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The countdown clock for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games is reflected in a rain puddle outside Tokyo railway station

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Delayed and downsized, but will Tokyo Olympics be greener?

TOKYO, Japan, Jul 22The delay of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics forced by the coronavirus pandemic means next year’s Games will be smaller and simpler, but will that make them more sustainable?

Tokyo 2020 organisers have said sustainability will be a “core concept” for the Games and have touted a range of initiatives, from medals made with recycled metal to using hydrogen for the flames burning in Games cauldrons.

But environmental activists and experts accuse organisers of setting unambitious targets and say they are squandering the opportunity provided by the year-long delay to tighten up standards.

Olympic procurement policies for fishery products, timber, paper and palm oil have “many loopholes”, said Masako Konishi, an expert with the World Wide Fund for Nature who helps advise organisers on environmental protections.

She said she had hoped the delay would give organisers time to raise standards.

But “they haven’t changed anything”, she told AFP, accusing the organisers of prioritising the interests of industry.

“There are a lot of specially appointed members of industry associations who really wanted to avoid robust procurement policies,” Konishi said.

Tokyo 2020 officials confirmed that they are not changing procurement standards, and in their latest report on the sustainability of the Games, published in late April, they argued that sustainable sourcing “is still a new initiative in Japan”.

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“Progress will not be made in a single bound,” the report warns.

– ‘A bit disappointing’ –

Hidemi Tomita, a consultant specialising in social and environmental responsibility, acknowledged that sustainability is still in its infancy in Japan.

The country is starting “so far behind”, he said, that the commitments made by Tokyo 2020 could be considered “progress”.

But, he told AFP, “It’s a bit disappointing.”

“They should have set the bar higher… that’s what would have set an example and fostered innovation” among Japanese firms.

One of the planks of Tokyo 2020’s sustainability efforts has involved the use of wood sourced from sustainably managed Japanese forests, some of which will be reused after the Games in other facilities.

But the organisers acknowledge that they are also using timber from Malaysia and Indonesia, countries accused of harmful deforestation.

Tokyo 2020 says all its timber has been purchased legally, but activists argue the wood is not sufficiently traceable and lacks independent certification.

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Isao Sakaguchi, a professor of law at Gakushiun University in Tokyo, is also critical of the way organisers are procuring fish products for Olympic menus.

A pedestrian walks past the Olympic Rings outside the Japan Olympic Museum in Tokyo. The delay forced by the coronavirus pandemic means next year’s Games will be smaller and simpler, but will that make them more sustainable? © AFP / Philip FONG

An expert on sustainable fishing and aquaculture, he said local industry lobbied heavily for toothless regulations.

“Fishermen and politicians in Japan were concerned that if Tokyo 2020 adopted the same sourcing codes as London, Rio, there would be no Japanese seafood provided for the Games,” he told AFP.

As a result, organisers accepted standards that involve no certification and no verification, he said.

The legacy of this decision will be “nothing, even negative”.

The organisers push back on these criticisms, arguing achievable standards are more likely to last beyond the Games, creating an environmental “legacy”.

“It might create a good impression to introduce international environmental standards just for the Olympics,” said Yuki Arata, in charge of Tokyo 2020’s environmental programme.

“But would small and medium-sized Japanese businesses continue to respect those after the Games? Perhaps not,” she told AFP.

There may however be at least one way in which the postponement and pandemic contributes to a greener Games — if the number of spectators ends up being reduced.

Tokyo 2020’s most recent report on the environmental impact of the Games, published in late April, said spectators would account for about a third of the total carbon footprint of the Olympics, much of it linked to the emissions from air travel.

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