.
“Carbon neutrality is written into the Sochi bid document. And Brazil is quite sophisticated in their climate and emissions policy, so it is highly likely they will come up with something innovative.”
In the meantime, Tansey has observed with interest the environmental efforts made at the London 2012 Games.
But although he applauds some of the inspirational “green” architecture that was established within the Olympic Park, he is left wondering about London’s failure to create a carbon neutral Games in the same way that Vancouver did.
“I think London 2012 got it right in terms of building smart, green buildings from the start in the Olympic Park,” he said. “They were model buildings – wonderful examples of design.
“But the London 2012 Organising Committee stepped away from the concept of carbon neutrality.
“I don’t fully understand what happened there. I think there was pressure on the Olympics from the Government.
“There’s still a discussion around offsets. For whatever reason, some people have credibility issues with offsets.
“Some people’s attitude to offsetting indirect carbon footprints is: you shouldn’t have flown in those planes in the first place. But people are eager to fly to the Olympics and fly anyway.
“The business model for offsetting is pretty well established now. People were worried that it would prove to be too expensive. But it’s about two-three per cent extra on a ticket price to make a Games carbon neutral.
“In the past, Games have added green projects as an afterthought, and by the time they come round to doing anything they have already constructed their buildings, and it is very hard to integrate green ideas.
“It is much cheaper and more efficient if you integrate. We believe it should be a requirement in the Bid Book for cities to show what they are doing with regard to the carbon footprint of their proposed Games.”
Mike Rowbottom, one of Britain’s most talented sportswriters, covered the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics as chief feature writer for insidethegames, having covered the previous five summer Games, and four winter Games, for The Independent. Previously he has worked for the Daily Mail, The Times, The Observer, the Sunday Correspondent and The Guardian. To follow him on Twitter click here.
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