London 2012: Green Building Wins (And Fails)

Way back in 2005, when this summer’s Olympics were just a twinkle in London’s eye, the city’s Olympic committee worked with BioRegional (a U.K. non-profit) and the World Wildlife Federation (WWF) to craft a set of sustainability strategies that were to become the overriding theme of the city’s bid to host the games. That theme emphasized sustainability at every level, under the motto of “A One Planet Olympics” — and in 2010, the London Olympic Authority announced plans to make the London 2012 Olympics the “Greenest Olympics ever” by ensuring that they were fully sustainable and as low carbon as possible.

The fact that this summer’s games are the greenest on record has been well established, and its focus on green building is a key element of that. According to the Alliance to Save Energy, the Olympic Park’s permanent structures are responsible for 58 percent fewer carbon emissions than if they had been built to the U.K.’s 2006 building standards. The Park’s other structures are temporary, and were designed to be recycled into other buildings and materials when they’ve served their tour of duty this summer.

London Olympics, Olympic Park

image London 2012

Another key sustainability feature of the Olympic Park is the fact that London currently has plans to transform the Olympic Park land into one of the largest parks in Europe, including at least 100 acres of natural habitat.

But there has been some controversy over whether the London Olympics has in fact achieved its lofty environmental goals for this summer’s games and — once again — the built environment is a key factor.

London’s Olympic plan included, at the outset, green building measures like water recycling, cutting the carbon footprint of all construction projects in half, and sourcing 25% of each project’s materials from recycled sources. But as the games drew closer, officials began to distance themselves from their original targets and spoke instead of “reducing” and “mitigating” the carbon footprint of the games.

Basketball Arena

image via Wilkinson Eyre Architects

The problem with achieving this goal of near-zero carbon emissions while building a modern Olympic Park is the sheer amount of construction projects required. To their credit, the London Olympics Authority made good on its promise to reuse or recycle 90 percent of construction waste, and brought sustainable design principles to a number of iconic green buildings. Still, more than half the CO2 emissions associated with the games arose from the construction process.

In order to make up for those emissions, this summer’s Olympics didn’t turn to the significant renewable energy projects it had outlined in its original sustainability plan. BioRegional’s executive director, Sue Riddlestone, was quoted as saying, in a recent release, “We were especially disappointed about the failure to meet the renewable energy targets,”  even though, she went on to note, she knew “they tried.” The Authority has installed a handful of vertical wind turbines, as well as on-site combined heating and cooling and a power plant with biomass boilers (which can also burn natural gas), but no one really knows how much energy these sources produce. What is known is that the London Olympics have purchased a whole lot of carbon offsets to compensate for its emissions, the lion’s share of them generated via construction.

Susan DeFreitas has covered all manner of green technology for EarthTechling since 2009. She is a graduate of Prescott College for the Liberal Arts and the Environment, and has a background in marketing green businesses. Her work on green living has been featured in Yes! Magazine, the Utne Reader and Natural Home.