Tokyo 2020 aims to be the most environmentally friendly games, offsetting carbon emissions and using sustainable materials. But some environmental groups say the symbolism exaggerates the reality.



Despite fears of a super-spreader event, it appears the Tokyo Olympics will begin as planned July 23. Organizers have pledged the games will be safe from the pandemic. They also say they'll be environmentally friendly. NPR's Anthony Kuhn takes a closer look at that claim.


ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Last month, grandiose music swelled at a ceremony to unveil symbols of Olympic sustainability. One symbol comes courtesy of Olympic sponsor Procter & Gamble. Stanislav Vecera, CEO of P&G's Japan subsidiary, introduced the podiums on which athletes will get their medals.


STANISLAV VECERA: The Tokyo 2020 podiums are made from used plastic packages directly collected by consumers and then recycled.

KUHN: Even the gold, silver and bronze are part of the symbolism. They'll be extracted from recycled cell phones and other gadgets to make the athletes' medals. But some analysts say the symbolism of sustainability exaggerates the reality.

SVEN DANIEL WOLFE: Unfortunately, the data show that sustainability in all dimensions is decreasing over time from 1992 to 2020.

KUHN: That's Sven Daniel Wolfe at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland. He co-authored a study of the sustainability of recent Olympic Games. Wolfe defines sustainable as having limited ecological impact, promoting social justice and being economically efficient. These goals, he says, tend to take a backseat to the ambition to put on dazzling mega-events. But Wolfe and some environmental groups do give Olympic organizers credit for at least trying. Masako Konishi is the climate and energy project leader at WWF Japan. She praises the games' energy plan.

MASAKO KONISHI: So the extra electricity that is required for the Tokyo Olympics will be 100% renewable energy. And that could be a very good role model for the future Olympics.

KUHN: The Games will, of course, still produce carbon emissions, but she says the organizers have already secured more than enough carbon credits to try to offset the greenhouse gases the games produce.

KONISHI: So 150% of the credits has been collected.

KUHN: And that would make it the...

KONISHI: First ever carbon-negative Olympic.

KUHN: Konishi isn't as upbeat about sourcing seafood or how to serve athletes sushi without overfishing the seas. She says Japanese suppliers have lobbied Olympic organizers to water down their sourcing standards.

KONISHI: Basically, they are saying that if the standard is too strict, there will be not much Japanese marine products going into the Olympic of Tokyo.

KUHN: Sourcing timber is also a thorny problem. The Rainforest Action Network, or RAN, traced plywood from the construction of an Olympic stadium in Tokyo to the forests of Indonesia. Hana Heineken, a campaigner with the group, explains their findings.

HANA HEINEKEN: We actually found that the majority of the Indonesian plywood that the Olympic organizers sourced was coming from rainforests that are being converted into palm oil plantations.

KUHN: The conversion destroys some of the oldest forests on Earth that are home to endangered orangutans. Heineken says RAN complained to Olympic organizers who rejected the complaint. Whatever standards the games set for a sustainability, researcher Sven Daniel Wolfe says, they're likely to be overshadowed by the bigger crisis.

WOLFE: In the final analysis, I think Tokyo will be remembered more as a pandemic games rather than any claims to sustainability.

KUHN: Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul.

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