The 2024 Paris Summer Olympics may seem far away, but plans are well underway in the French capital. In particular, organizers have locked down ambitious goals for energy savings at the complex where athletes will stay during the games. It’s part of the Paris Olympic Committee’s plan to slash the Games’ carbon footprint in half and put on what they hope will be the most sustainable Olympic Games in modern history. Producing a carbon-neutral Olympic Games in Paris makes sense. After all, it was a little over seven years ago during the UN Climate Change Conference when 196 parties joined the Paris Agreement, an international treaty on climate change.
The City of Paris is currently working on getting to zero emissions by 2050 and an 80 percent reduction in its carbon footprint compared to 2004 levels. Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, who was re-elected in the summer of 2020 along with several “green” candidates, oversees the Summer Olympics and is committed to making the Games as green as possible. “I want the Paris Games to be exemplary from an environmental point of view,” Hidalgo said. As part of its plan, Paris 2024 is looking at every source of emissions within the 16-day-long Games to lessen the carbon footprint typical of past Olympic Games with the goal of setting a precedent for the rest of the world. Organizers have their work cut out for them: they claim that previous summer Olympic Games emitted, on average, more than 3.8 million tons of CO2.
Organizers of the Paris 2024 Games have drawn up an ARO (avoid, reduce, then offset) approach to meet the carbon neutral goal, with two additional stages tacked on: forecast emissions and mobilize action by “harnessing the appeal of the Games.” In the first step, Paris 2024 officials began by anticipating what kind of carbon emissions to expect with a massive event like this (the aforementioned 3.8 million tons). Next, they will look to avoid building new infrastructure as much as possible and only build facilities that can be repurposed for other things once the Games end. Paris 2024 is planning to use 95 percent of existing or temporary infrastructure.
Sources of emissions have already been identified, and solutions have been developed in helping to bring down emissions to the 1.6 million tonnes of CO2 goal. One of the toughest emissions categories covers the indirect impact of the event, including things like travel by spectators. Emissions like these that can’t be avoided will be offset by projects (the first of which have been in place since 2021). The organizers have designed to “bring both environmental and social benefits” to the five continents where they are located. Organizers of the Games say Paris 2024 will be the first international sporting event to offset more emissions than it produces.
Within the mobilization portion of its plan, Paris 2024 officials are looking to bring individuals attending, partnering, working at, and competing in the event into the mix through what they call a “Climate Coach,” a mobile app that gives users insights into how they can reduce their own carbon footprint. More details on how exactly the app will do that are not available yet. Still, organizers will also encourage its partners and suppliers for the Games to be mindful of sustainability and “limit their climate impact” for all purchases made for the Games, which is part of Paris 2024’s responsible procurement strategy.
With the Games taking place in the hottest months of the year in Paris, keeping athletes cool is a top priority for organizers and a crucial part of the energy-saving strategy. Paris experienced record-breaking heat last summer, and Paris 2024 officials are taking no chances if temperatures soar to historic highs once again. To meet the ambitious emissions targets, organizers decided to use geothermal energy to cool apartments at the Athletes Village. Underneath the City of Light is an extensive, 55-mile-long network of pipes buried 98 feet below the street that pumps cold water throughout the system, which will be used to cool buildings at more than 700 sites. The network has ten high-tech cooling sites (three of which are located along the historic Seine River) that can be accessed via a retractable spiral staircase nearly hidden from street level.
Electricity produced by renewable sources powers the network, which is the largest system of its kind in Europe. In the midst of the record-breaking heat last summer, the network helped keep visitors cool at places like Paris’ famed Louvre Museum. Last July, the city signed a contract to triple the size of the cooling network to 157 miles by 2042, which, once completed, would make it the largest urban cooling system in the world. The network expansions would go toward cooling hospitals, schools, and the city’s Metro stations over the next 20 years. Using geothermal energy has been getting a lot of buzz in the building industry recently as a way to cut down on using fossil fuels and save money on energy costs. However, its use in most commercial buildings in the U.S. doesn’t exactly pencil out just yet.
The underground network is poised to play a big role in the Olympic Games in 2024 as the primary cooling source for more than 15,000 athletes, who will stay at the Athletes Village on a 125-acre site in the Seine-Saint-Denis district of Paris. By using geothermal energy, organizers plan to keep temperatures in the apartments where athletes will be staying no higher than 79 degrees at night in the event of a potential heat wave. Organizers are also studying how heat waves would impact housing in the Village by simulating summer conditions in areas of the Village and testing how the cooling system fares under the settings, aiming to keep indoor temperatures between 73 and 79 degrees. Organizers are also testing out rooms on the highest floors of housing at the Village with the greatest sun exposure, working closely with France’s national weather agency on developing weather forecasts, and looking at how directional winds and water temperatures in the Seine River could impact temperatures in the complex.
As Paris 2024 organizers and city officials continue moving forward with underground cooling plans for the Summer Olympics and push using geothermal cooling at major events like these as a model for others to follow, there are worries from those who will be participating in the Games about just how efficient the technology will be. The concern is understandable; at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, which were rescheduled due to the pandemic and held in the summer of 2021, extreme heat led to athletes requesting that the matches be rescheduled and frightening scenes of athletes breaking down in the sweltering conditions. Some country delegations have even said they may bring backup cooling methods to ensure their athletes are able to stay cool. Paris 2024 officials have said they will give national Olympic committees the option to set up their own AC units in certain cases as long as they meet certain technical criteria.
Despite the skepticism from some over whether this environmentally-friendly cooling method will do as intended when tested by soaring temperatures, organizers are confident that the system will work come Summer 2024. If the network turns out to prove skeptics wrong, it could be a milestone moment for this kind of technology and services to further popularize geothermal energy systems worldwide. The successful implementation of geothermal cooling would be especially good news for the building sector, which is under pressure to cut down carbon footprints in a growing number of cities.
The Paris Olympics will certainly have some memorable moments. But, unbeknownst to many viewers, the most record setting performance of the event might be from the buildings and systems that are helping them reduce their energy consumption and carbon footprint.