With climate change affecting the Arctic Winter Games, how can the event itself be greener?

With climate change threatening the scheduling of future Arctic Winter Games, it can’t be ignored that the event itself is a contributor to the issue. 

The games may start being held in February instead of March to avoid disruptions from unseasonably warm weather. But with a dozen charter flights needed to operate, the games do have an impact on climate change. 

With the committee announcing an upcoming review of the sustainability of the games, CBC News spoke with experts about how the AWG can increase its environmental sustainability.

The 2024 Arctic Winter Games in Mat-Su, Alaska, which hosted nearly 2,000 athletes, required 12 charter flights. 

“These chartered planes were filled to capacity with athletes, personnel, and equipment in an effort to minimize emissions,” Elizabeth Priest, a spokesperson for the games, said in an email. 

CBC News put those numbers into several online carbon calculators to determine the total emissions. The amounts varied per online resource and the exact amounts are difficult to calculate as it needs to take into account the types of planes, how old they are and how full they were. 

But when calculated by emissions per passenger, the result was enough energy to power over 250 homes for over a year.  

One suggestion from experts is to use the games as a way to fund environmental projects in the North. 

Grayson Badgley is a research scientist with CarbonPlan, an organization that designs and implements climate programs across the public and private sectors.

He said one idea that organizers of the AWG could explore is creating a pool of money for each event that sponsors and governments pay into.

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This money could then go toward a project in the host community, like insulating homes or transitioning them to heat pumps.  

Carbon offsets

With the games reliant on flying, many experts suggest carbon offsets, which essentially involves paying money toward projects that can reduce carbon in the atmosphere to make up for emitting.

When someone takes a flight, they can calculate how much carbon was emitted from that flight and then pay enough money to a project that, in theory, cancels out the carbon they emitted.

Often these projects involve planting trees or protecting trees from deforestation. 

John Rodda, president of the Arctic Winter Games International Committee, says air travel is the only possibility for the games and there haven’t been discussions yet on reducing the carbon footprint of the event. (Cheryl Kawaja/CBC)

John Rodda, the AWG International Committee president, said the games don’t use them and the organization would need to discuss the subject with stakeholders before exploring the idea. 

Pierre-Olivier Pineau is a professor and researcher in energy policy at HEC Montreal and a chair in Energy Sector Management

He said for situations like this, where flights are the only option, carbon offsets are really the main way to immediately reduce the games’ carbon footprint.

He said organizers would want to look for the “gold standard” in carbon offsets, as there are examples of companies that do not offer effective solutions.

A man with black hair, a grey beard and glasses standing on a snowy, city street.
Pierre-Olivier Pineau says carbon offsets are a good option for the games to reduce its carbon footprint. (Antoni Nerestant/CBC)

A carbon neutral future

Pineau said there is another way organizers could reduce the AWG’s footprint in the long-term. 

He said work is being done to create commercially available sustainable aviation fuels. These can be plant-based biofuels or synthetic fuels. 

Pineau said sustainable aviation fuel largely isn’t commercially available because of the high cost, but consumers can change that. 

“If customers mention their willingness to pay for these fuels, then airlines will be pushed by customers to develop these products,” he said. 

“So that would be another strategy to maybe not have a carbon neutral games now, but aim at for the future by saying that they will purchase as soon as they are available.” 

Waste reduction

A woman stands beside a pile of stuff.
Dawn Tremblay, executive director of Ecology North, stands in front of a pile of compost at the Yellowknife solid waste facility. (Randi Beers/CBC)

Dawn Tremblay is the executive director of Ecology North in Yellowknife. 

She said if the games are looking to reduce emissions, one place to start could be in the waste it produces. 

“Sometimes waste is out of sight, out of mind, and that big events like this can generate a lot of waste,” she said. 

Tremblay, who said she is a big supporter of the AWG and multi-sport games as a whole, said when she went to the Canada Summer Games, everything in the cafeteria was compostable. 

“I remember that really stood out compared to other games,” she said. 

Rodda said limiting waste has been a focus of recent games and hosts have used reusable products, like utensils, for the cafeteria.

“Everybody is now more aware, and everybody does recycling,” he said. “People have become more keen on that environmental aspect.”

Martín Melendro Torres, the executive director of the Yukon Conservation Society, agreed that focusing on zero waste initiatives would be a good policy. 

He also said the games could explore having a permanent location to reduce emissions on construction and preparation.

Reducing the frequency of the games

A large crowd gathered in front of a podium
During the opening ceremonies at the 2024 Arctic Winter Games, athletes and coaches mingled on the floor of the stadium as officials gave speeches. (David Gunn/CBC)

One thing that is being considered in the AWG sustainability review is holding the games every three years instead of every two. 

This doesn’t necessarily have to do with the environmental impact, but Pineau said fewer games would mean fewer flights, which would inevitably mean less emissions. 

But, he said this would also have consequences on the participants. 

“We should also consider the social and cultural value of these game and if you make it every three years, and people can’t develop the same kind of connection,” he said. 

“There would probably be a social loss. And maybe these losses are fine because we need to act for the environment. It’s really hard to really understand what kind of trade-offs are the right ones.”

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