Going for the gold: how can world events help us tackle climate change?

Paul Gleeson Paul Gleeson
Group Director, Sustainability & Managing Director, Energy – Australia & New Zealand
15 March 2022
6 min read

Sport has a long history of delivering change beyond the stadiums, pitches, pools, and courts it is played on. For many centuries – including the first Olympics in 1896 where it was used to broker relationships between ancient villages – sport has helped advance peace, reconciliation and raise awareness of minority groups. This is also the case for large-scale events like World Expo, which fosters connections between nations, and concerts such as Live Aid that raised funds for famine relief for African nations in the 1980s.

If events, in general, have the power to create such impacts, what if the occasion itself became the catalyst to enact change for one of the greatest problems facing our planet: climate change?

With South East Queensland committing to become Australia's first net zero and circular economy region for the 2032 Olympics, this Olympic legacy of a green economy could be much sweeter than winning a gold medal.

All hail the legacy

Events have long held the power to transform communities and deliver lasting benefits long after the last spectator has gone home. While in recent years, countries have shied away from bidding for the Olympics because of its reputation for the cost and white elephant infrastructure, the Olympics have traditionally delivered a lasting legacy for their host city and country in the form of financial and social benefits.

Six years on, the London 2012 Olympics were still generating $176 million per year for the British economy, a greater percentage of young people were playing sport, and the revitalised Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park remains a thriving precinct. The same can be said of other events – Glastonbury generates over £100 million for the UK economy and event organisers have helped develop and conserve local facilities, introducing new community venues for music and events and renovating medieval church bells. But the lasting legacy of a green economy is on a larger scale altogether.

A green economy is based on the principles of low carbon, resource efficiency and social inclusion. In a green economy, growth in employment and income are driven by public and private investment into such economic activities, infrastructure and assets that allow reduced carbon emissions and pollution, enhanced energy and resource efficiency, and prevent the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services.

The commitment for South East Queensland to become a net zero and circular economy region in 10 years is big. While industries across the board have made considerable gains in working towards net zero emissions, there is still a long way to go.

And we have to act now. According to the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), while the current state of the planet is looking bleak, we can still avoid the worst impacts, but only if we act now and in the remaining years of this decade.

What will a green economy be made of?

In light of the sustainability and climate change requirements for the 2032 Olympics, we need to look upstream and ask how we can significantly decarbonise an entire region, including any new infrastructure built and any technology deployed.

Creating and maintaining a truly circular economy will be more of a challenge as South East Queensland is a massive hub, with lots of products and services coming in and out. If we are to succeed, we certainly need to focus on waste-to-resource initiatives in key areas, including wastewater reuse, the decarbonisation of construction materials and the sustainable production of consumer goods, as well as reusing decommissioned spaces for public amenity.

Today, emissions occur at every step of the value chain – from extraction of minerals all the way through to construction, use and ultimately 'end of life' of infrastructure. In many ways, existing infrastructure reflects a 'sunk cost' of emissions – the penalty paid for the concrete, steel, copper, and aluminium making up our existing infrastructure is already in the atmosphere.

Decarbonising our economy starts with reducing or eliminating the need for new materials in the first place, through design and recycling of existing materials. But when we do need new materials, we then need to reduce or eliminate emissions created in the early mineral extraction and processing phases, in the first instance. There will need to be heavy focus on the decarbonisation of critical minerals and materials that will be required to build and operate a green economy and region.

Copper is going to be one of the most extensively required and highly valued materials in a decarbonised and electrified economy. Do we know how to extract, process, and recycle the copper in a zero-carbon way?

Other crucial materials will be the zero emissions steel we need to build infrastructure. While green steel is largely still in concept phase, there are companies pushing ahead to make this a reality very soon. We are going to need aluminium for making more lightweight vehicles of all variety and continue to need lithium for batteries too. To decarbonise, we need to ensure we find ways to reuse (where possible) or sustainably procure these materials.

Mineral and metal companies are already thinking about this as global companies like Tesla and Apple are promising zero-embedded carbon in their products. The new electric battery industry has been aware of the need for circularity from inception, not just for environmental reasons but also because the value of minerals used in these green products is way too high for landfill.

Panasonic is aiming to develop cobalt-free batteries for EVs and Apple has made moves on a copper refinery. Even aside from any environmental considerations, it's becoming cheaper to reuse these precious resources than it is to dig them up from the earth. For decades already, gold mine tailings have been the producers of green products and materials have the circular economy front of mind – every industry will need to work on greening their game.

We also need to get more savvy with extending infrastructure life and reutilising decommissioned infrastructure. Can we repurpose existing pipelines to transport hydrogen or carbon dioxide instead of natural gas? Or build carbon sinks by using sustainably forested timber or advanced concrete that sequesters atmospheric carbon? How do we incentivise designs for reuse at end of life?

The visibility of events

There's no hiding from the promises we make about an event as visible as the Olympics. In the case of Brisbane 2032, there will be an athletes' village to build and an Olympics Opening Ceremony to watch. The very public deadline has created a burning platform for fast and effective change. As Nelson Mandela once said, "sport has the power to change the world." In this case, sport will be helping to save the world, one community at a time.

But this doesn't just have to be limited to the Olympics. The planning, design, technology, and lessons learnt could be applied to events, large and small. Imagine if this model takes off and green economies are created for communities hosting the World Cups, Southeast Asian Games, and Glastonburys of the world? You could almost say the sky's the limit when there's less carbon in it.

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Paul Gleeson
Written by
Paul Gleeson

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