Bridging the gap for environmental sustainability through sport
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Why sport's contribution to environmental SDGs cannot be ignored, with Joie Leigh, former international hockey player for the United Kingdom and a member of the Commonwealth Youth Sport for Development and Peace Network (CYSDP).

My engagement with the Commonwealth began at the 4th annual debate on sport and sustainable development, hosted by the secretariat to celebrate the International Day of Sport for Development and Peace in April 2019. On that occasion, I was part of the team arguing against the following motion:

“The contribution of sport to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is limited by the current skills and knowledge gap.”

Our team included Emma Sherry from Swinburne University of Technology and Florette Blackwood from Jamaica’s Ministry of Culture, Gender, Entertainment and Sports. In this blog, I will reflect upon not only our discussion but also my personal experiences as an athlete and as an advocate for environmental sustainability in and through sport, in the capacity of a recent inductee into the CYSDP network.

On the day, our team opined that rather than knowledge and skills being the primary limiting factor, there was a greater need for sport leaders, and leaders in general, to take more strategic action around sport and the sustainable development goals (SDGs). This opinion was central to our collective argument, informed by our diverse perspectives.

Mrs Blackwood, speaking from a national perspective, insisted the primary focus is not just about the data or knowledge itself, but how that data is valued and utilised to instigate and inform development agendas. Therefore, it is crucial to apply knowledge with a strategic focus, backed up by more intentionality of measurement frameworks so we do not end up undervaluing sports contribution.

Using the example of recorded lower crime rates in Jamaica during high profile sporting events, Mrs Blackwood pointed out that while insightful, it is not clear what this knowledge had led to. In essence, without intention or action, knowledge is fundamentally limited in its impact.

Building on this argument, I tried to bring the environmental SDGs into the conversation by highlighting the importance of increasing our attention and action on the link between sport and environmental impact. From personal and academic observations, it is clear the socio-economic aspect of sustainability is the dominant lens through which the sport and sustainable development conversation is considered. This is, of course, understandable and justified given the powerful and undeniable role sport can play in addressing pressing socio-economic issues.

However, as we wake up to the growing threat human impact is having on the environment and the consequential socio-economic impact, a greater focus on sport’s contribution to environmental SDGs cannot be ignored. Not only is environmental change an existential threat but there is also growing research showing how sport is increasingly being negatively impacted by environmental issues such as climate change, pollution and intensifying weather, both at the grassroots and elite levels.

From the real possibility of losing small island nations to sea level rise to coastal erosion and intense weather patterns affecting the UK sporting landscape, the effects are globally relevant. Increasing heatwaves in Australia are making conditions almost intolerable for athletes and spectators, while at the local level heat and drought are drying out local pitches where people are able to play. Increasing air pollution is a growing concern. These impacts do not just affect people’s ability to play sport in a healthy environment, which is inherently fundamental to increasing social development through sport; they also have significant economic costs.

In the Commonwealth, not only do all the above arguments stand relevant, the Commonwealth has already acknowledged the need to act on environmental protection.

For example, “collective political will to protect the planet for future generations has been explicit and robust, ever since the Langkawi Declaration on the Environment of 1989” and recently with the Commonwealth Blue Charter. It therefore makes sense to carry these positive intentions through the Commonwealth’s work on sport and sport’s contribution to development, peace and the SDGs.

As such, it is encouraging that the Commonwealth is coordinating a project to develop a framework of model indicators to measure the impact sport, physical education and physical activity makes on the SDGs. The project includes indicators mapped to SDG 11: sustainable cities and communities, SDG 12: responsible consumption and SDG 13: climate action. It aims to help create evidence on the relationship between policy implementation and environmental sustainability.

Crucially, I believe there are enough skills and sufficient expertise, both within the sport and non-sport sectors, to advise, implement and train people in how sport contributes to better protecting our climate, seas, land and resources. Positive examples of environmental factors being embedded within sporting federations, major events and clubs are emerging as effective cases.

For any initiative on environmental sustainability to be effective, the same should be recognised as fundamentally important at the leadership level to the identity and purpose of the sport, business and event. For example, the International Olympic Committee is stepping up its environmental leadership through overtly integrating environmental values within bidding requirements and guideline resources, where environmental sustainability becomes a factor in decision-making at every level from host city bids to product and service procurement.

In the course of our discussion, Prof Sherry endorsed this opinion using her rich academic insight. Referencing to both her research and analysis across a range of sport policy initiatives and the rapid expansion of sport for development programmes identified by many of her colleagues, she explained that sport is already making a wide-scale contribution to the SDGs. Such a discourse is valuable in pushing this agenda. We should acknowledge the views from our colleagues opposing our argument, as they highlighted the prevalence of insufficient and often inconsistent knowledge among policymakers and practitioners, especially given the constant developments and innovation, which undoubtedly have economic ramifications.

Therefore, it is important to highlight that the Commonwealth is on the steering group with sportanddev.org and the Australian government to develop a massive open online course to build skills and capacity of government officials, international and national sports federations and other key partners to maximise sport’s contribution to advance sustainable development.

It was a privilege to participate in the debate towards the beginning of the year. I will not only continue my engagement on this front but also influence decision-making at the policy level through the CYSDP network. As a young person in the Commonwealth, it is heartening to see the Commonwealth’s work on the issues raised by the two opposing groups – despite working towards the same goal of maximising sport’s contribution to sustainable development.

This article was first published by The Commonwealth Secretariat. Visit their website for the original article. 


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