Vancouver Olympic organizers sign carbon-neutral deal to offset emissions

Organizers are billing the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics as carbon neutral, but a sponsorship deal that will see millions of dollars spent on carbon offsets doesn't include more than half of the estimated emissions associated with playing host to the Games.

Organizers are billing the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics as carbon neutral, but critics say a sponsorship deal that will see millions of dollars spent on carbon offsets doesn't include more than half of the estimated emissions associated with playing host to the Games.

Vancouver's Olympic organizing committee, known as VANOC, announced a sponsorship deal Wednesday with B.C.-based Offsetters Green Technology Inc., which said it will invest in clean energy projects such as hydrogen fuel cells to offset 110,000 tonnes of carbon emissions generated from the Games.

Organizers said the Vancouver Olympics will be the first to have an official carbon-offset supplier.

But the sponsorship deal, worth about $5 million, doesn't include an estimated 190,000 tonnes of "indirect" emissions, including flights to bring athletes, spectators and sponsors to Vancouver.

Organizers still have an overall goal of offsetting 300,000 tonnes of emissions, said Linda Coady, the organizing committee's vice-president of sustainability. But she said it will be up to competing countries, sponsors and even spectators to buy their own offsets from Offsetters to make up the difference.

'Not done yet'

"We're not done yet — the overall target is 300,000 tonnes," Coady said after a news conference in Vancouver announcing the sponsorship deal.

"We're talking to athletes and our partners and communities, and there's a lot of interest in the voluntary program, so give us some time."

Olympic organizers said the estimate of 110,000 tonnes includes all aspects of staging the Games in Vancouver and Whistler, including transportation, energy consumption, venue construction and the cross-country torch relay.

They said that's what is required by the Greenhouse Gas Protocol, an international standard created by the U.S.-based World Resources Institute, to make the claim of being carbon neutral.

Still, Coady said, the ultimate goal remains to offset all of the emissions associated with the Games, but athletes and sponsors need to do their part, as well.

"[We're] optimistic that when the world comes here, we will be able to say that we've offset the direct and indirect [emissions], and we're certainly working to that goal."

Coady said Offsetters will work with international teams, sponsors and other Olympic partners to help them calculate their carbon footprints and offset them. The company will also create a way for Olympic spectators to do the same.

And they'll make sure the public knows what progress has been made, Coady said.

'Concrete plan' needed

But Deborah Carlson, a climate change specialist with the David Suzuki Foundation, said Vancouver's Olympic organizing committee needs to ensure all of the emissions are offset if they want to claim to be carbon neutral.

"For VANOC to show real leadership, we need to see a concrete plan to offset its whole carbon footprint," Carlson said.

Olympic organizers asked the David Suzuki Foundation to estimate the carbon footprint of the Games. In 2007, the foundation put the figure at roughly 330,000 tonnes of carbon emissions, with air travel accounting for 70 per cent of that figure.

"This announcement, while it has some very positive aspects, still only gets VANOC less than halfway to meeting that goal," Carlson said.

Carlson said Olympic organizers still deserve credit for the offsets they are getting, and for stressing sustainability in other areas such as venue construction.

The 2010 Olympics aren't the first to claim carbon neutrality — Salt Lake City and Torino, Italy, had carbon-neutral programs, but unlike Vancouver's plan, those focused primarily on the 17 days of sporting events.

Beijing had its own program as well, using clean-energy such as solar power and reducing traffic to offset emissions from the Games, venue construction and flights.

However, the United Nations Environment Program released a report that said it has been difficult to determine whether that goal was met.