How the 2024 Paris Olympics Fast-Tracked Decarbonization

Paris pledged to radically reduce its greenhouse gas emissions compared with recent Olympic Games. Here’s what the team learned on the fly.

Reading Time: 12 min 


  • Carolyn Geason-Beissel/MIT SMR | Getty Images

    For the growing number of organizations committing to decarbonization, meeting their goals can take a frustrating amount of time. The decarbonization journey is a nontraditional marathon — with a lot of ambiguity regarding the nature of the track — and many organizations struggle to identify where to start and how to scale their decarbonization efforts. We believe that these “marathon runners” can learn a lot by observing sprinters running on the same track. In particular, the fast-paced decarbonization effort by the 2024 Paris Olympic Games and Paralympics staff can be illuminating.

    In 2017, in a tight race with Los Angeles, Paris won the bid to host the 2024 Summer Olympics and Paralympics. One of the key reasons that the International Olympic Committee eventually selected the city was the Paris 2024 committee’s stated commitment to reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by half compared with the average amounts emitted in the preparations for and operations of the London (2012) and Rio (2016) Summer Games.

    The Paris sustainability team had about seven years to achieve the goal. To meet this ambitious commitment, they had to deploy a learn-as-you-go decarbonization process. Their experience offers four key lessons for other organizations starting or progressing on their own decarbonization journeys.

    1. Do the prep work necessary to set well-defined goals.

    First, Georgina Grenon, director of sustainability for the Paris Games, and her team drew up a baseline “budget” for carbon emissions for the multitude of activities necessary to prepare for, operate, and close the Olympics.

    As shown in “2024 Paris Olympic Games: Three Main Sources of Carbon Impact,” the team began by separating the activities into three main categories: transportation (getting people to the Games and moving them between events), construction (building accommodations and event facilities), and Games operations (feeding, protecting, and serving the participants and spectators). For each identified activity, they estimated baseline levels of carbon emissions associated with the materials and energy used. These figures shaped an overall estimate of where the carbon emissions would be largely produced. The team determined the baselines using a careful analysis of previous Games and other big sporting events. Their budgeted reductions reflected the highest feasible estimates.

    2024 Paris Olympic Games: Three Main Sources of Carbon Impact

    What do the Olympics look like in terms of carbon emissions? The Paris Olympics sustainability team found that across a carbon budget in the range of 1.5 million tons of CO2, the carbon impact breaks down to approximately 34% transportation, 33% Games operations, and 33% construction. The chart below includes additional details for each category.

    Source: 2024 Paris Olympics sustainability team

    Surprisingly, the three categories of activities each accounted for about a third of the baseline budget. This meant that savings could not be carved entirely out of operations. The team had to look for considerable emissions savings in transportation and construction as well.

    To identify where some of these savings could be made, the team analyzed the emissions that would be generated by the items that would be purchased. The range and scale were colossal. The Games would have to provide more than 85,000 screens, computers, telephones, and other technical equipment; procure more than 1 million pieces of sports equipment, from Ping-Pong balls to trampolines; facilitate the sale of more than 13 million tickets; offer accommodation for 15,000 athletes, as well as accredited guests; and provide more than 13 million meals and 18 million beverage servings. Where all these items would be sourced would have a direct impact on emissions, and most of the important sourcing decisions had to be made years before the actual event.

    The material footprint for these purchase-related emissions was very challenging to calculate: The work took Caroline Louis, the circular economy expert on the team, more than a year. But she found the experience quite rewarding, as it shed light on what one needs in order to operationalize an ambitious decarbonization process.

    Here’s how the material footprint broke down:

    • Materials used for the construction of facilities: 72%
    • Materials needed to furnish facilities: 12%
    • Materials purchased to feed and care for spectators: 9%
    • Materials for celebrations: 6%
    • Sporting equipment for athletes and similar equipment for media and other support functions: 1%

    This analysis revealed where the material path to decarbonization would begin.

    2. Break a few walls.

    The team quickly realized that to reduce purchase-related emissions, they would have to focus heavily on materials for temporary infrastructures, which collectively accounted for 84% of the estimated material footprint.

