PyeongChang 2018: An environmental fail or win? 

Green Olympics

By Claire Garber

The environmental impact of winter sports has long been known, but not always widely publicised. From the emissions generated getting tourists to resorts and the water consumption of snow cannons; to the ecosystems destroyed by piste creation and the resource-guzzling infrastructure of the resorts themselves, our one-week ski holiday in the mountains comes at a mighty natural cost.

In response there’s been an adjustment in how ski resorts operate and a welcome surge in environmentally friendly kit too. But are those changes really enough? At the forefront of environmental best practice currently sits PyeongChang 2018 – the first ever Winter Olympics to receive the prestigious ISO 2012-1 certification – a global standard for sustainable events – a year in advance of the actual Games. But can South Korea really deliver on its environmental promises and will it be the educational environmental spokesperson we really need it to be?

Green Olympics

Can South Korea walk the walk and talk the talk?

From Carbon Neutral to Carbon Plus

The PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympics started on a high with a fact-pack filled with climate change promises. They were granted the label ‘Green Dream’ for their efforts to protect the environment. They had focused on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, preserving water resources, minimising waste production, protecting ecosystems AND increasing awareness around environmental risks. It sounded like medal-winning stuff. But what did it all really mean?

Green Olympics

Positive, and also, negative

The big goal for PyeongChang 2018 was to be “Net Positive”. This meant they wanted to be responsible for the reduction of more carbon emissions than they would actually create. They also had an impressive global vision, known as New Horizon, which promised to ‘promote co-existence and co-development of human and nature through sports with a sustainable legacy to Gangwon Province and Korea’ – which was an incredibly vague and long sentence devoid of all commas. So what were their actionable points? What were they going to actually do? One of their many Olympic-sized websites stated that this Winter Olympics would:

  • Minimise greenhouse gas emissions through the use of green renewable energy
  • Establish green transport systems
  • Facilitate green procurement and resource circulation (aka, recycling)
  • Preserve biodiversity
  • Restore the ecological environment through reforestation
  • Improve water quality and clean water infrastructure

When their proposals were initially released there was concern that the plans lacked substance. At a glance some goals seemed vague, while others, contradictory. But, to date, PyeongChang 2018 has taken some truly impressive steps making them true environmental goal medallists:

  • They have funded wind farms that will produce more than the minimum amount of electricity need to power the 2018 Olympic and Paralympic Games.
  • They have ensured that six of their newly constructed competition venues feature either solar power or geothermal.
  • The site of four venues were created on landfill sites.
  • They bought a fleet of over 300 electric vehicles to try and make EVs a mainstream choice for as many Koreans as possible.
  • For mass transit, the Korean government invested heavily in a high-speed rail (HSR) from Seoul to transport a significant percentage of visitors to PyeongChang.

It’s the above efforts that resulted in the ISO 2012-1 certification, making PyeongChang only the third Olympic Games, and the first ever Winter Olympics, ever to be formally recognised for it’s eco credentials.

Green Olympics

Cutting down tens of thousands of trees to make a ski slope. Was it worth it?

One step forward, two trees back

But no sooner had PyeongChang 2018 received international recognition for their efforts, they were then accused of substantial negative impacts on the natural environment. The giant endangered elephant in the room was the removal of tens of thousands of trees from the slopes of Mount Gariwang. The mountain had previously been designated a national protected forest back in 2008, before the games had been commissioned. That designation was quickly removed in 2013, just in time for the Olympic construction project. The row between environmentalists and the Olympic organisers centres on a 500-year-old mountain forest. Tens of thousands of trees have been removed to make a ski slope that could have been placed elsewhere, inflicting irreparable damage on the area’s delicate ecosystem, including ancient and rare species. Its destruction amounted to an ecological disaster and a report issued by campaigners in June this year stated that of the 58,000 trees already removed, only 181 will actually be replanted. It seems the environment is only worth protecting when it generates international certification.

 Green Olympics


Another criticism of PyeongChang 2018 is that of education. Ensuring sustainable infrastructure is important. But so is large-scale education. Rio 2016 communicated the threat of climate change during their games. They had a climate change themed vignette during the opening ceremonies and highlighted environmental concerns to a massive TV and digital audience, estimated at up to 1 billion people. While PyeongChang acknowledges this was a highly successful campaign, they have made no plans to do anything similar. Even if they are innovating with the use of renewable energy and whizzing everyone around in electric cars, it’s possible that no one will ever know about it, much less be educated and inspired into action.

Green Olympics

This year’s games focused more on Korean culture and the future than environmental education.

Did you know?

It seems everyone could do with a lesson in self-promotion. There are other innovators and leaders in the world of climate change who are equally poor at blowing their own trumpet. Did you know, for example, that China has been globally recognised as a leader in the fight against climate change? While the world was busy labelling them callous emission-generating cowboys in the shaming world of climate change, they were rapidly increasing their spending on renewable sources of energy, especially on solar and wind. They also planted over 66 billion trees, their own silent commitment to combat air pollution and deforestation. While in the corporate world, there is something known as RE 100 – a kind of illuminati-esque group of invisible do-gooders, made up of FTSE-level big corporates who have all committed themselves to moving to 100% renewal energy while we were busy cursing the 5 pence tax on plastic bags. By comparison, they both make PyeongChang 2018 look like a right Chatty Cathy.

Green Olympics

POW! What can you do?

Unlike the Olympic Games, the Chinese, and RE 100, Protect our Winters has committed itself to education. “Climate change is a human creation, and a human problem to deal with” says Sandy Trust, founder of Protect our Winters UK (POW UK). “We need to adjust our systems and ways of living, and show other people how to do that. The Olympics, while certainly a generator of a great deal of carbon emissions, is an amazing platform for education that must be utilised. There are so many easy positive choices we can all take that will make an enormous difference.”

Protect our winters

POW: Saving the planet through initiative AND education.

The Beginning.

So now we have no excuse. With organisations like POW helping us on the way to environmental enlightenment, all we need to do to educate ourselves is visit their website. Easy. But don’t forget to blow your noisy, climate-changing, self-promoting trumpet. Raise awareness of your brilliant climate change conscientiousness. And maybe blow a few trumpets for Peongchang 2018 at the same time.


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