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Do Mega Events only pick low hanging fruit when it comes to Sustainability?

From the Olympic Games in Tokyo to the World Expo in Dubai, 2020 will be the year of the Mega Events. In times of climate strikes and flight shaming, large events with numerous visitors from all over the world will have no choice but to step up their sustainability game. With world-renowned brands sponsoring these larger-than-life gatherings, it is no surprise that they do.

In fact, sustainability is a common thread in their vision statements. Both the Olympic Games and the World Expo focus heavily on their environmental impact and use the UN Sustainable Development Goals for their marketing strategy. They intend to do good and talk about it frequently - something that is still a bit of a novelty in the Swiss event industry (read my blog about about "The Silence of the Swiss Festivals" here).

This is certainly great as it will inspire smaller events to join the green revolution as well. If the Olympic Games can be hosted sustainably, everything can! The question is: ARE these Mega Events sustainable? Or do they mainly focus on low hanging fruit?

WORLD EXPO 2020, DUBAI (Oct 20th 2020 to April 10th 2021)

The United Arab Emirates are THE place to be for Mega Events. The land of the air con will host not one but two major gatherings: the World Expo in 2020 and the FIFA World Cup in 2022. With "Sustainability" as one of three sub themes, the stakes for the Expo are high. And lo and behold, they aspire to deliver one of the most sustainable exhibitions ever. Their website is surprisingly vague but here's what they're going to do: they will generate clean energy through renewable sources, reduce water consumption, recycle more than 80% of their construction waste and mitigate and offset greenhouse gasses. More than 40 sustainability KPI's keep them on track and world famous architects are on site to build a green utopia. Their most prestigious project is the Terra Pavilion, a mix between the Eden Project in England and the Gardens by the Bay in Singapore. It will focus on human consumption and the harm we are causing to the environment.

All fun an and games at the Expo - and that's the problem! While some of their green innovations are certainly groundbreaking, the devil lies in the detail: the location. The first world exhibition hosted in a Muslim country will attract 25 million visitors, with 30% coming from the UAE and 70% from abroad, thus making it the first event of its kind to attract more international visitors than local attendees. While a metro from the airport to the venue is currently underway, it still means that over 17 million people vill visit the Expo by plane. Sustainable? Not so much.

OLYMPIC SUMMER GAMES, TOKYO (July 24th to Aug 9th 2020)

The Olympic Games are in the lead to become a poster child for sustainable event management. Not only do the incorporate all 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals into their planning, they also share progress reports with the public. From gender equality to responsible consumption and production, the IOC doesn't shy away from tough projects.

Their sustainability report is incredibly granular. Notable highlights are: electricity will be 100% renewable, 99% of procured items and goods will be reused or recycled and trees will not be cut but replanted.

From food waste to construction work: Sustainability shines through every aspect of their event planning. The Olympic Committee also knows how to arouse emotions. The gold- silver and bronze medals will be made from electronic waste donated by the public. What a fantastic way to show that old phones and cameras are incredibly valuable when recycled. And then there's the torch, made of aluminium waste from temporary housing that was built in the aftermath of the Great East Japan Earthquake. A bold symbol for climate change - and hope. What used to save lives now shines bright.

Another sustainable advantage? This is not the first Olympic rodeo for Japan: 60% of the facilities needed to host the summer games are already in place. That includes gymnasiums and arenas built for for Olympic Games in 1964. The new athlete's village will be constructed with timber loaned from local authorities which will be returned after the games.

Sounds too good to be true? We will see. The IOC shares regular updates and I'm all here for it.


Do Mega Events only pick low hanging fruit? No, definitely not. It's incredibly inspiring to see how event projects go extra mile after extra mile for the environment, with groundbreaking innovations in various areas, from architecture to material sourcing and construction work. That said, there's still room for improvement. It's time to re-think location scouting. We need to choose venues based on their accessibility and not their keenness to host an event. Which brings us to the FIFA World Cup, another Mega Event eager to proof its sustainability. But that's a topic for another time.


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