Image: The Department for Culture, Media and Sport

The Olympic Games in Brisbane have flagged some impressive plans – for instance many vehicle-free venues, more mass transit capacity, less land for new stadia, and a spread of the event across South-East Queensland. But will the reality live up to the promise of the world’s first climate-positive games?

After hosting the Modern Summer Olympics twice – Melbourne in 1956, and Sydney in 2000 – Australia has been awarded the rights to host the 2032 Summer Olympic Games in Brisbane on 21 July 2021.

Brisbane was long considered the frontrunner in the bidding process without much competition. The award is seen as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Brisbane to leverage the games to further sustainable urban development, including regenerative design, climate positive and circular economy principles.

Further, the games are touted as an opportunity to consider long-term planning for sustainability, with a significant driver of change and a 10-year horizon.

Additional pressures from stakeholders, as well as societal shifts regarding environmental and social governance (ESG), have led the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to increasingly require host cities to incorporate sustainability into all aspects of the games.

The IOC has recognised the negative aspects of hosting the games, and has shifted to necessitate that host cities take a much more sustainable approach than in the past. This includes requiring Paris 2024 and LA 2028 to be climate-neutral and Brisbane 2032 to be climate-positive.

It also incorporates sustainable design principles, an emphasis on new construction being aligned with the host cities’ needs as a legacy beyond the games, and encouraging the use of existing and temporary structures where appropriate.

Even in the lead-up to the bid, the Queensland Government’s Value Proposition Assessment suggested the following aspirations in:

Harnessing the Olympic Games sustainability platform could drive Queensland’s sustainability agenda. Stimulating new standards and innovation, the games could provide a focal point for strategies that bring together expertise, industry and the community to address climate change and waste. These initiatives would provide a benchmark for Queensland and Australia, supporting long-term objectives

The bid’s May 2021 final submission further underlined Brisbane’s commitment, “to partner with the IOC to develop climate positive games and to engage with past and future hosts to continue and benefit from their developments”.

In June 2021, the Queensland government released a KPMG report with a preliminary analysis of the economic, social and environmental impacts of hosting the games. The report suggests that Brisbane 2032 intends to minimise and mitigate environmental impacts through:

  • repurposing and upgrading existing infrastructure, including using recycled materials and lower carbon options where feasible
  • guiding behavioural change towards public favouring climate friendly policies and practises
  • reducing waste and pollution, including promoting reuse and recycling
  • planning transport to utilise lower-carbon options and minimise congestion.

However, the report also contains assessments using conventional neoliberal growth indicators suggesting that the 2032 Games will deliver $A8.1 billion in benefits to Queensland including an $A4.6 billion economic boost to tourism and trade.

Will it be possible to reconcile conventional economic and sustainability assessment frameworks with the goal of hosting the world’s first climate-positive Olympics? Corroborating Birkeland’s positive development paradigm, Dr Cle-Anne Gabriel argues that:

It was about more than just ‘doing no harm.’ It’s about contributing to creating something good, regenerating our environment.

Climate Council’s Professor. Will Steffen comments that Brisbane:

has the chance – given that high profile – to set the example for how major complex activities like bringing together the world around sport, how those can be held in a way that’s at least carbon neutral and, in Brisbane’s case, climate positive. I think it’s sending a really strong message to the world that we can achieve what we need to achieve in terms of getting climate change under control.

While the Brisbane 2032 Consortium claims that 84 per cent of the venues needed for the games already exist, this figure is lower than for the Paris Olympics 2024 (95 per cent) and the LA Olympics 2028 (100 per cent).

Furthermore, for the remaining venues it claims that “all new vertical infrastructure projects or significant upgrades will target 6 star (world leadership) Green Star for Buildings ratings from the Green Building Council of Australia, where relevant”.

However, the non-committal wording could lead to this target being pushed aside. Moreover, there are unresolved issues with regards to performance assessment frameworks for the built environment, which have been criticised for being too focused just on energy or just on optimising efficiencies rather than net reductions.

