Sustainable London 2012 – the final lap

Shaun McCarthy

July 26, 2011   |   Posted by Shaun McCarthy


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Like many British people, I remember the sound of the bell to signify the last lap, the gasp of tension in the crowd and the sight of Seb Coe crossing the finishing line to claim his gold in that famous race.

The bell has now sounded on the race to become the most sustainable Games ever and it is time to assess the likely medal position. It is a question of gold or silver, not abject failure. But what are the successes propelling us forward, and what are the failures tugging us back?

It cannot be denied that the ODA has set new standards of sustainability for the construction industry. They have many significant achievements and one significant failure. The good news first: 95% waste diverted from landfill, buildings which are 95% HFC-free, are 15% more energy efficient than building regulations (with the wonderful velodrome achieving 31%) – the list goes on. With respect to social and economic sustainability the ODA has delivered on its promises to employ people living locally, to offer more than 350 apprenticeships and to employ 10% of the workforce from people previously unemployed for six months.

The big failure relates to renewable energy. LOCOG promised 20% of Games-time electricity to be delivered from new renewable resources. This is not going to happen as LOCOG focuses all its efforts on reducing energy consumption at source rather than delivering renewable solutions, which seemed like a good idea in 2003 but proved to be a technical challenge too far. One of LOCOG’s partners is boldly advertising its “low carbon energy” but there is no new renewable energy in the mix so this contributes nothing. They also promised to deliver a low-carbon Olympic torch but failed to do so despite strenuous efforts. Although this is not a disaster from a carbon emissions perspective, the opportunity to send the world a message about London’s commitment to low carbon has been irretrievably lost.

Ethical supply chains are a significant issue too. A substantial amount of revenue required to stage the Games must come from sales of merchandise. It could be said the most sustainable thing to do would be to have no merchandise at all, but recognising the commercial realities, LOCOG has issued a ground-breaking Sustainable Sourcing Code and complaints procedure to help encourage workers’ rights. London 2012 cannot solve all the problems related to poor labour standards round the world, but maybe the power of the Games can be put to good use to set the future agenda.

This will be the first public transport Games. This has facilitated over £5 billion of investment in public transport infrastructure. The jewel in the crown will be the new Olympic Javelin service which will transport people from St Pancras to Stratford in seven minutes. Anybody moving around London regularly will recognise this as an achievement on the scale of the Moon landing. A new DLR station at Stratford International has been designed for Olympic sized crowds and stations have been upgraded to accommodate additional cars. All of this will be available after the Games too, and will make this deprived area of East London one of the most accessible in the world, hopefully stimulating inward investment and regeneration.

There are some leaves on the transport line however. The Olympic Route Network, the traffic-calming scheme to give officials and competitors a clear passage to their events, is controversial. Businesses and residents are unhappy about the messages they are receiving encouraging them to stay off the roads and the air quality lobbyists are concerned about the impact on traffic congestion creating hot spots of poor air quality which have a negative impact on health. There are signs that the proposed “active travel programme” to encourage people to walk and cycle to the Games will be very good indeed and much has been done to improve the infrastructure for both. However, ticket holders will be entitled to free public transport on the day their ticket is valid.

So LOCOG is involved in a bumpy sprint to the finish to claim gold for a sustainable Games; there are some transport issues to resolve, with two notable failures to date; every promise must be delivered without fail and there should be greater dialogue with workers’ rights organisations. Most importantly the Games need to look and feel sustainable, the opportunity is there to use technology, new media and the significant commercial power of the sponsors to create something spectacular and different, to show the world that London is a great sustainable city.

Shaun McCarthy
July 2011

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