Technology enters the arena: Tapping new AI-based tools to reduce emissions for mega sporting events in Asia

From the Olympics to competitive esports, the region’s games calendar is becoming packed. Organisers are looking into cutting the environmental footprint of major events and some are turning to the use of tech-based solutions.

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A participant at the Olympics Esports Week donning a headset for virtual tennis. Image: Alibaba Cloud

Asia is fast becoming the preferred destination for big sporting events. 

In 2023 alone, China’s Hangzhou hosted the Asian Games, the SEA Games were held in Cambodia, and the Grand Prix – a glitzy night motor race – blasted into full gear in Singapore. 

The city-state also hosted the world’s first Olympic Esports Week last June. The event attracted 20,000 attendees over four days and saw athletes competing in virtual versions of sports such as archery, cycling, tennis and sailing. 

Yet as Asian cities rapidly develop capacity to host mega sporting events, host countries and sports organisers are becoming conscious of their environmental impact, especially as the dazzling energy consumption of the races and tournaments capture media attention and are put under public scrutiny.

Raising the bar 

For the World Olympics, local organising committees have seen rising expectations to slash carbon emissions, reported chair of the IOC’s sustainability and legacy commission Prince Albert II of Monaco. The upcoming Paris Olympic Games will see its host pushed to halve carbon emissions, as compared to that of the summer games in London 2012 and in Rio 2016, and from 2030, carbon reduction will become a contractual requirement for all Olympic hosts. 

This would oblige event organisers to look into cutting both direct and indirect emissions, including by minimising new construction, said the prince. 95 per cent of venues will be pre-existing facilities, and these should be chosen so that they can be accessed by public transport, the IOC committee advised. 

Across Asia, data on sports emissions has so far been limited but emerging literature suggests that mega sporting events have the potential to negatively impact local communities by causing pollution and waste accumulation. Industry observers, conversely, often highlight how the hosting of a mega sporting event can encourage technological innovation in the pursuit of sustainability, and can enhance low-carbon development across some industries. 

Last year, the 19th Asian Games in Hangzhou, home to some of China’s most prominent technology companies, saw a makeover as its core systems were all migrated to the cloud with “intelligent applications of cloud broadcasting, event organisation and communications”, said organisers.

Through the games, Alibaba Cloud, the digital technology and intelligence backbone of China’s Alibaba Group, also deployed its carbon management tool to help measure and optimise specific operational elements in how the games were run. For instance, the tool, driven by artificial intelligence and through a prebuilt calculation model that leveraged public emission factors and datasets, was used to optimise the carbon footprint of Asian Games-licensed products, including its cute mascot plushies. With available data, the cloud infrastructure provider could advise manufacturers to increase the use of solar power in production, and hence helped to reduce about 0.15 kilogrammes of carbon per item, according to Alibaba Cloud. 

Jingren Zhou, chief technology officer of Alibaba Cloud Intelligence said the cloud service provider hopes to leverage the power of technology in collaboration with partners “to make the Games greener and accessible to all”.

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For the Hangzhou Asian Games, mascot plushies were manufactured and sold but Alibaba Cloud said it helped to reduce the energy intensity of production processes by advising factories to switch to using solar after it generated emission metrics through its AI-based solution. Image: Hangzhou Asian Games 2022

The same measurement and optimisation platform known as Energy Expert was also utilised at Singapore’s Olympics Esports Week. Data-driven insights were generated from metrics related to the building of temporary construction to house the event, such as its energy consumption, waste, signage and decoration, which then advised the organisers on the appropriate choice of material and equipment to ensure a lower carbon footprint. 

Post-event, Alibaba Cloud said that about 14 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) were saved after organisers replaced 60 per cent of printed signage with digital alternatives. 50 per cent of carpets were reused, which also slashed emissions further by 10 tonnes CO2e, it said. 

‘Fan engagement’

The Olympic Esports Week was Alibaba Cloud’s first large-scale international project to tackle carbon emissions within the esports industry. The cloud has served as a backbone for the gaming industry, which has seen its growth accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic. 

According to industry analysis, a single esports team could create as much as 100 tonnes of CO2 emissions from flights, facility maintenance and other forms of travel, almost equivalent to emissions produced when constructing a whole new house. The gaming industry also has a significant environmental footprint, as it consumes energy from local grids as computers need to be powered..

In designing how it monitors emissions at mega events such as the Olympic Esports Week, Alibaba Cloud’s solution architects now also put an emphasis on what it describes as “fan engagement” initiatives, so that consumer education and awareness of their individual environmental footprint can be enhanced. These include allowing the public to understand the amount of carbon emitted in producing computer keyboards or headsets used at the event, just by taking a photo of the item. Participants are also invited to make personal pledges. 

For now, industry insiders are optimistic that the power of AI and its ability to see patterns in large unstructured datasets will be a boon for sports organisers as they are expected to meet the demands of younger audiences who are more sustainability-minded, as well as changing contractual agreements that factor in specific decarbonisation targets. The real challenge would be to go beyond metric-tracking and scale efforts.

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