IOC accused of ‘greenwashing’ by environmental group with Olympic Forest project set to plant 355,000 trees across Africa

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Tens of thousands of trees from a “sacred” 500-year-old mountain forest were bulldozed in South Korea to make way for a new ski slope used at the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. For the Tokyo Olympics, 225,600 large sheets of plywood were sourced from the fragile jungles of Indonesia and Malaysia – possibly illegally green groups say – to build venues for the 2020 Games.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has hardly been a role model for environmental causes but they are trying to put on a new green face. In seeking to remove the dark stain of perceived apathy for climate issues, the IOC is presenting itself as a sporting pioneer in environmental conscience with its “Olympic Forest” campaign that it hopes will make amends for past sins.

Unveiled in June, the Forest programme will see 355,000 trees planted across Mali and Senegal in Africa to offset carbon emissions. That is six times the number of trees that were razed in Pyeongchang. From 2030 onwards, the IOC said host cities must guarantee that their Olympic Games are climate positive.

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Environmentalists, however, are less enthused about the green legacies that the Games hope to leave behind. The Rainforest Action Network (RAN), a US-based NGO, called out the body for using the new campaign to “greenwash” its inadequacies.

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“We generally support the reforestation of degraded land with native trees, especially if it can provide social benefits while respecting the rights of local and Indigenous communities,” said Yuki Sekimoto, RAN’s Tokyo-based spokeswoman. “However, it appears that this project is being used to greenwash the Olympics’ climate and environmental footprint.”

RAN was among the many NGOs that raised the alarm on unsustainable logging in the building of Olympic venues in Tokyo. Since 2016, the groups have warned of the possible illegal sourcing of timber from endangered tropical forests in Indonesia and Malaysia.

The gymnastics centre is under construction in Tokyo's Ariake district for the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics. Photo: Kyodo
The gymnastics centre is under construction in Tokyo's Ariake district for the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics. Photo: Kyodo

While RAN is unable to confirm the status of the wood used in the Tokyo Games, it said the likelihood remained high. Two of its timber suppliers have been repeatedly linked to illegal logging, said Sekimoto.

The Olympic Forest – or 2,120 hectares of trees – is expected to put the IOC on a cleaner path. It would sequester 200,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide, which would offset the IOC’s estimated carbon emissions for the next three years and become climate positive by 2024.

The new project contributes to an existing UN-backed tree-planting initiative across Africa’s Sahel region, the Great Green Wall. Planting will begin in the second and third quarters of next year and will last more than four years.

RAN remains doubtful of the IOC’s climate positive goals – to remove more carbon from the atmosphere than emitted – and took aim at its reliance on tropical plywood. Sekimoto said: “The Tokyo Olympics’ climate- positive strategy fails to consider the carbon footprint from its reliance on tropical timber for concrete formwork plywood.”

According to records published by the Tokyo Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, the plywood sheets were used as moulds to contain concrete for subsequent structuring. RAN and other groups have doubts about the sourcing of the timber.

Tropical plywood supplied from Korean-Indonesian conglomerate Korindo Group is linked to rainforest destruction, land-grabbing and clearance of endangered orangutan habitat, said Sekimoto.

The Tokyo 2020 organisers eventually revised its timber sourcing policy in 2019. Yet, the NGOs said it did not ensure the sustainability or legality of the wood procured.

Satellite images of rainforest destruction by Korindo in Indonesia. Photo: Handout
Satellite images of rainforest destruction by Korindo in Indonesia. Photo: Handout

“The only criteria relevant to formwork plywood [in its sustainability plan] is the use of ‘recycled’ plywood and use of Japanese timber,” said Sekimoto.

“However, we know from our field investigations that much of the ‘recycled’ plywood is in fact tropical plywood derived from the rainforests of Sarawak, Malaysia, which were most likely used once off-site before being used a couple more times on the Olympic venue, then discarded. This is not a climate positive strategy.”

The extent of deforestation in Indonesia and Malaysia’s rainforests caused by Olympic venue construction remains unclear, said RAN, but affirmed the need for more adequate sourcing standards. For now, the long-running saga between the environmental NGOs and the Olympic stakeholders appears to be at a stalemate. Instead, the IOC has proclaimed that Tokyo 2020 and Beijing 2022 would be carbon-neutral Games.

A giant SOS carved into an oil palm plantation in Sumatra by Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic to draw attention to the damage caused by deforestation. Photo: Ernest Zacharevic
A giant SOS carved into an oil palm plantation in Sumatra by Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic to draw attention to the damage caused by deforestation. Photo: Ernest Zacharevic

The IOC itself has pledged to reduce its carbon emissions by 30 per cent by 2024, and by 45 per cent by 2030 – in line with the Paris Agreement. At the Tokyo Games, greener measures such as using renewable energy and existing venues has led to a 9 per cent reduction in its carbon footprint to 2.73 million tonnes. At the London 2012 and Rio 2016 Games, 3.3 and 3.6 million tonnes of carbon were produced respectively.

The Tokyo 2020 organisers have also launched initiatives such as Operation BATON – Building Athletes’ village with the Timber Of the Nation – part of a wider attempt to make the games more sustainable.

Operation BATON saw the construction of the Olympic Village Plaza using timber “borrowed” from 63 municipalities in Japan, which has amenities such as concession stands and saloons for athletes. The structure will be demolished after the Games’ end. Timber used in the plaza’s construction will be returned to their respective municipalities, where they will be used for items such as benches.

“The Tokyo games has always made efforts to make sure that the Games are sustainable, even from the bid stage,” said Yuki Arata, senior director of sustainability of the Tokyo 2020 organising committee, at a media briefing.

As for Beijing 2022, its organisers have touted all its venues as being run on 100 per cent renewable energy. Carbon dioxide is used as refrigerants in ice-making for four venues, an Olympic first that saves up to 30 per cent more energy compared to traditional methods, while newly built venues are said to abide by green standards.

Meanwhile, Paris 2024 has pledged to stage a climate positive Games. With 95 per cent of its venues used being existing or temporary, its emissions are expected to be 50 per cent less than previous editions of the Games.

Additional reporting by Harvey Kong

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