Snowless slopes at the Beijing Winter Olympics, a super typhoon leading to canceled matches at the Rugby World Cup and wildfires causing tennis stars to drop out of the Australian Open. These are just some of the sports affected by climate change in recent years. There is no doubt that sports organizations will have to adapt to the impacts of climate change so that participants can continue to train and compete, whether that’s more indoor training venues, match relocations, changing game rules to accommodate longer rest periods or using technology to artificially manage conditions.
Meanwhile, sports organizations have an active role to play in the mitigation of climate change too, by directly reducing their climate impact and inspiring their communities to do the same. Sports organizations of every size can reduce emissions, directly and through supply chains. Added to this, the sports industry has a unique responsibility to act as an educator and advocate for sustainable action through its influence on supporters and participants. So, how can organizations drive carbon-reducing action and make real and lasting societal impacts while growing their audience?
This article discusses sustainability in sports, focusing on the challenges that face sports organizations on their climate action journey and the practical solutions that will pave the way.
Sustainability in sports: adapting to a changing world
Sport has a unique place in our hearts and minds, billions enjoy watching it and partaking in it and it has untold benefits for our mental and physical wellbeing. When we gather at sports fixtures, we revel in the buzz that comes from the collective, thousands of people united in a common purpose with a shared enjoyment of competitive sport. Yet, climate change is threatening the fundamental nature of sports at all levels. Hotter temperatures, extreme weather events and flooding all affect the ability of sportspeople to train and compete safely.
“The impacts of climate change are far more complex than they seem,” explains Claire Poole, Founder and Chief Executive, Sport Positive Summit. “Climate change has a profound socioeconomic impact too. In snow sports, when the snow season is unreliable or ice ponds disappear, athletes need to spend more to access artificial slopes or travel further to practice their sport, which some simply won’t have resources to do. We’re also seeing livelihoods impacted as ski businesses become indebted due to a lack of reliable snow cover.”
COP 26 made it clear that climate change is no longer a distant threat. Everyone has a responsibility to take climate action and when it comes to sports organizations, they must take on two key roles: adaptor and mitigator.
Organizations must adapt if they want their sport to continue and some are taking considerable strides to tackle this head-on. The England and Wales Cricket Board have invested over £3.4 million in 181 grassroots cricket clubs affected by flooding, to get their clubs up and running and strengthen defenses.
Regarding climate change and winter sports, The Winter Olympics might be forced to adapt its host-country model since only four of the previous Winter Olympics venues could reliably host the Games by 2050 if the current climate change trajectory continues. Artificial snow might not be an option as rising temperatures might not support any kind of snow cover.
Many sports will have to make changes, from competitions being forced inside, new match abandonment rules in extreme temperatures, and even some locations being deemed unsuitable for competitions.
Poole continues: “Adaptation is a necessity and is already happening across sport, but we can only adapt so far and we are confined by our planetary boundaries. We need to adapt now, so that sport can continue but we also need to mitigate so less adaptation is needed in the future.”
“Yet, organizations must decide how far they push adaptation to continue playing sports in certain locations,” adds James Atkins, Planet Super League. Can we justify air-conditioned stadiums and artificial snow knowing they bring heavy climate impacts?
“Sport is fundamental to the wellbeing of communities, but we’ve moved so far from its origins: the local football matches uniting communities struggling with poverty, the children forging friendships while playing volleyball with a rolled-up rag on the beach and the pleasure of just running, swimming or cycling in nature. To achieve sustainability in sports industry. To be truly sustainable, the sports industry needs to get back to these fundamentals and away from the money, business administration and sheer competitiveness of modern sport.”
The unique role that sports organizations can play in mitigating climate change
Sports organizations cannot be solely responsible for mitigating climate change, but their activities do have an impact. We see this prominently in major sporting events. The Rio 2016 Olympics alone generated 4.5 million tons of CO2, and the 2022 Qatar Football World Cup is estimated to generate 3.6 million tons, 50% more than the 2018 Russian World Cup.
Sports organizations are intrinsically connected to many other sectors: food, travel, sponsorship, apparel, broadcasting, and tourism, to name a few. By making demands on their suppliers for sustainable practices and greenhouse gas emission reductions, sports organizations can strengthen and amplify their impact.
Suppliers already see the value of green credentials. Sky recently funded Sky Ocean Rescue in partnership with WWF to help aid ocean recovery and Adidas recently partnered with Parley for the Oceans to help reduce ocean plastic, using recovered items to make shoes. These types of actions are heavily driven by demand.
More than 85% of the emissions generated by major sporting events are attributed to fan travel and accommodation. This theme extends into grassroots sports, individual active sports participants generate an average of 844 kg CO2e a year, mostly in travel. With significant carbon impact attributed to fans and participants, it’s clear that sport has a unique halo effect when it comes to climate change, yet this can be used as a powerful force for change.
