(Bloomberg) -- In the summer of 2008, Beijing did what seemed impossible: it brought blue skies to the notoriously smoggy city for a month as part of a pledge to bring pollution under control for the Olympics. Now, as China gears up for the winter games, the stakes are arguably even higher as the global focus on climate change puts the country under new levels of scrutiny.
As the world’s top polluter, China is hoping to use the occasion to demonstrate its commitment to fighting climate change, and push back against criticisms that its rhetoric and policies amount to little more than greenwashing. To that end, the Beijing Organizing Committee has pledged to host a “low carbon” games via a slew of measures.
However, beyond just proving that it can host a green or even carbon neutral event, China is also under pressure to show that it’s able to employ technologies that can have a lasting impact beyond the games. That won’t be easy, especially as a slowing economy puts even more pressure on officials to balance the need for jobs and growth with the country’s energy transition.
“At most, it’s something where, the fact that the Chinese government wants to project leadership in green energy and so on to the world -- I think that’s important,” said Lauri Myllyvirta, an analyst at the Finland-based Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air. “To the extent the Olympics will strengthen this kind of image, that is important.”
Among the most ambitious of the measures being taken is a plan to power all Olympic Village venues with carbon-free electricity. The plan involves thousands of solar panels and wind turbines, hundreds of kilometers of high-voltage power lines and the world’s biggest battery.
Zhangjiakou, a city 200 kilometers (124 miles) away from Beijing that is also hosting some of the competitions, is home to some of the best renewable resources in China and will generate the power. It will be transmitted by direct-current power lines to Olympic venues and to the Fengning pumped hydro station in Hebei province, which will store excess energy during the day and send it back out to keep the lights on at night. Fengning will be the largest energy storage facility in the world when complete, and it turned on its first turbines at the end of last year to meet Olympic demand.
The entire system is expected to be able to transmit an annual 14 billion kilowatt hours of green electricity to the capital, or about 10% of its total consumption, local media reported. And that’s just a microcosm of the country’s renewable ambitions. China plans to have enough solar and wind capacity to generate 1,200 gigawatts of electricity -- equivalent to all of the U.S.’s power needs -- by 2030.
“It leaves behind a very good legacy that will facilitate Beijing’s low-carbon transition,” said Ma Jun, founder of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, a think tank in Beijing. “China has quite a few similar regions with rich wind and solar resources, so a key issue it needs to resolve is how it can make good use of those resources to shift away from its coal dependency while ensuring stable energy supply.”
Another Olympics-linked innovation is the use of carbon dioxide (CO2) as a cooling agent instead of freon to make ice, making it the first host city in the history of the Olympics to use this kind of technology. The ice-making process is 30% more energy efficient, state news agency Xinhua said in May last year.
Five of the nine Olympics ice rinks will use natural CO2, which is more ozone-friendly and has a much smaller effect on global warming than the refrigerant organizers initially considered, according to Xinhua. For comparison, organizers of the Pyeongchang winter games in 2018 pledged to make it the first zero-emissions event in Olympics history, but the hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) refrigerant that was used in all of its ice arenas is 3,922 times more potent in warming the climate than CO2.
“In the past years, air conditioning has grown fast in China. And the country hasn’t phased out its fluorinated gases yet so emissions have grown very fast,” said Myllyvirta. “That is a kind of technology that can make a big difference,” he added.
Still, for CO2 to work as a cooling agent in home appliances like fridges, the components in the refrigeration system must be able to resist much higher pressure than what’s needed for traditional refrigerants, making it more costly to adopt on a large scale for everyday use.
The fate of buildings such as arenas and stadiums is another much-scrutinized aspect of the Olympics.
Beijing renovated six venues that were used for the 2008 games with recyclable material to make them compatible for both the upcoming winter games, as well as other events in the future, according to the organizing committee’s legacy plan announced in June, which details how venues and other infrastructure will be managed once the games finish.
For example, the Beijing National Aquatics Center, which served as the site for aquatics events in 2008, will host curling events after a swimming pool was repurposed with a stilt structure.
The plan also maps out a blueprint for future use of the venues. The Zhangjiakou Zone, for example, where three of the four competition venues were built just for the event, will turn into a winter entertainment center and summer holiday resort after the games, which is also in line with broader policy goals of developing winter sports in the country.
At the Pyeongchang games, venues including the “disposable” Olympic stadium, which cost approximately $60 million to build, were torn down soon after the event.
Nevertheless, Beijing’s collective efforts come up against a delicate balancing act at a time when the economy is facing multiple headwinds. The goal of creating a prosperous nation has required continuous economic growth. Breaking that link between growth and emissions will require policies to reduce fossil fuels, potentially hitting regional economies that rely heavily on such fuels.
As a case in point, in 2008, after the Olympics ended, the steel plants shuttered to turn skies blue resumed production and the country’s emissions rose on an annual basis.
“China still relies heavily on fossil fuels especially coal, and this energy structure must be altered before it can truly achieve carbon neutrality,” said Ma. “The Olympics is just a one-off event.”
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