Brazil Made Big Environmental Promises for Its Rio Olympics. Here’s Why It Won’t Keep Them.

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - APRIL 16: A man walks near the entrance to Olympic Park, the primary set of venues being built for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, on April 16, 2014 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. More than 2,000 workers have been on strike at the site for the past two weeks in spite of an apparent new settlement. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
National Journal
Jason Plautz
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Jason Plautz
July 2, 2014, 1 a.m.

Brazil is im­mersed in the World Cup, but its biggest test is yet to come. With the clock tick­ing down to Au­gust 2016, when Rio de Janeiro will host the Sum­mer Olympics, the coun­try has big prom­ises to live up to.

As part of its win­ning Olympic bid in 2009, Rio pledged to host “Green Games for a Blue Plan­et.” Spe­cific­ally, the city of 6.3 mil­lion said it would use clean en­ergy, clear the city’s clogged streets, pre­serve its nat­ur­al spaces, and up­grade its “favelas”—poor neigh­bor­hoods full of ad-hoc in­fra­struc­ture—to more-urb­an­ized spaces with func­tion­ing util­it­ies, pub­lic trans­port­a­tion, and oth­er amen­it­ies.

But five years later, Rio is far from on track to meet­ing those lofty stand­ards, and it ap­pears near cer­tain they won’t be met in time for the open­ing ce­re­mon­ies.

The bid for the 2016 games played up the po­ten­tial for over­haul­ing Rio’s no­tori­ously traffic-choked roads by adding trains, buses, and pub­lic bike-share pro­grams. The high­light was to be a trans­port­a­tion ring of light rail and buses down­town and sub­ways to con­nect to farther-off areas where some of the Olympic events will be held. Get­ting people out of cars would not only free up the streets dur­ing the games but would slash pol­lu­tion.

Cost over­runs and con­struc­tion prob­lems have either delayed or scuttled most of those pro­jects. Last week, a re­port from the na­tion­al audit­ing of­fice found that nearly all of the pub­lic-works pro­jects are be­hind sched­ule and the costs have in­creased between 7 and 122 per­cent above their ori­gin­al fore­cast. Some sites haven’t even broken ground, and con­struc­tion at De­odoro, the ven­ue which will host events like BMX bik­ing and rugby, won’t start un­til later this year.

A more lit­er­al ex­ample can be found in Guanabara Bay, the site of the Olympic sail­ing com­pet­i­tion. Rio had prom­ised to clean up the wa­ter—which is fouled with debris, sewage, and even fish corpses—but May­or Eduardo Paes con­ceded last month that goal wouldn’t be met.

“I am sorry that we didn’t use the games to get Guanabara Bay com­pletely clean, but that wasn’t for the Olympic Games—that was for us,” he said.

Dur­ing an April vis­it, In­ter­na­tion­al Olympic Com­mit­tee Vice Pres­id­ent John Coates said dur­ing an April vis­it that the pre­par­a­tions were “the worst” he had seen.

Rio is far from the only host of an in­ter­na­tion­al sport­ing event to over­prom­ise and un­der-de­liv­er. The pos­sib­il­ity that any such so-called mega-event could be sus­tain­able is a long shot at best, but that hasn’t stopped count­less cit­ies from mak­ing the prom­ise.

The op­tim­ist­ic en­vir­on­ment­al prom­ises are a product of a mis­aligned in­cent­ive sys­tem. Coun­tries’ host­ing bids are greatly bolstered when they in­clude ma­jor green pledges. But once the event is awar­ded, there are few, if any, con­sequences for coun­tries if they don’t fol­low through.

“The IOC and FIFA un­der­stand that one of the big ob­jec­tions to these mega-events is that they des­troy the en­vir­on­ment, so they put in these re­quire­ments. But then what do they do?” said Jay Coakley, pro­fess­or emer­it­us at Uni­versity of Col­or­ado (Col­or­ado Springs). “They can’t en­force them. There’s no ac­count­ab­il­ity after the fact.”

Plus, he ad­ded, the high cost of build­ing and host­ing the events leaves little money in the end for pro­jects that were ex­traneous to the games them­selves.

“If the money hasn’t been al­loc­ated up front, what can hap­pen is a city or re­gion goes so deeply in­to debt and there’s so little money and en­ergy left to com­plete those pro­jects,” said Coakley, who has stud­ied the im­pact of mega-events. “Sus­tain­ab­il­ity goals usu­ally get shoved to the side. It’s dif­fi­cult to have an event with the foot­print of the Olympics and make any im­prove­ments that have a net sus­tain­ab­il­ity im­pact.”