    But this meant revisiting the design and delivery of the infrastructures so they would require lower quantities of purchased materials. Also, the infrastructures could ideally be repurposed after the event, or based on materials that could be easily repurposed or recycled.

    The team developed guidelines on the design requirements for facilities and furnishings accordingly. The strict carbon budgets imposed on the sourcing processes helped immensely in creating momentum and alignment in the organization. All procurement tenders (the documents suppliers used to bid on supplying a product to the Games) were assessed with consideration for the materials’ second life. The guidelines also stipulated that all materials from temporary infrastructures had to be recycled or reused in France.

    The team also decided that service tenders — bids where the supplier would retain ownership of the materials — would be prioritized: Ninety percent of Paris Olympics facilities are owned by suppliers or sponsors, who are responsible for delivering the materials and managing their second life after the event. This has spurred some creative solutions. For instance, Lyreco, the company in charge of supplying furniture, will create a secondhand market, where it will sell items used during the Games.

    After building and furnishing facilities, the largest remaining source of materials required (9%) relates to caring for participants and spectators. Food and beverages account for a large proportion here. As previously noted, the team estimated that more than 13 million meals and 18 million beverages would need to be provided.

    To meet the 50% carbon reduction target, the team planned to cut emissions related to purchasing, preparing, and delivering food to about 1 kilogram of CO2 equivalents per meal served. This required several radical choices.

    • Local sourcing: All food procured will have a certificate of origin. Eighty percent of it will originate from France, and 25% from within a 250-kilometer (km) radius of the competition sites. In addition, all fruits, vegetables, cereals, meat, eggs, and dairy products will be sourced from France, without air transport.
    • Material substitution: Replacing meat with plant-based proteins is by far the largest source of emissions reduction related to food. Sixty percent of snacks for spectators will be made from vegetable content, to eliminate some of the emissions related to consuming meat and dairy products. The 8 million meals for staff members, volunteers, members of the media, and hospitality personnel will include at least 50% vegetarian content or replace a minimum of 50% of animal proteins with plant-based alternatives.
    • Distribution model change: In collaboration with Coca-Cola, the Games will use soda and water fountains and glass bottles to massively reduce single-use plastics by 50% compared with the London Games. Additionally, staff members will ensure the recycling or reuse of any plastic bottle, and reusable cups will be offered for beverage consumption.
    • Active waste management: Food waste will be managed by donating and repurposing unsold food and converting food waste into animal feed, compost, or energy.

    3. Find creative partners, and prioritize ecosystem thinking.

    The sourcing agreements with Lyreco and Coca-Cola exemplify the importance of partnerships and ecosystem thinking in reducing carbon and material footprints. The same proved true for energy sourcing.

    Energy use represents another emissions focus area related to operating the Games. Working to reduce energy use was quite illuminating, as it required a substantial rethinking of the status quo in forming partnerships and supplying energy to events, with implications beyond the Games.

    Given the importance of energy reliability and security for the Games, organizers have traditionally depended heavily on diesel generators for the principal events. The London Games, for example, had used 4 million liters of diesel. Since the Olympic Games are typically watched by more than 3 billion people, avoiding blackouts is an absolute must for broadcasters. In fact, energy reliability is a perennial headache for all widely broadcast large events, including rock concerts, given the large sums that broadcasters pay organizers.

    Clearly, a reliance on emissions-intense diesel generators was not aligned with the emissions reductions ambitions that Paris had set. To reduce this reliance without compromising on energy security, the sustainability and energy teams developed a novel three-layer energy sourcing model. This model received substantial support from energy partners (and official Games sponsors) EDF and Enedis.

    To begin with, all events — in permanent or temporary venues — will have access to the French electric grid, the first energy layer. In theory, it has ample capacity to meet the Games’ demands. This electricity is 95% emissions-free because it is largely generated through nuclear power and renewables. To guarantee the necessary energy security, however, the main venues will also have secondary (backup) access to the grid. Biodiesel or hydrogen generators make up the third layer to the extent possible, serving as a secondary backstop; they will be activated only if both grid connections fail.

