Beijing 2022: Winter Olympics Without Snow

The 2022 Winter Olympics get underway on Friday 4th February in Beijing but they don’t have snow. They always knew they wouldn’t have snow but they still got the gig. Solution? 100% artificial snow.

I do not ski. Cannot ski. I love the theme music to Ski Sunday and have enjoyed watching some Winter Olympics in the past. However, this year I will struggle to enjoy the scenery and the fanfare due to the flagrant disregard for common sense.

The alpine ski events are being held in the middle of a nature reserve in Yanqing – an area larger than a thousand football pitches. To accommodate this, over the last few years, 20,000 trees, along with over 200 acres of its topsoil, have been moved to the mountains north of the city. More than 90% of the trees have survived, so that’s OK, isn’t it? What about the increased risk of erosion and landslides, water pollution and damage to habitats? Warnings were issued in 2015 when Beijing won the golden ticket but the removal / relocation of around 25% of the surface of the nature reserve went ahead nonetheless. This was despite its high biodiversity and protected species such as the golden eagle. But they “did their best to protect ecosystems in the competition zones”. Ah, so that’s also OK, isn’t it?

They promised high-quality snow, which is great for a Winter Olympics. Except they don’t have any – just a few days of snow each year in that region. They will need 1.2 million cubic meters of snow for the Games so will use 100% artificial snow for the first time. Producing this is energy and resource-intensive. Estimates are a total of 223 million litres of water from this arid, water scarce area, and around 4kWh (can be as high as 14kWh) of energy for each cubic meter of snow. But Beijing will be using 130 fan-driven snow generators and 300 snow-making guns which use 20% less energy than ones used in previous games. So that’s OK then, isn’t it? They will add chemicals to enhance the quality and to encourage a slow melt. Any vegetation still left beneath will struggle if the artificial snow takes a season to melt away, leaving whatever chemicals behind.

Beijing want to host the first carbon-neutral Winter Olympics. They have spent the last six years ensuring they deliver games powered by 100% renewable energy. They have constructed new wind and solar energy projects to deliver clean energy for the games and beyond despite over half of China’s energy still being produced from coal. There are restrictions around Beijing on local industries and vehicles to maintain their low emissions target, helped enormously by no foreign spectators being allowed due to Covid. Handy.

Any emissions will be offset by planting 198,000 acres of trees around Beijing which will need to grow for 10-20 years to remove significant amount of carbon from the atmosphere and may disrupt native ecosystems. Perhaps.

Beijing pipped Kazakhstan to the post back in 2015 with 44 votes to 40. Kazakhstan which has snowy winters, which hosted the 2011 Asian Winter Games and which has plenty of money due, rightly or wrongly, to their oil reserves. Beijing won as it had hosted the Olympics in 2008 plus it had “focus on sustainability, legacy and transparency”. Really? Even back in 2015 the Kazak slogan was “Keeping it Real” in a nod towards Beijing’s reliance on artificial snow to enable them to host the Games.

Rewind three Winter Games in 2010 where Vancouver saw their warmest January on record. They had to ferry enough snow from a nearby mountain to fill Big Ben 20 times, requiring more than 300 helicopter trips and 350 truckloads of snow. It was natural snow though, despite originally falling some miles away from the ski slopes.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

The natural snow-free 2022 Games are not quite an isolated incident though. The 2014 Winter Olympics was held in Sochi, one of Russia’s warmest regions, and over 1,000 worth of football pitches (football pitches are a common yardstick it seems) were covered in artificial snow accounting for 80% of what was needed for the Games. The last Winter Olympics held in South Korea ran on close to 90% artificial snow. Clearly this energy-intensive biodiversity-damaging trend of artificial snow is now a staple of Winter Olympics.

Loughborough University warned “Of the 20 venues used for the Winter Games since Chamonix in 1924, scientists think that by 2050 only 10 will have the … natural snowfall levels to host an event.”

Einar Landvik, Nordic skier from Norway, competes in the first-ever Winter Olympics in Chamonix, France, 1924
The First Winter Olympics: Chamonix, France 1924

A separate story which resonates with the above, relates to why energy prices are rising so high and so fast. Reasons cited : a cold winter in Europe 2020/21; a relatively windless summer; and an increase in demand from Asia, especially China.

But that’s OK, isn’t it?

*Cribbed extensively from articles from BBC News and bits and pieces from elsewhere. Therefore I cannot guarantee the above to be entirely accurate. Feel free to put me straight if I’ve got anything wrong.

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