The UN describes the climate crisis as “the defining crisis of our time”, and there is no doubt that this pressing issue has become the number one challenge facing humanity today.
While the spotlight of criticism may shine brighter on other industries, travel, fast-fashion or food, for example, the sports industry very much has its own questions to answer, and a vital part to play in tackling these once in a lifetime issues.
While the environmental impact of sport can be felt from the grassroots level all the way to the elite, the majority of sport’s carbon footprint is produced by major global sporting events. More specifically, the requirement for and management of travel and accommodation, food and beverage provision, and supportive infrastructure.
According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies Calculator, the combined carbon emissions produced by the South Africa 2010 World Cup, Brazil 2014 World Cup, and Rio 2016 Olympic Games, was equivalent to burning over 36.5 billion pounds of coal. That’s enough to cover the yearly electricity use of nearly 6.5 million homes.
There’s no shying away from the fact that such figures make turning sports into an environmentally positive industry seem a daunting task. As has recently been proven by the Qatar World Cup, the Saudi-backed LIV Golf tour, and Formula One being set to host a record number of races in 2023, top level sport is now being delivered in more territories and broadcast to more people around the world than ever before.
While we should be delighted that the industry is becoming increasingly inclusive and accessible to people who haven’t had that privilege before, we must also be conscious about the impact on our planet.
As the global reach of sport continues to grow exponentially, so does the environmental footprint of the industry. That being said, the level of exposure that sporting events offer, and the enormous audiences they attract, can undoubtedly be used as a tool for positive change, and there is plenty of evidence of sport supporting political and social evolution.
In 2020, athletes across the globe took part in mass Black Lives Matter protests, which led to significant cultural shifts in the sports industry.
Major League Baseball team (previously) the Cleveland Indians officially announced a review of their name in July of that year, having already changed their logo in 2018 to remove ‘Chief Wahoo’, and eventually renamed themselves the Cleveland Guardians.
In the UK, we saw the establishment of the Sport Monitoring Advisory Panel to campaign against racism in sport and encourage greater opportunities for ethnically diverse communities.
Rugby League set up ‘Listening and Learning into Action’ sessions to communicate with black players, coaches, and supporters, to share ideas and establish methods to do more and be better.
Over 170 players, coaches and staff from Major League Soccer (MLS) came together to set up the independent organisation ‘Black Players for Change’, to tackle the racial injustices that have limited black people from having an equitable stake in the game of soccer and society.
This is just a handful of examples of changes in response to the Black Lives Matter movement, and there is no reason why the sports industry and community can’t instigate change in sustainability policy in a similar way. In fact, we have already started to see steps being made in the right direction.
The Tokyo 2020 Olympics made headlines with the use of recyclable cardboard beds and recycled electronic devices to manufacture medals. In fact, 99% of non-consumable items procured for the games were reused or recycled.
We recently witnessed ‘The Green Football Weekend’ national campaign which brought millions of football fans together with more than 80 of the UK’s biggest football clubs, charity partners and sports broadcasters to unleash the power of football to tackle climate change.
One of the football clubs involved in that campaign was Forest Green Rovers, described by FIFA as ‘the greenest football club in the world’. Their commitment to sustainability has seen them significantly cut emissions from travel and become the only vegan football club in the world. They have met internationally-recognised environmental standards through the use of an organic pitch that captures and recycles rainwater, and have submitted plans for a state-of-the-art sustainable stadium. They are only a small football club, but they are putting other clubs with far greater resources to shame, including those in the Premier League.
Formula One continues to progress in its long-term plan to reach ‘net zero’ by 2030, claiming to be on-course to deliver 100% sustainable fuels by 2026. With a focus on six key areas for event delivery (plastic and waste, local fan travel, wellbeing and nature, local community, energy, and carbon), the entire sport has undergone a significant cultural change in a bid to become more sustainable and environmentally conscious.
It is clear that encouraging steps have been taken, but we have to demand even more is done, and as a collective we have to be more vocal in our support of sustainability policies that drive further change and development.
The Paris 2024 Olympic Games have made a commitment to being the greenest Olympic Games of all time, claiming that ‘by more than halving the emissions arising in relation to the Games and by offsetting even more CO2 emissions than we will generate, we will become the first major sporting event to positively impact the climate’.
It is an incredibly positive change, and is something that will filter down to sports organisations of all shapes and sizes, encouraging the continued evolution of sustainability in sport.
Sports organisations further down the pyramid are gradually becoming more environmentally conscious too, and many clubs are being increasingly proactive in reviewing their sustainability credentials and strategies. This often starts with assessing their carbon footprint.
For example, over 50 sports clubs have already signed up to work with Zellar, a sustainability platform that provides everything a sports organisation needs to plan, activate, measure, report, and share its sustainability journey.
Zellar have a rapidly growing community of over 1,000 organisations in the UK, and have already invested almost £200,000 in green energy-saving technologies, such as solar panels and electric vehicle charging units.
Clearly, progress is being made, however it is worth noting there is still a very long way to go. Sport has to do more, and consumers also have to be aware of misleading claims concerning the industry’s environmental achievements.
For example, while FIFA claims to have committed to reducing and offsetting all carbon emissions for the Qatar 2022 World Cup, ‘Scientific American’ magazine suggests that the tournament was in fact a “climate catastrophe”, and that “most mega sporting events are carbon disasters”. As referenced by the publication, environmental nonprofit Carbon Market Watch published research suggesting that the tournament’s carbon neutrality goal was to be “achieved through creative accounting rather than actually reaching a carbon footprint of (net) zero”.
In their article, ‘Scientific American’ call the tournament’s sustainability claims ‘greenwashing’, a term typically used to describe a company that is more interested in deceitfully marketing themselves as sustainable, rather than actually minimising their environmental impact.
Sustainability is a major concern to many sports fans, and unfortunately, while some organisations are making genuine attempts to become more conscious of their carbon footprint, ‘greenwashing’ is becoming increasingly prevalent. Major sporting businesses and event organisers frequently look to cut corners by finding cheap and easy ways to appeal to consumers, while they actually do more harm than good.
The influence of sport cannot be understated, and by celebrating each step in the right direction, the industry can have a tangible influence on how people live their lives for the benefit of the planet. However, it is vital that we don’t put on the rose-tinted goggles, and we hold the industry to account to make sure the necessary changes are actually being made.
We know how important it is for us to tackle climate change, and sport has a significant part to play in taking on that challenge.