    This three-layer structure, developed with the support of French grid operator Enedis, is expected to deliver close to 100% reliability. The probability of all three layers failing at the same time is close to zero, making this solution less likely to fail than diesel generators. Also, this minimum carbon emissions solution remains in the overall cost range of the diesel generators.

    This approach, despite the redundancy it entails, is a first in the history of the Games — and holds the promise of becoming the new standard in the event industry.

    The Paris sustainability team has also ensured that all venues will be supplied with 100% renewables-generated electricity: A contract signed with EDF traces the source of electricity all the way back to six onshore wind farms and two solar farms. In addition, a rooftop solar installation in the athletes village and the Aquatic Center has been installed, and some temporary and innovative generation units will also be installed, including a floating solar farm on the Seine in the athletes village, and a photovoltaic-coated roof for the athletes transport mall.

    This process has created interesting spillovers for the energy ecosystem in France. In particular, the Paris Games have accelerated planned improvements to the reliability of the French grid. The national energy companies installed kilometers of high-voltage grid underground to support secondary grid access. They also created many new connection points at key sites, such as Champ de Mars and Invalides, that will remain in place, allowing any future events at these locations to connect to the grid and reduce reliance on diesel generators. The delivery model has also secured state funding to be rolled out to 300 cities in France, decarbonizing future events in these places.

    The lesson: Breaking a few walls via partnerships can also lead to unexpected ecosystem benefits that one may not see a priori.

    4. Turn lemons into lemonade, and think local.

    Organizations have to live with certain inherent characteristics of the business that are hard to change. While transportation represents about one-third of the carbon footprint for the Games, the sustainability team faced a challenge: They had little or no control over major transportation components such as spectator air travel.

    Yet the team still could reduce emissions if it could lessen the need for road transportation to access events. So they took a number of measures, including the following:

    • Locating as many events as possible within a 10 km radius of the Olympic Village: Eighty-five percent of athletes will be accommodated within 30 minutes of event venues.
    • Factoring in bicycle accessibility: Spectators in Île-de-France will be able to reach events by bicycle, as the Games’ locations are served by a 418 km network of cycle lanes that includes 88 km of new protected routes.
    • Engaging a public transport partner: Île-de-France Mobilités, the mass transportation authority for the Paris region, has guaranteed that all spectators can access competition venues around Paris via public transport. This network makes extensive use of electric and gas- and hydrogen-powered vehicles.
    • Downsizing the delegation car fleet: The team reduced the fleet size by 37% compared with previous Games, using electric, hybrid, or hydrogen-powered vehicles and installing reusable electric charging stations.
    • Leveraging the national rail network: SNCF, France’s state-owned railway (and a Games sponsor), connects 85% of French cities with more than 100,000 inhabitants to Paris. It can transport travelers to the city in less than four hours and connects Paris to many other major capitals. On this front, the Paris Games team worked closely with athletes and delegations. As of March 2024, four European countries had already committed to come by train — a heavily publicized move intended to encourage citizens to travel to Paris by train as well.

    Overall, while it is not possible to ask people not to fly, what the Paris Games teach us is that much can be done locally. While the overall carbon impact on the Games may be relatively small, these measures have an important signaling function and may lead to lasting behavioral changes.

    All in all, we believe that the time-compressed decarbonization journey of the 2024 Paris Olympics provides a good example for organizers of future Games and for other organizations. The must-haves for success include a top-level commitment, strong execution levers (including strict carbon budgets) and analysis tools (including those for material footprints), fearless and motivated leadership ready to break a few walls (including rethinking sourcing and performance), and aligned partners.

    This effort also is also creating a legacy. We anticipate that the army of professionals the Games will educate and empower will start transferring their own hands-on experience to many other organizations soon after the Games.

    The sustainability-specific contracts that the Paris Games issued for construction and sourcing, and the secondhand marketplaces it has created, can also have a long-lasting and broad impact. So can the energy sourcing model for event broadcasting, and the sustainable food sourcing model. What has been built is a lasting sustainability ecosystem, not just for future Games and other events but also for business and society.


    More Like This

    You must to post a comment.

    First time here? : Comment on articles and get access to many more articles.