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In Paris, the Olympic Games clean up

by SuperiorInvest

How can a global sporting event occur, with millions of people invading a city, in the era of global warming?

That is the test for the Paris Olympics this summer.

Organizers say they are putting the games on a climate diet. These Olympics, they say, will generate no more than half the greenhouse gas emissions of recent Olympics. That means tightening the belt on everything that produces planet-warming emissions: electricity, food, buildings and transportation, including the jet fuel that athletes and fans burn traveling the world to get there.

An event that attracts 10,500 athletes and approximately 15 million spectators will, by definition, have an environmental cost. And that has led those who love the games but hate pollution to suggest that the Olympics should be spread around the world, in existing facilities, to eliminate the need for so much new construction and air travel. That is why Paris is followed so closely.

It's making more room for bikes and less for cars. It is eliminating the huge diesel-powered generators, a common feature at large sporting events. He's planning guest menus that are less polluting to grow and cook than typical French fare: more plants, less filet au poivre. The solar panels will float, temporarily, over the Seine.

But the most significant act of the organizers may be what they are not doing: they are not building. At least, not so much.

Instead of building new showpieces for the games (which generates many greenhouse gas emissions due to concrete and steel manufacturing), the Paris Olympics are repurposing many of the city's existing attractions, including the Grand Palais, the square known as Concorde and even a swimming pool built for the 1924 Paris Olympic Games.

It is not without controversy.

One notable effort to reduce emissions, the decision to do away with conventional air conditioning in the athletes' village, has raised concerns. Instead, the buildings will rely on a cooling system that uses water drawn from underground. Several Olympic teams are considering bringing in their own air conditioners.

Still, the hope is that experiments like these will offer a model for other Olympic Games in the future and for other cities around the world. The few new buildings being built, including athletes' housing as well as a swimming complex and a stadium, use less cement and more wood. They have solar panels and vegetation on their roofs.

The new buildings must also have a life long beyond the Olympic Games. They are designed to be used by local residents for decades to come and, leaders of the Paris 2024 organizing committee say, revitalize the city's suburbs. “We set ambitions that had never been set before for any event, let alone of this scale,” said Georgina Grenon, who is in charge of the games' environmental efforts.

Critics respond that while much of what Paris is doing is commendable, particularly the limits on new construction, truly addressing the climate crisis requires more than cutting emissions here and there. “We need to fundamentally rethink these huge mega-events,” said César Dugast, co-founder of a climate analysis group called Eclaircies. “Instead of concentrating all the events in a single city, you could think about distributing them throughout the world.”

There is a more immediate risk facing the Olympics: climate change itself. Rising global temperatures are making summers in Paris dangerously hot. That has raised concerns about how to protect athletes and fans in late July and August.

City officials say they have planted thousands of trees in recent years to mitigate the summer heat. They are erecting misting towers to spray the air. The search continues for large umbrellas under which fans can wait. “We have solutions. We are preparing,” said Dan Lert, deputy mayor in charge of preparing the city for the heat. “It's a great test.”

One important thing that distinguishes the Paris games from previous Olympics is that they have imposed a limit on the total emissions they will produce. The goal: to generate no more than half the greenhouse gas emissions of the 2012 Olympic Games, which were held in London.

London was chosen as a reference point because organizers there were also seeking to reduce emissions and measured them. Estimates like these are based on standard measurements of, for example, how much carbon dioxide is produced by the amount of cement used in new buildings.

Paris organizers say they will offset those emissions by purchasing “carbon credits” to help finance emissions reduction projects around the world. Games organizers have not said which projects the games will fund or at what price. In any case, the carbon credit market can be murky and some projects do not live up to their promises.

What Paris is doing shows what can be done to remake an ancient city for a new global climate. It also shows what the limits are.

The Place de la Concorde, an 18th-century square where guillotines were erected during the French Revolution, will host Olympic events such as skateboarding this summer.

The plaza also now houses a simple metal box designed to fuel an electrical revolution. It contains a high-power power outlet connected to the national grid, allowing every major event in the square to be freed from the shackles of diesel.

