Sport both contributes to environmental issues and is negatively affected by them.

Sport is a major global industry. A 2018 World Trade Organization report claimed that football alone generated a total global output of around 200 billion US dollars annually and could be considered the 57th largest economy in the world. 

While this contributes to national economies and provides entertainment for billions around the world, it also has many direct and indirect effects on the environment. According to a Rapid Transition Alliance report, the global sports industry’s carbon emissions are equivalent to a medium-sized country. There are also far-reaching effects related to waste and use of resources.

Several of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), launched by the United Nations in 2015, focus on environmental issues. Responsible Consumption and Production (SDG 12) and Climate Action (SDG 13), are particularly relevant to the sports world. However, because of sport’s impact on living spaces and natural habitats, it also influences Sustainable Cities and Communities (SDG 11), Life Below Water (SDG 14) and Life on Land (SDG 15).

Here are some of the main ways sport affects the environment:

  • Travel: Events lead to the mass movement of players, spectators and officials. Major international events that require significant air travel are the largest culprits, but road travel also plays its part, including even at the grassroots level.
  • Energy consumption: Energy is needed for lighting, heating, cooling, and powering equipment, facilities and stadiums. The reliance on non-renewable energy sources contributes to climate change.
  • Water consumption: Sports fields, golf courses, and other outdoor facilities require water for irrigation. Sports like swimming and water polo also contribute to water usage. In regions already facing water scarcity, these demands can strain local water resources and contribute to ecological imbalances. According to the World Economic Forum, the fashion industry is responsible for 10% of global carbon emissions and the second largest consumer of water worldwide, with 700 gallons of water needed to produce one cotton t-shirt.
  • Waste generation: Events generate substantial waste, including packaging, food waste, and discarded promotional materials. Without proper waste management systems this can end up in landfills, contributing to methane emissions. The production and disposal of sports equipment and merchandise also creates waste.
  • Deforestation and land use change: The construction of new sports facilities often requires land development, which can lead to deforestation, habitat destruction and lost  biodiversity.

At the same time, sport is itself damaged and threatened by climate change. According to research by the University of Waterloo, only one of the 21 previous Winter Olympic Games hosts will have a climate suitable for winter sports by the end of this century. In 2019, two Rugby World Cup games were canceled due to a typhoon in host nation Japan. This came less than 18 months after temperatures that reached 41 degrees led to the Olympic marathon and walking races being moved to Sapporo, 1,000 kilometers north of Tokyo.

Such events have a negative effect on the safety of players and fans. Athletes retiring from matches for heat-related reasons is becoming a more regular occurrence in summer sports such as cricket and tennis, while accidents are more likely in winter sports when snow conditions aren’t sufficient. 

Weather conditions that are unsafe for high-level athletes will be more so for regular members of the public. Climate change is therefore also damaging to grassroots sport and community sport, including sport for development. By reducing the amount of time that sport can be played safely and enjoyably, it is a threat to public health and wellbeing.

Not only does sport contribute to climate change and other environmental challenges but it also has a vested interest in being part of the solution.

Image by Jacob Castle (CC BY-SA 4.0)

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