By Russ Swan 

Vancouver 2010 Opening CeremonyIn addition to their sporting achievements, both of the last two Olympic Games – Vancouver 2010 and London 2012 – were marked by their emphasis on sustainability and environmental protection.

This is no coincidence, and is not merely a reflection of the more enlightened times in which we live in the early 21st century, but is because of a direct commitment on behalf of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) that sustainability should become firmly entrenched in the overall Olympic ethos.

As long ago as 1996, the IOC stated that environmental protection was to become the "third pillar" of the Olympic movement, alongside sport and culture. This mandate enshrined what was already happening on the ground, making it an official requirement for future meetings, and from 2010 has become an inescapable part of the Olympics.

The Winter Games in Vancouver set the bar high in terms of its sustainable development, which may not be too surprising given Canada's well-established credentials for environmental protection. The Summer Olympics in London in 2012 then brought the issue of sustainability to the very heart of its philosophy, making exceptional efforts to limit or mitigate the impact of its construction programme and operations.

Vancouver 2010 Olympic ParkVancouver 2010 was praised for being the most sustainable Games of its time

So it might seem, after completing a full cycle of Winter and Summer Games under the new era of environmental enlightenment, that the issue of sustainability was no longer a matter of great interest. The template has been drawn, and future Games need only follow the lead established by these last two meetings.

In fact, the real tests of sustainability are yet to come. The 2010 Games were held in relatively affluent and environmentally-aware Canada, where concerns over the impact of development would automatically influence decision making processes – even if the IOC had not set out its stall. It would hardly be conceivable for the Canadians to allow their beautiful natural environment to be damaged for the sake of a few ski runs and skating rinks.

More recently with the 2012 Summer Games, sustainability became something of a watchword among the organisers. London is one of the world's greatest cities, and it found huge opportunities in adopting the sustainability ethos to improve its last great unredeveloped district, transforming a swathe of post-industrial land to provide an Olympic Park and, alongside it, a greatly enhanced landscape.

The next cycle takes the Olympic Games to two very different locations, each presenting their own unique challenges. In many ways, the success of the IOC's third pillar will stand or fall largely on how well the philosophies of sustainability are incorporated into the development and execution of the winter Games at Sochi, Russia, in 2014, and the Summer Games at Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 2016. These venues are very different from each other, and also very different from Vancouver and London, and they offer unique environmental, political, and sociological challenges.

London 2012 Olympic StadiumLondon 2012 put sustainability at the heart of the Games from the very outset

The organisers of both events have clearly stated their commitment to sustainable practices both in the development of their sites and in the legacy they intend to leave behind. With this in mind, we have an opportunity to consider the key factors that will contribute to the sustainability of these Olympiads. These occur in three distinct phases – during the construction of the venues, during the operation of the Games, and in the legacy left behind for the future.

In many ways, the construction phase offers the best opportunities to embrace the principles of sustainability – which is, after all, about the provision of development today which does not hamper the ability of future generations to make their own progress. In London, hundreds of hectares of derelict land were converted into a new urban landscape of sensitive buildings and wildlife-rich habitats which even the hardest of ecological campaigners recognise as an improvement.

For Sochi, the Organising Committee has emphasised the importance of sustainability during construction from the very start. It has said that its objective is to "make the best possible use of the opportunities created by the project to ensure the long-term sustainable development of the city of Sochi, the Krasnodar Region, and Russia as a whole".

To recognise this commitment, the committee launched a sustainability awards scheme which took place this week. The 11 categories of awards were arranged into three major sections, including nominations for the best complex project of the year, the best project for young people, and the best innovation of the year.

Sochi 2014 Bolshoy Ice DomeThe Sochi Sustainability Awards took place this week

The efforts being made in Sochi attracted initial criticism for not properly considering the environmental impacts of the projects on the local area, but it is widely recognised now that the 'green' light has been switched on.

The slow start may be hardly surprising, given the very different history of Russia compared to Canada or other modern winter Games venues. During the Soviet era, which ended only a couple of decades ago, environmental concerns were placed very far down the scale of importance. Industrial and military development were considered almost the only issues of importance. The resulting legacy of minimum-cost development with scant regard for waste management or energy efficiency have taken a little effort to shake off, but there are clear signs this is now being achieved.

Sochi 2014 is turning out to be the most expensive Winter Olympics in history. The price tag of more than $50 billion (£33 billion/€38 billion) owes much to the fact that almost all facilities in Sochi are being built from scratch, rather than (as in Vancouver's case) requiring only modest upgrading and updating.

Part of that huge cash pile is giving the Games project some sustainability credentials. Take the transport links for example, a new railway and new highways, with associated bridges and tunnels, brings the infrastructure of the region up to date. This sort of investment has both social and environmental benefits, as better roads mean safer and more efficient transport, which reduces fuel consumption and promotes economic development. You've probably experienced first-hand how traffic jams lead to wasted time, energy, and money.

The huge scale of a Modern Olympics meeting means huge potential for environmental damage, and equally presents lots of opportunities to exercise more sustainable credentials. Every visitor represents a number of journeys to be made, an amount of power to be consumed, and a number of meals to be eaten – not to mention a pile of waste to be disposed of.

At every point in the visitor's schedule, there are opportunities to improve sustainability. Public transport not only saves the vast majority of emissions, consuming only about five per cent of the fuel per journey of travel in a private car, but also reduces requirements for parking spaces and so reduces construction costs and the land take necessary.

Sochi 2014 Athletes VillageMuch of Sochi 2014's budget is being spent to ensure venues have a sustainable future

In transport, as in construction, catering, and energy demands, an overarching criterion is the reduction of carbon emissions. Carbon dioxide, CO2, is produced whenever fuel is burned – whether this fuel is used to drive a bus, power a light bulb, or cook a hamburger. CO2 is the major contributor to climate change, because of the large quantities in which it is produced by these processes. It is not, though, the most potent of the 'greenhouse gases'. For example, methane has about 25 times as much global warming potential (GWP) per kilogram as CO2.

One significant source of methane is the decomposition of waste material in landfill, which is one major reason why London 2012 established its radical "zero landfill" pledge as part of its sustainability programme.

This neatly bridges between the operational aspects of a sustainable Olympics, and the legacy. One thing the citizens of Sochi would not welcome as part of their post-Olympics inheritance would be a landfill site oozing greenhouse gases – and perhaps other undesirable fluids – into their local environment.

This point is clearly recognised by the organisers, who have pledged that Sochi 2014 will be a "Games with minimal impact on the climate". One key way they will achieve this is by exploiting the latest advanced materials and technologies of some of its sponsoring companies, who are keen to use this international showcase to draw public attention to their own green credentials.

Nine companies have signed up to implement the Sochi 2014 sustainability programme, including five Russian firms as well as Dow, Procter and Gamble, Coca-Cola, and Panasonic. Between them, a total of 27 different environmental projects are underway.

Here at last we can see the true benefit of the IOC's "third pillar" position on sustainability. By encouraging host cities to take environmental issues into consideration, and by mobilising external partner companies to demonstrate their advanced technologies, the true legacy of future Olympics meetings is assured.

Russ Swan is a science and engineering journalist and editor of

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