Sports stars also have a powerful influence as trusted voices. Athletes like Lewis Hamilton, Héctor Bellerín, Katy Rude and Novak Djokovic are already leading the campaign and speaking out about environmental issues. The Norwegian professional footballer, Morten Thorsby, even started his own movement: ‘We Play Green’. This organization highlights that as leaders of the 3.5 billion members of the football family, clubs and players have a responsibility to demonstrate green attitudes and behaviors.
“Influence doesn’t only apply to professional athletes,” states Poole. “Elite athletes with celebrity status have an incredible platform to reach millions of people, but community coaches could have a more powerful role. Coaches and leaders in grassroots clubs have deep roots in their community and could be speaking with hundreds of people every week. Through their influence, advocates can be created and real change could take place at the local level.”
Who’s in charge of driving sustainability in sports industry
“In truth, everyone is responsible for driving sustainable change; anyone who plays, coaches, sponsors, organizes, governs or watches should think about how they can reduce their impact,” continues Atkins. “If you care about sport and you want it to continue, then reducing its environmental impact is critical. No one group can tackle this problem and it isn’t up to governing bodies to mandate it, this is a task that everyone must take on.”
Change is certainly happening. Many more associations are driving sustainable action in sports and developing robust and meaningful environmental and sustainable policies. Many are backing up plans with challenging targets and realistic and achievable roadmaps, such as the Lawn Tennis Association, International Olympic Committee, FIFA and NBA.
We’ve also seen the launch of green competitions, such as Formula E motor racing, where racers compete solely in electric cars and, despite being a one-off tournament, the Sky Zero match between local UK football teams, Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspurs shed real light on climate issues.
With significant focus on climate change action in sports, a growing community is championing and driving sustainable activity. One such success is the launch of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Sports for Climate Action Framework. A huge number of signatories have committed to five core principles to drive climate action:
- Undertake systematic efforts to promote greater environmental responsibility.
- Reduce overall climate impact.
- Educate for climate action.
- Promote sustainable and responsible consumption.
- Advocate for climate action through communication.
Forest Green Rovers, one of the first sustainable sports clubs (the first carbon neutral and vegan football club), is often hailed as a leader in this space and is now looking to build the world’s greenest football stadium.
It’s not all down to clubs and governing bodies, several external initiatives are also reaching out to grassroots and professional teams alike. Atkins explains the premise behind Planet Super League: “We wanted to develop a platform for sports clubs to extend their reach beyond their organizational actions. In Planet League, fans can win a club trophy by scoring green goals for their environmental actions. We’re not undermining the clubs but helping fans to change their habits through proven behavioral science, letting them demonstrate that climate issues are important to them.”
Climate change and sports: How do sports organizations take climate action?
“At one point, we’d say that every change, however small, was important,” states Poole. “Although something is always better than nothing, the climate crisis is deepening and we have to take ambitious and immediate action if we are to meet the targets set at COP 26. We know sports organizations have tight resources, but many have financial resources – it just isn’t being allocated in a way that prioritizes healthy ecosystems that will support us to play, compete and watch the sports we love in the long term. Many actions are simple to identify, straightforward to implement and often result in cost efficiencies and a stronger and more resilient sports organization.”
Connecting with other organizations can be a powerful first step in making lasting change. “We created Sport Positive Summit as a way to increase action and ambition on climate change through sport,” explains Poole. “Driving sustainability in an organization can be a lonely role, requiring constant innovation and effort to secure buy-in and finances. By providing a place for sustainability leads to meet with each other, as well as partners, peers and academics, we create a powerful community that can better drive change.”
Atkins confirms that carbon savings might come from unlikely places: “When looking at professional football clubs, we find that big savings can come from food. By simply switching to a vegan menu, large clubs could save tons of carbon emissions a year. This might sound counter-cultural, but we’ve seen success in this area. Clubs aren’t forcing fans into making lifestyle decisions, but they’re sending a clear message about where their priorities lie.”
Sports and sustainability: why the industry should be more sustainable?
Although now largely debunked, leading economist Milton Friedman once stated that the sole purpose of a firm is to make money for its shareholders. In sports, some may feel that the sole purpose of a club is to win. Although this is far from the fundamental purpose of sport, professional organizations can find it difficult to accommodate important priorities, such as climate action, when winning, growth and remuneration are valued so highly.
However, sustainability is one way that organizations can get back to the basic value of sports, to inspire people of all ages and backgrounds and create real community and cohesive connection. By making changes that protect nature and reduce environmental impact, organizations can find new ways to engage with their members, innovate for better community engagement and play their part in tackling the most pressing challenge that humanity has ever had to face. This activity often comes with more traditional growth and cost-saving benefits too.
“Sport should always account for its impact on nature and through its activities, it should leave no trace” concludes Poole. “When we put this at the heart of organizational priorities remarkable things happen, fans are more engaged, communities thrive and these changes trickle into neighbouring sectors. Sports organizations have great influence and with this comes great responsibility.”
Sustainability in sports: How can my sport organization get involved?
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Written by Emma Oddie.