Sustainability in sport is rising to the top of the agenda for many athletes and sporting organisations. Many sports are already feeling the effects of climate change and the conditions caused by rising temperatures: from shrinking snow coverage and floods to extreme heat.
Sport’s reach and influence places organisations and athletes in the unique position to be part of the solution in tackling climate change. Research shows that 60% of the actions needed to take to achieve our net zero targets are behavioural, and that more people are likely to take these behavioural and social cues from their favourite athletes and sporting organisations over scientists and politicians.
Effects of climate change on sport
Changing temperatures and the impacts of the climate crisis means disruptions to many sports. By 2050 studies estimate that around half of the former winter Olympic host cities will not be able to again due to a lack of snow and ice, and that a quarter of teams’ stadiums in the English football league will be partially or totally flooded annually.
Even the impacts of current levels of global warming are having flow on effects for sport. For example, in 2020 at the Australian Open, many players were forced to withdraw from the competition after breathing in air polluted by bushfire smoke. Rising temperatures are also impacting the future of the Tour de France, with organisers in 2022 having to spray roads to keep them from melting and easing of rules that previously prevented riders from rehydrating in the first few miles of the race.
These are just examples of larger sporting events at professional levels; however, grassroot local sports may experience far greater disruptions without adequate support. For example, a study found that on average, grassroots football clubs lose five weeks every season due to bad weather—with more than a third losing between two and three months.
While a victim to the impacts of climate change, sport is also one of the contributors. It’s estimated that the global sport sector contributes the same amount of emissions as a medium-sized company. This is largely due to the carbon footprint associated with the transport, construction and use of sporting venues and the supply chains for equipment.
Sport can play a critical role in tackling the climate crisis through both reducing the industry’s own impact and the ability of organisations and athletes to influence positive change across communities.
Positive impact of sport
As a sector with billions of global fans, for example 3.5 billion people follow football and 2.5 billion people follow cricket, sport can help build this momentum towards climate action. And athletes who are right at the centre of sport are taking up the mantle.
Over the past few years we have seen athletes use their platform to talk about social justice issues from Marcus Rashford’s poverty activism to Simone Biles speaking on prioritizing mental health. An increasing number of athletes are now speaking out about climate change.
Melissa Wilson, an ex-GB Rower and three times World Championships A-Finalist, is helping to unlock the potential of other athletes to be advocates for the planet through her work with Athletes of the World.
“It’s not enough for us just to share climate information – for people to be empowered enough to act, they need to really feel something about climate and really believe in our opportunity to take action.” she says.
“Athletes and sport can generate that strength of feeling – cutting across political divides and social demographics, and tapping into value-sets which are critical in our approach to climate: like being courageous in the face of a huge challenge, showing resilience, drive, ambition and collaboration.”
Many athletes and sporting fans alike feel strongly about the issue, for example nearly 80% of track and field athletes are concerned about climate change and a recent survey of 1,400 football fans revealed over 90% agreed on the importance of protecting the environment.
One of her recent campaigns with Athletes of the World was to convey this passion and drive for climate action from across the sporting sector to challenge world leaders at COP26 in Glasgow. The result was a video featuring over 50 Tokyo Olympians and Paralympians from around the world, including flag bearers from 35 different countries.
“Athletes spoke about the willpower the Tokyo Olympics had shown to overcome obstacles and push boundaries, and asked their global leaders to show that same ambition and leadership at “the Olympics of climate summits.” She said.
Despite this growing sense of urgency for climate action across the sector there are still barriers making athletes hesitant to speak up.
“One barrier results from not being sure of what they can do, and the impact they can make. That’s something we seek to address with our partners AimHi Earth.” Melissa said.
“We’ve created a climate education session specifically for athletes, so far delivering it to Team GB athletes, BBC sports presenters and commentators, and athletes competing at the Commonwealth Games. It sets out the nuts and bolts of climate change – feedback loops, tipping points, the impact of nature – but also shares crucial information about how great an opportunity athletes have to inspire change.” She explains.
Another reason why athletes may be hesitant to speak up on climate change is the potential for criticism about their own contributions to global emissions through things like travel to competitions or training camps.
“But, whilst we can all take steps to reduce our personal footprint, one of the worst things that can happen is for individuals to think they can only speak once their own footprint is reduced. We don’t have the time for that!” Melissa shares.
While individual change is important, a whole system change is required where governments and businesses get behind the scale of transition needed. For that to occur, whether we’re athletes or not, Melissa shares, “our greatest power is our own voice”.
Ahead of COP27 in November, Melissa is looking to ensure global commitments towards net zero are accelerated.
“Despite progress made and the ambition of some commitments, it was dispiriting to leave Glasgow with the image of a 1.5 degree target whose pulse was barely there.” She said.
“Global events in the intervening months – including the war in Ukraine and the threat of recession – mean it will be more important than ever for global leaders to meet in Egypt knowing that citizens round the world are invested in a COP27 that results in real transformation and accelerated action. We’ll be doing what we can to make sure that message rings clear.”
Sporting organisations embracing sustainability
Sporting organisations are also taking up the mantle in addressing climate action through measuring and reducing the carbon emissions associated with the sector.
Sports, in particular at professional levels, contribute to climate change in various ways through things like air travel, or indirectly through emissions associated with stadiums or through corporate sponsorships with high-emitting companies.
Sporting organisations of all sizes have a responsibility to look at the impact they are having socially and environmentally, and continually work to improve this.
Planet Mark member EXTREME International is an example of a company doing just that. Inspired by their love of the outdoors, adventure sports and their passion to protect the planet, the company has made it its mission to leave a lasting positive legacy.
EXTREME recognise that embracing sustainability means constantly learning and improving. They are measuring their carbon footprint through Planet Mark with a target of reducing their emissions by 5% annually, and have also committed 1% of its annual revenue to environmental non-profit organisations.
Alongside reducing their own impact on the environment, they are working to raise awareness around climate change and promote sustainable and responsible consumption through the power of sport and adventure.
They do this through their commitment to the United Nations’ Sports for Climate Action, and through various engagement activities including creating an “Extreme Hangout” during COP26 in Glasgow. This gave youth voices a platform to “innovate, engage, inspire, rage and drive others on to do more”.
Alongside sporting clubs and organisations, large scale global sporting events have begun to embed sustainability within their practices. The 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham is one recent example of this as it aims to be the most sustainable Games yet following reviews of the last two Games in Glasgow and the Gold Coast. Several carbon reduction initiatives have been put in place across key areas such as transport, venues, energy and materials to support their “reduction first” approach to sustainability.
In the words of Nelson Mandela, “Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand.” With this power comes responsibility. And we will start to see more and more sporting organisations, clubs and athletes rising to the challenge.