What is the role of sport in tackling the climate crisis?
What is the role of sport in tackling the climate crisis?
Sport is uniquely positioned to tackle the climate crisis: it can both take (looking inward) and inspire action (looking outward). Here are actionable steps that sport can take towards climate action.
Climate change is one of the biggest challenges of our time. How we deal with the climate crisis today will define the lived realities of future generations. We have heard and read the figures on rising temperatures and their impact on people and ecosystems around our planet. More importantly, we have come to appreciate that there is little time left to address the climate crisis, and that even if countries do fulfill their current emission-reduction pledges, it might not be sufficient to reverse global warming and its impact on the planet. Therefore, it is clear there is a need to act boldly and quickly in the face of the climate crisis.
Sport is uniquely positioned to tackle the climate crisis: it can both take (looking inward) and inspire action (looking outward).
Sport has contributed to climate change. From sporting events that require intensive carbon-fueled infrastructure development to sporting organizations (e.g. clubs) that rely on carbon footprint-heavy transportation, the sport sector contributes significant emission levels. There is an opportunity to reduce the harmful environmental impact of sport by embedding sustainability into the day-to-day operations of organizations in the sector. Here, we will focus on event organizers and sport clubs to illustrate the sustainability opportunity and its challenges
Environmentally sustainable sporting events
Sporting events are a key pillar of the sector. From global mega-events (e.g. FIFA World Cup) to local tournaments, sporting events have the power to delight, entertain, and inspire. Unfortunately, sporting events and unsustainable practices have often gone hand in hand. The construction of infrastructure is associated with a significant carbon footprint. During events, the consumption of plastic products, use of transportation, and production of waste further increase their carbon footprint. For example, Euro 2020 contributed gross carbon emissions of 425,000 tons even though the tournament only required the construction of one new stadium.
Fortunately, event organizers at all levels have pledged to take action to host environmentally sustainable events. For example, signatories of the UN Sport for Climate Action Framework include the IOC, FIFA, and UEFA among others. Furthermore, the past decade has seen an added focus on measuring, reporting, and making sense of the carbon footprint of sporting events. For example, in 2012, London became the first host city to measure the carbon footprint of the Olympics over the entire project term and was the first to commit and achieve a “zero waste” to landfill target.
We believe event organizers can place sustainability at the core of event planning, execution, and legacy, with a focus on eliminating unsustainable practices at each phase.
Sustainability ought to be at the core of planning for all facets of a sporting event. This can start as early as the bid development and assessment phase for events, where hosts are determined through a bidding process. Organizers need to pay particular attention to defining an event sustainability strategy. Where relevant, organizers also need to prioritize minimizing the environmental impact of infrastructure development.
During the execution of a sporting event, organizers can focus on four key pillars: plastic, waste, transport, and energy.
Firstly, organizers can focus on minimizing plastic consumption during an event with the overarching objective of eliminating single use plastic products, such as water bottles and bags. Specific initiatives may include the provision of re-usable water bottles and recyclable branded tote bags with event tickets.
Secondly, organizers can establish waste recycling and management policies and practices with the overarching objective of ensuring the availability of recycling stations across all zones. This is an area where organizers can work closely with third party vendors who can bring specialized waste management expertise. Here, vendor contracts can include financial penalties for non-compliance with waste management policies.
Thirdly, organizers can promote sustainable transport during the event and aim to cover all event zones with eco-friendly transport options. Organizers can work with local officials in host cities, corporate sponsors, as well as third-party vendors to ensure eco-friendly transport options are accessible to event participants and attendees.
Finally, organizers can encourage the use of renewable energy and set a specific target for the share of energy consumption to be supplied by renewable sources. Specific initiatives may include solar-powered lighting and fair usage energy policies with third party vendors.
Actions organizers take after the conclusion of an event play an important role in shaping the event’s environmental impact. This is particularly the case for large-scale events that leave behind significant infrastructure to be used and maintained. Organizers can consider three focus areas: reporting, infrastructure management, and carbon-offset initiatives.
Firstly, organizers can proactively measure and report on the environmental impact of an event. This exercise can articulate actionable insights that can form valuable learnings for future events.
Secondly, organizers can manage the hand-over of event infrastructure to ensure the continued implementation of sustainable practices. This can be in the form of a set of policies and procedures to which infrastructure owners and managers will commit.
Finally, event organizers can define and implement measures to offset an event’s carbon emissions and have lasting positive environmental impact. This can include investments in climate action or innovations and projects that address the climate crisis. This can also include climate-related initiatives in host communities, cities, and nations. For example, Euro 2020 organizers committed to planting 50,000 trees in each host city.