The reliance on carbon offsets is also problematic.

There is a risk that non-committal language and the drive to deliver economic development and growth may cause the games to not meet their full potential in these areas.

So, will Brisbane’s 2032 Olympics bring about the required radical shift towards circular economies and regenerative cities?

There is a risk that non-committal language and the drive to deliver economic development and growth may cause the games to not meet their full potential in these areas.

While this could become a missed opportunity, it is not too late considering the 10 year horizon.

The Brisbane 2032 Olympics have been subject to aspirational agenda setting by their key institutional players, pushing the boundaries of sustainable development and achieving real outcomes for Brisbane.

For instance, these games will incorporate many vehicle-free venues, increase the host city’s mass transit capacity, minimise land-take for new stadia, and spread the event across South-East Queensland minimising the intensity of the resource hogging that traditionally occurs with this scale of event.

The games do not exist in a vacuum and are responding to the imminent climate change threat, as well as the dwindling traditional economic viability potential their scale once provided

The games do not exist in a vacuum and are responding to the imminent climate change threat, as well as the dwindling traditional economic viability potential their scale once provided.

The efforts of the IOC to create climate-neutral and then climate-positive games do not guarantee a fundamental shift towards a new economy.

For instance, mega events such as the Olympics present an irresistible bait for private businesses that may or may not subscribe to the same carbon-positive philosophy to capitalise on the opportunity with carbon-intensive transport offerings – such as flying taxis.

More public transport and policy leadership are good outcomes that can contribute to the legacy capability of the host city to move its own population sustainably post its hosting duties. But the lens that gives this outcome its positive label is an economic one, which sees the need for the host city’s population growth and increased economic activity as gospel.

Put another way, why is moving more people good? Because the city has to grow – and that mantra is not being questioned.

Solid foundations have been laid for Brisbane to reconnect to its identity, meet climate positive targets, create climate responsive venues and transport that promotes health and wellbeing in order to celebrate subtropical living.

However, we argue there is an opportunity to switch gears and use the games to take Brisbane one step further. Guided by a more-than-human design approach to regenerative cities that fosters stronger connections to place and nature, Brisbane could champion net positive development without just relying on carbon offsets. Such an approach also starts to dissolve the urban–rural dichotomy and reconcile the built environment with the natural environment using a post-anthropocentric viewpoint.

As anxiety in the face of the planetary ecocide is rampant and time is running out, regenerative design can be a crucial ally to grow a new economy using a more genuine approach to sustainability.

Marcus Foth

Marcus Foth is Professor of Urban Informatics in the QUT Design Lab and a Chief Investigator in the QUT Digital Media Research Centre (DMRC), Faculty of Creative Industries, Education, and Social Justice, Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, Australia. Marcus is a Fellow of the Australian Computer Society (ACS), a Distinguished Member of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), and a member of the Australian Research Council’s College of Experts. More by Marcus Foth

Greg Hearn

Greg Hearn is Research Professor in the School of Design at QUT. His research examines social, business and future workforce issues in the adoption of innovation. He is a lead researcher in the Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing Hub and a Chief Investigator in the ARC Training Centre for Collaborative Robotics in Advanced Manufacturing. More by Greg Hearn

Nicholas Kamols

Nick is a passionate and highly motivated town planner currently completing his PhD studies in the QUT Design Lab, Faculty of Creative Industries, Education, and Social Justice, at QUT. Awarded the title of Queensland Young Planner of the Year for 2021, Nick uses his unique perspective to devise creative solutions to systemic planning problems. More by Nicholas Kamols

Troy Turner

Troy is a communications scholar and practitioner with more than ten years of professional experience in industry and government. He graduated with a Bachelor of Communication from the University of Queensland (UQ) in 2011, and is currently completing a Masters in Governance and Public Policy in the Graduate Centre in Governance and International Affairs within UQ’s School of Political Science and International Studies. His research foci include transport, urban planning, and community engagement. More by Troy Turner

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