Side view of young female skier at straight downhill race, speed about 100 km/h

olympic skier going down hill

A Green Olympics: A Test Case for China and Carbon Neutrality

As the winter Olympics kick off this week in Beijing, the games hope to set a new first: being the first carbon-neutral winter Olympics. For China—the second-largest economy and a major carbon emitter—it’s a way to show the millions of people who will be watching the games that it is serious about achieving its ambitious climate goals. The country aims to peak carbon emissions by 2030 and be carbon neutral by 2060. It’s making significant progress—and while not yet perfect, the clean energy preparations made for the games have accelerated China’s progress in some areas, since the infrastructure and technology will remain long after the athletes leave.

By the end of last year, the country’s cumulative installed capacity of renewable energy exceeded 1 billion kilowatts, nearly half of total installed capacity, and a doubling of the amount of clean power since 2015. In the transportation sector, the number of battery-electric, plug-in hybrid, and fuel-cell vehicles reached 7.84 million, making China the biggest clean car market in the world. In heavy industry, carbon emissions intensity in 2019 decreased by 48 percent from 2005 levels, exceeding the 40 to 45 percent decrease target.

In the context of this progress, China wanted the Olympics—the biggest and most eye-catching international sports event—to achieve carbon neutrality, even though as a country it is still working toward that goal. The renewable electricity infrastructure constructed in Beijing, Yanqing, and Zhangjiakou—the three Olympic sites—will effectively function to reshape the local energy mix after the games, laying a solid foundation for the low-carbon transition of the three regions. The low-carbon venues and transportation will also be used to drive low-carbon sports tourism in the Zhangjiakou area.

A sustainable Olympics is actually not a new concept. Back in 2012, the London 2012 summer Olympics created the first certifiable international Sustainability Management System standard. The Tokyo 2020 summer Olympics also managed to leverage innovative technologies to reduce the carbon emissions of the event. However, the ice and snow sports of the winter Olympics is a completely different challenge, because ice and snow sports have a higher demand for energy. The Beijing 2022 Olympics are implementing a series of proactive measures with innovative technologies in electricity, buildings, transportation, and more to eliminate the games’ carbon footprint.

Here are four ways China is greening the Olympic games:

A Green Electricity Supply

The first objective was to power the games with renewable energy. Zhangjiakou, a co-host city of the Olympics, is a national-level demonstration zone for renewable energy. It currently produces more than 2,000 MW of renewable generation. An advanced flexible direct current (VSC HVDC) transmission line connecting Zhangjiakou and Beijing is now in operation, allowing the wind and solar power in Zhangjiakou to be delivered to all venues across the three competition zones. The new transmission line, which has the highest voltage level and the largest transmission capacity among all VSC HVDC projects around the world, adopts several of the world’s leading technologies.

The green power market, launched in September 2021 nationwide, will further guarantee all Olympic venues’ energy demand is fulfilled by renewables via green power transactions. These measures enable these Olympics to be the first in history to achieve 100 percent of its games-time electricity demand with renewable energy.

Energy Efficient Venues

China is maximizing the use of existing venues and making full use of the venues from the Beijing 2008 Games, leveraging the latest renovation technologies. The 2008 Olympic venues have been used over the years for daily sports and concerts, and will now be used again for the winter Olympics, many of them with green retrofits. All of the newly built venues have been certified as 3-star green buildings. China also developed a new Evaluation Standard for Green Snow Sports Venues, which fills the gap of relevant standards domestically and internationally.

Clean Cooling Technology

Producing ice for the games consumes a lot of energy. But for the first time in the history of the winter Olympics, a carbon dioxide trans-critical direct refrigeration technology—currently the cleanest cooling technology to produce ice—is being used in four ice-sport venues. It not only lessens the damage to the ozone layer caused by traditional refrigerants, but also uses much less energy than current refrigeration systems. Applying this technology can save 30 percent more energy than traditional refrigeration approaches.

Sustainable Transportation

Getting around the Olympics is also an environmental concern. The transportation for these games will rely mostly on clean-energy-powered vehicles, including a total of 816 hydrogen-fueled vehicles and 370 electric vehicles. The country has installed the infrastructure to support these vehicles, including hydrogen fueling stations, EV charging stations, and more. China also carried out research and development projects for key technologies in the entire supply chain of hydrogen to support the Olympics, which also further helped to promote the development of domestic hydrogen technologies.

The steps being taken to make this the first carbon-neutral winter Olympics will help the three regions where the games are being held on their path to sustainability. Although there might be some controversial aspects regarding the Olympic preparations, the renewable energy and clean transportation infrastructure being built will last long beyond the Olympics, and help move China toward its ambitious climate goals.