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What the Beijing Winter Olympics have taught us about climate change

The International Olympic Committee recently described the lack of natural snow at the Beijing Winter Olympics as ‘disturbing’. Certainly, some shocking images have come out of the games. While previous games have taken place in idyllic snowy mountain ranges (such as PyeongChang and Vancouver), this year’s setting has marked a stark contrast. Those who tuned in to watch the men’s freestyle skiing faced the rather dystopian scene of a manufactured ski slope juxtaposed against industrial cooling towers in a grey urban landscape. In the few areas where the slopes look similar to years before, they hide the uncomfortable reality that none of their snow is real. These scenes have catalysed considerable debate over climate change, global warming, and winter sport’s sustainability in general.

So, what exactly do the Winter Olympics show us about climate change?

Above all, the 2022 Olympic games have visually demonstrated the extent of modern climate change. While many industries and companies can hide behind a guise that their impact isn’t directly visible – this is not possible for winter sports, especially not those on the scale of the Olympic games. Instead, the world has been forced to confront the dark reality our planet faces if we don’t act quick.

According to The International Olympic Committee, The Guyangshu Cluster in Zhangjiakou, where the games are taking place, has only seen around 30cm of snowfall this year. This has meant that the percentage of artificial snow used for the games has been near 100%, with Beijing reportedly using 2.5 million cubic litres of water to create artificial snow. Though there were some attempts to collect snow from other regions and re-use it in the Olympics, poor snow conditions elsewhere have meant this has been minimal.

It is clear then that the decision to host the Olympics in Beijing raises big red flags about large organisations’ refusal to adapt to a world that demands adaptation

Even though artificial snow is not a new phenomenon, the prevalence of its use today is. The National Ski Areas Association has reported that a whopping 91% of US ski areas are now making artificial snow, a 60% increase from 20 years ago. Indeed, many resort mountains are getting more rain than snow, causing glaciers to retreat up their slopes. With this, photos of abandoned ski lifts and snowless slopes are becoming commonplace, revealing the enormous toll of rising temperatures.

A recent study has found that of all previous winter games hosts, only 21 locations would now be reliable enough to hold future games by the end of the century if a high greenhouse gas emission trajectory continues. What does this say about the impact climate change has on the sustainability of winter sports and the future of the Olympic games?

The increased usage of snow cannons has raised ethical and environmental concerns

Beyond highlighting the extreme impact of climate change, these games have also revealed the world’s problematic attitude towards sustainability…

The decision to use artificial snow to mitigate a far bigger problem is in and of itself highly problematic. As Loughborough University outlined in their ‘Slippery Slope’ report, to maintain competition standard slopes throughout the Olympics in Beijing, the Chinese authorities will have to use 222 million litres of water. This water has to be chemically treated before being frozen and loaded into 130 snowmaking machines. Following this, they will need eight water cooling towers, 300 snowmaking guns and three pumping stations, all of which demand enormous amounts of intensive energy to run, and it doesn’t stop there. Reports have shown that chemical and biological additives are also helpful tools in producing better quality, harder snow for certain sports. This is despite the fact that these chemical compositions significantly decrease biodiversity and harm vegetation.

This has then triggered the question – Why Beijing? Why one of the world’s most water-stressed cities? Why are the Olympics not taking place in Alpine or Nordic regions? To which the Olympic Committee has refused to comment.

It is clear then that the decision to host the Olympics in Beijing raises big red flags about large organisations’ refusal to adapt to a world that demands adaptation. The games represent the immense struggle that we all have for sustainability and our general tendency to opt for strategies that fail to acknowledge the reality of the problems we face, to live life as we know it.

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