Diesel generators are the dirty secret of sporting events. They are typically transported by trucks to provide a stable source of energy.

The Paris games have also reached a special agreement with the electric company that stipulates that there will be enough wind and solar energy on the grid to produce all the energy consumed by the games.

When it comes to emissions, transportation is another headache. Paris has already been limiting space for cars and creating space for bikes, and is using gaming to accelerate that change.

But the Olympics, with their huge crowds, threaten to cause problems for the way Parisians get around the city, with many making plans to escape on vacation.

Pierre Rabadan, a former professional rugby player and now Paris's deputy mayor for sports, raised his shoulders against the wind and hurried out of the tram stop in front of the city's new basketball stadium, at the top of Rue de la Chapelle. He pointed out a nearly completed bike lane along the highway, carved out of what had been a wide boulevard dedicated to automobiles.

Since Anne Hidalgo's election as mayor in 2014, Paris has added some 600 kilometers of bike lanes. About 10 percent have been nicknamed Olympistes, a play on “pista,” the French word for track.

“The problem is that we built the city around cars,” Rabadan said.

Another problem is that the city's subway system is about to burst. Trains are already packed and workers are racing to complete new extensions of two lines in time to service the games.

To make room for Olympic visitors, the city has urged people to stay off trains or work from home.

The key to the organizers' climate strategy is to build as little as possible, which is why they are taking advantage of a leftover from the 1924 Paris Olympics: the Georges Vallerey swimming pool.

It will receive a new air filtration system, as well as a new roof that lets light in but keeps out heat and cold. The old wooden ceiling beams have been reused as countertops. The wooden bleachers, installed at least 40 years ago, remain. The sturdy stucco walls reveal the age of the pool.

“We don't need to throw everything in the trash or destroy everything and throw it in the trash,” Rabadan said.

The pool has history. It's where Johnny Weissmuller, an American swimmer, won a gold medal in 1924. He then played Tarzan in a series of Hollywood films, as Rabadan points out.

About 95 percent of the venues to be used for the 2024 games are old buildings or temporary structures. For example, several temporary pools will be built for the games, which will then be dismantled and reinstalled in communities that have a shortage of public pools.

The Olympics, Grenon said, offer “a laboratory,” particularly when it comes to buildings designed from the ground up.

A new aquatic center, on the edge of a highway in the northern suburb of Saint-Denis, is a masterpiece of Douglas fir and pine trees. Its 5,000-square-meter roof curves like a wave: the architects designed it that way to reduce the size of the building, reducing the energy needed to heat the space.

The pool is 5 meters deep only where it is necessary to have greater depth for diving, and shallower where there is not. This also saves water and energy needed to heat the water. Some of that heat will come from a nearby data center. The venue's 5,000 seats are made from recycled plastic.

The goal, said Cécilia Gross, one of the architects, was “to do better with less.”

Nearby rises the largest new Olympic project: the 128-acre Athletes' Village complex that will later be transformed into a mixed neighborhood for 6,000 residents. Its builders say its emissions are at least 30 percent lower than those of a conventional project of its size.

Wood also plays a leading role here. The town is a group of mostly wooden-framed buildings.

While wood has its own environmental costs depending on how it is grown, it is considered much more sustainable than concrete.

In the village, a small sidewalk is paved with oyster shells that can be watered from an underground reservoir and cool the sidewalk on hot days. An experimental building consists of recycling all its water. To cool the land, 9,000 trees have been planted, including local varieties such as oaks and elms that can survive in a warmer future.

Then there's the unconventional air conditioning.

A network of pipes, using water first cooled underground, will cool the inside of buildings using a technology known as a geographic exchange system. In New York City, St. Patrick's Cathedral uses something similar, but using air instead of water. A handful of American universities are also embracing geoexchange.

Along with shade from trees, insulation and river breezes, builders say interior temperatures can stay cool enough for the Parisian summers of the future. However, games organizers say, Olympic teams can still bring their own air conditioners.

The United States, Canada and Norway said they would do so. Australia and Ireland have also done so, according to media reports. Mayor Hidalgo, in an interview with Reuters, urged teams to “trust the science.”

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