The prob­lem of un­met sus­tain­ab­il­ity prom­ises also plagues Brazil’s host­ing of the World Cup, where all 12 host cit­ies talked up vary­ing de­grees of im­prove­ments. As the $10 bil­lion-plus pre­par­a­tions for the Cup ran in­creas­ingly be­hind sched­ule and over budget, at­ten­tion turned away from leg­acy pro­jects and onto triage for the sta­di­ums.

The north­ern city of Nat­al, for ex­ample, com­pleted just one of sev­en planned trans­port­a­tion up­grades and ended up nix­ing three en­tirely. A high-speed rail line between Sao Paulo and Rio that was to be func­tion­al dur­ing the Cup nev­er even put out bids. And sol­ar pan­els meant to power sev­er­al sta­di­ums nev­er went up.

“Sev­er­al of the prom­ises made at the can­did­acy dossier will not be met,” said Al­berto Mur­ray-Neto, a former mem­ber of the Brazili­an Olympic Com­mit­tee.

The trend of broken prom­ises is not new, and it ap­pears likely to con­tin­ue in up­com­ing Olympics and World Cups.

In host­ing the 2012 Sum­mer Games, Lon­don prom­ised the green­est Olympics ever through the use of clean en­ergy and re­cycled ma­ter­i­als, while also cre­at­ing a mon­it­or­ing sys­tem that could be used for fu­ture pro­jects. Ahead of the So­chi Winter Games this year, Rus­sia es­tab­lished new build­ing codes.

The Lon­don games did suc­cess­fully re­duce emis­sions dur­ing con­struc­tion and built a well-re­garded trans­port­a­tion hub to pro­mote pub­lic trans­it, but a re­port from World Wild­life Fund and BioRe­gion­al said that or­gan­izers failed to do enough to meet their en­ergy prom­ises.

In So­chi, en­vir­on­ment­al­ists said that Rus­sia’s con­struc­tion prac­tices dam­aged the re­gion’s nat­ur­al eco­sys­tems, and the As­so­ci­ated Press found an il­leg­al land­fill dur­ing con­struc­tion—evid­ence that the games wer­en’t zero-waste as prom­ised.

In 2022, Qatar will host World Cup in what is likely to be blis­ter­ing heat, but the coun­try has prom­ised car­bon-neut­ral air con­di­tion­ing thanks to an “ab­sorp­tion chilling” pro­cess that re­lies on sol­ar power.

The fact that Rio won’t meet all of its goals, however, doesn’t mean the whole event will be an en­vir­on­ment­al wash for the city. Rio already re­lies heav­ily on hy­dro­elec­tric power and plans to in­teg­rate more sol­ar in­to the Olympics op­er­a­tions. The city has in­ves­ted in im­prov­ing its wa­ter and sewage sys­tems, and sta­di­ums were de­signed to nat­ur­ally re­duce their en­ergy con­sump­tion by tak­ing ad­vant­age of nat­ur­al light and in­cor­por­at­ing sol­ar power. At least 70 per­cent of the Olympics in­fra­struc­ture will be used after the 2016 games are over, such as the con­ver­sion of the Olympic Vil­lage to con­dos.

Con­trast that with the “white ele­phants,” or the sta­di­ums and struc­tures that sit un­used and take up land, like the bar­ren Birds Nest in Beijing or the 2004 Olympic Grounds in Athens—which sit aban­doned to weeds and stray dogs. (There is con­cern that sev­er­al Brazili­an World Cup sta­di­ums could end up empty and un­used in cit­ies without soc­cer teams.)

Still, most ana­lysts see the biggest gains from the so-called leg­acy pro­jects, the long-last­ing urb­an up­grades that could ful­fill Paes’s prom­ise that the games would over­haul the city. The con­struc­tion delays mean that the city may fall short of the suc­cess­ful changes made after games in Bar­celona or Tokyo, which used the 1964 games as a cata­lyst for a bul­let-train sys­tem.

Those pro­jects are a big selling point for both cit­izens and the world, and can be a way to jus­ti­fy the massive cost of host­ing the games (re­mem­ber, al­most no city comes out ahead from the Olympics, even with the in­flux of tour­ists). But Brazil has seen massive un­rest over the spend­ing on the sport­ing events, which cit­izens say could be bet­ter used on health care or edu­ca­tion.

But Mur­ray-Neto, whose grand­fath­er served in both the Brazili­an Olympics Com­mit­tee and the IOC, said us­ing the money to cov­er routine costs squanders not just the po­ten­tial but the prom­ise of the Olympic games.

“I think that Olymp­ism [is] the uni­on of sports, cul­ture, and en­vir­on­ment,” he said in an email. “There­fore, I see it as an ob­lig­a­tion of the Olympic host­ing city to, among oth­er … things, im­prove its en­vir­on­ment­al con­di­tions. Not only for the games, but as a leg­acy for the city.”

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