Environmentally sustainable sporting clubs
Organizations across sectors increasingly perceive value in becoming environmentally sustainable organizations. This often comes in the broader context of Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) management and investing. Unfortunately, professional sport clubs lag behind organizations in other sectors when it comes to ESG. This is illustrated by the relatively low scores professional football clubs achieved on the RobecoSAM ESG index – Manchester United, Juventus, and Borussia Dortmund scored an average of 14/100, whereas organizations in the household products, beverages, and automobile sectors achieved respective scores of 43, 40, and 39/100.
Some sport clubs have taken action to enhance their environmental sustainability, but these actions remain disparate and non-systemic. For example, Real Madrid and Manchester United have partnered with Adidas to promote kits made from recycled ocean plastic, and Atletico Madrid uses a rainwater recovery system to irrigate its stadium grass. To move further towards systemic environmental sustainability, sport clubs can consider four focus areas: infrastructure, products, culture, and performance metrics.
Firstly, sport clubs can invest in “greening” their infrastructure (e.g., stadium/arena, training facilities). Clubs can pay particular attention to renewable energy generation within their venues while also enhancing efficiency in the usage of water and materials. Furthermore, clubs can aim to reduce the carbon footprint of gamedays, focusing on the same pillars that constitute environmentally sustainable events – plastic, waste, transport, and energy.
Secondly, sport clubs can offer fans a portfolio of sustainable and environmentally friendly retail products. This will involve working with partners, such as kit manufacturers, to design, produce, and commercialize low-carbon products.
Thirdly, sport clubs can align their organizational culture to a defined environmental sustainability agenda. This involves aligning recruiting and people development to the competencies needed to execute the club’s sustainability agenda, defining and role-modeling desired behaviors, and driving high-level agenda sponsorship by the club’s senior management and key figures.
Finally, sport clubs can define and set performance targets and KPIs that are aligned to their sustainability agenda. Performance against these targets can subsequently inform key management decisions, such as recruitment and capital allocation.
Sport clubs stand to reap sizeable benefits if they embark on this journey of systemic environmental sustainability. These benefits include – among others – revenue growth from sustainable products that are favorably viewed by fans, greater access to financing and sponsorship from partners who have themselves embarked on their own environmental sustainability journey, and de-risking the impact of likely future changes in regulations and public attitudes related to environmental sustainability.
Looking outward: Shaping and influencing attitudes vis-à-vis the climate crisis
While sport can impact the environment by taking action, it is its ability to inspire action and influence public attitudes that may have the potential for more widespread influence. The breadth and depth of sport’s reach means it can model environment-related behaviors that can then enable action at scale.
Recent events show that sport can influence actions outside of the sporting sphere. The arrival of Muslim star player for Liverpool Football Club, Mohamed Salah, has helped tackle anti-Muslim sentiment in Merseyside by reducing crime rates associated with Islamophobia. Similarly, Manchester United player Marcus Rashford sparked headlines after launching campaigns to tackle child poverty and hunger in the UK. Elite athletes can thus act as role models to members of the public.
Sport’s potential to influence attitudes vis-à-vis the climate crisis is largely untapped. This is also the case for other forms of “mass culture,” such as film and television. There is growing interest in studying and exploring the potential of mass culture to influence behaviors at the individual level; key stakeholders in the sport sector (e.g., clubs, governing bodies, athletes) should play an active part in this space.
Partnerships: A key enabler
Partnerships with a wide range of stakeholders outside the sport sector are key when it comes to tackling the climate crisis. This is implied in every action referenced in this article. Partners include but are not limited to:
- Government bodies with mandates over transport, waste management, and infrastructure development
- Corporate partners with aligned sustainability agenda
- Vendors with specialized expertise in areas such as infrastructure development, waste management, and measurement and reporting among others
- Civil society organizations with ability to mobilize local communities around climate action
Portas Consulting is a global management consultancy specialized in sport and physical activity. We are dedicated to maximizing the benefits of sport and physical activity for governments, sports bodies, and corporates, and through them for society. With offices in London, Dubai, Riyadh and Singapore, our projects are wide and varied, spanning strategy, organization, governance, project management and implementation.
Zakaria Merdi is a Senior Consultant at Portas Consulting, based in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. He is a member of the firm’s Public Sector Practice, where he focuses on Sport for Development. Prior to joining Portas, Zakaria supported governments and development partners on strategy, impact assessment, and implementation engagements, mostly in Sub-Saharan Africa.