Going for the Green: Rio Olympics Show Link between Environment, Economy, Health

OlympicHandOlympic Games are historically about gold, silver, and bronze – not green. Even the “greenest” Olympics, held in London in 2012, used nearly 400 temporary generators, which release harmful pollution, including carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides among many others. Nevertheless, when Brazil won its bid in 2009 to host the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, the country pledged to host the "Green Games for a Blue Planet,” a festival with sustainability at its core.

Brazil, nearly as large as the U.S. and holding 60 percent of the Amazon rainforest, currently uses renewable energy to make about 85 percent of its electricity (compare that to the U.S., where only 13 percent of our electricity comes from renewable sources). With renewable energy success like that, who better to host the “Green Games?”

Yet, despite Brazil’s ambitious goals, years of planning, and an advantage in existing renewable energy resources, Brazil is falling short of its goal for a cleaner, greener Olympics. This is because serious social, political, environmental, and health challenges tangent to the Olympics have constrained the nation’s ability to realize the sustainability goals Brazil thought achievable in 2009.

Like Brazil, countries and states around the world today – including my home state of Texas – are embarking on their own ambitious national and state sustainability goals. These goals are more long-term than a single summer event, but we have the same lesson to learn: To reach sustainability and environmental goals requires interweaving into the fabric of all policy solutions.

Intertwined solutions

Brazil has set environmental goals, such as stopping deforestation and aiming to reduce the country’s carbon emissions 37 percent of 2005 levels by 2025. So, the nation is no stranger to thinking in terms of big environmental solutions.

For the Olympics, solutions for both the environment and economy could have been further explored. If the Olympics go smoothly, it could be a huge economic boon to Brazil. But consider one of the venues for sailing and windsurfing, Guanabara Bay, which is so polluted that some countries are debating whether they should even allow their athletes near the body of water. The two issues are combined: The pollution is potentially affecting the economic potential of the Games.

Brazil has also recently been struggling with drought, which threatens the hydropower resources that make up the vast majority of the country’s renewable power. If the drought continues, more diesel generators will be required for the Games and possibly beyond, meaning more air pollution. Increased pollution threatens not only athletes and spectators, but also millions of Brazilians with lower incomes. This vulnerable population already disproportionately suffers the effects of poor air quality, including greater susceptibility to diseases and further engulfing large swathes of communities in unsanitary and unhealthy conditions. Exacerbating this linkage, poor health leads to greater stress on the economy overall, completing the nexus of the environment, health, and economy.

Lessons for Texas

This dilemma is not restricted to Brazil or to the Olympic Games. Every country faces these problems on some level, including the U.S. Look at my home state of Texas, where state policies and politics often view environmental issues as separate from or opposed to economic health, when really they are inseparable.

For example, our state decision makers have strongly resisted the Clean Power Plan, the nation’s first-ever attempt to reduce carbon pollution from power plants, falsely claiming that it is a financial burden on Texans and Texas industry. However, according to an Environmental Defense Fund analysis, the Lone Star State is already nearly 90 percent of the way toward compliance based on market forces alone. And, save for inflation, the market trends moving Texas to a clean energy future will not increase electricity prices.

Moreover, the Clean Power Plan would encourage the use of clean energy, which Texas has more potential to develop than any other state. In this case, helping the environment would also help the economy by creating local jobs and increasing revenue from clean energy industries.

Plus, lowering carbon pollution can prevent premature deaths, hospitalizations, and heart attacks, an undeniable tie to public health. The millions of Americans who suffer the most from the effects are often those with the fewest economic means, and the most to gain from cleaner air.

The reality is, when we separate environment from economics and public health, we’re making policy solutions that are piecemeal and inefficient at best, and harmful to one or the other at worst. Connecting the dots is necessary. We must create a future in which countries (and states) are able to undertake ambitious projects like the Olympics and still protect their people, natural resources, and fiscal health. Gold medals may not be at stake in this “event,” but a prosperous future is.

The post originally appeared on the Texas Clean Air Matters blog.

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