planting a tree, carbon neutral
Culture Science

Sports around the world make push to be climate neutral

Why this matters

The environment is something that impacts each of our lives, and sports organizations are being more conscientious about the climate footprint that they leave.

Sustainability is an important issue in the sporting world and sports organizations are beginning to make a commitment to reduce their climate footprint.

Two teams in the German Bundesliga are making an effort to improve their sustainability beyond just installing recycling bins around the stadium and removing single-use plastics. The club TSG Hoffenheim recently announced plans to move toward becoming carbon neutral. 

“Making all of our activities climate-neutral is a continuation of the steps we took years ago to equip all of our facilities, including the stadium, with state-of-the-art environmental protection technology in order to conserve resources and operate in an environmentally-conscious manner,” Hoffenheim co-managing director Frank Briel told SportsPro.

As part of that, the club will offer fans “climate tickets.” A portion of all of these tickets will go toward planting trees in Uganda’s Kikonda forest. Planting trees will help the club offset the carbon emissions produced through everyday operations of fielding a professional football team.

Mainz 05, another Bundesliga club, announced that it would take steps toward being carbon neutral back in 2010. The team’s stadium, Opel Arena, features solar panels on the roof, which provide power for the stadium and reduce the amount of non-renewable resources the club consumes.

Different Types of Sustainability

There are many ways teams and organizations can address sustainability in sports, and many organizations have focused on improving sustainability in their stadiums

The U.S. Green Building Council uses six criteria to grant different levels of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification for buildings. The criteria include:

  • The building’s location.
  • Treatment of the building site.
  • Water usage.
  • Energy usage.
  • Materials used in construction.
  • How people in the building are treated.

“Under these six general headings we have credits and strategies that help teams towards certification,” Brendan Owens, a member of the US Green Building Council, told the Sport Sustainability Journal, “So, aggressively targeting energy use, how to stop people coming to the venue in single occupant vehicles, optimizing water and reusing rainwater – those strategies will help you get a higher score.”

The different certification levels include silver, gold and platinum. Golden 1 Center, the home of the NBA Sacramento Kings, was the first LEED platinum-certified indoor stadium. In the NFL, Mercedes-Benz Stadium, which is the home of the Atlanta Falcons, is LEED platinum certified. These stadiums are part of a greater trend to build with sustainability in mind.

Carbon neutrality is the practice of reaching a net-zero carbon footprint, balancing the amount of carbon produced by taking steps that reduce carbon emissions by the same amount.

There are soccer organizations around the world on the leading edge of sustainability and carbon neutrality.

Forest Green Rovers

Forest Green Rovers, a League Two club in the United Kingdom, is one of the most environmentally friendly teams in the world. The Rovers were the first franchise certified by the United Nations as a carbon-neutral football club. But what does that mean?

Forest Green Rovers embraces sustainability in everything they do. They exclusively serve a vegan menu at their stadium, and to their players. The team plays on a completely organic pitch that is cut by a solar-powered lawn mower. The Rovers even use recycled rainwater to water the pitch. They embrace electric powered cars — with charging ports at the stadium — and fans getting to the game in an environmentally friendly way.

This culture of sustainability begins with club ownership. Rovers chairman Dale Vince is also the owner of Ecotricity, a green electric company in the UK. 

“The beauty about Forest Green Rovers is that it is an organization that you may call small with not such a huge budget,” Miguel Naranjo, a UNFCCC representative, said in a video produced by Forest Green Rovers, “and still, it’s doing so much to address the environmental footprint.”

Seattle Sounders FC

In Major League Soccer, the Seattle Sounders FC are setting the bar for sustainability by pledging to go carbon-neutral. The focus on environmentalism stems from the eco-conscious culture of the Seattle community as well as of the Sounders ownership group.

“The Sounders have always been committed to investing in our community, and that includes recognizing the immense responsibility we have as environmental stewards,” Sounders owner Adrain Hanauer said in a press release. “Sustainability is a key pillar of our club and this new step is a logical extension of the efforts we have already had in place.”

CenturyLink Field, where the Sounders and NFL Seattle Seahawks play their home games,  has focused on sustainability since opening in 2002. In 2018, the stadium earned the EPA’s WasteWise award for reducing waste going to a landfill and by being more energy efficient. In 2016, the stadium’s waste diversion rate was 97%, meaning only 3% of the stadium’s waste was not recycled or repurposed and wound up in a landfill.

Breakdown of the Seattle Sounders carbon emissions in 2018. (Courtesy of Seattle Sounders FC)

The Sounders also partnered with a local determine where the club was producing carbon emissions and calculate the percentage of emissions coming from each area, including day-to-day operations, team travel, fan travel and from energy use at CenturyLink Field.

The club took that information, and together with Washington land conservation trust Forterra, their staff and fans planted hundreds of trees along the Duwamish River. These trees offset the carbon produced in ordinary team activities and help sustain the river, an important for salmon spawning habitat in the Pacific Northwest.

Real Betis

Real Betis was the first team from LaLiga, Spain’s football league, to announce that it would try to be climate neutral, which is the equivalent of carbon neutral. Like Forest Green Rovers, Real Betis has signed the UN’s Climate Neutral Now initiative and pledged to reduce and offset its greenhouse-gas emissions.

The club plans to add renewable energy generation on site, introduce advanced waste collection and improve the energy efficiency of its stadium.

The club also plans to conduct a detailed study of its carbon emissions -- similar to what the Seattle Sounders have done – and make an effort to reduce and offset them.

Sport and Climate Action Framework

The sports world now has its own version of the Paris Agreement called the Sport and Climate Action Framework. The two main goals of this framework are for sports organizations and teams to measure, reduce and report their greenhouse-gas emissions in accordance with the Paris Agreement, and for sports to be a “unifying tool to drive climate awareness and action among global citizens.”

Some of the sporting organizations, venues, events and teams that have signed the framework include Roland Garros Stadium, World Sailing, Forest Green Rovers, FIFA, the International Olympic Committee, the New York Yankees and the Waste Management Phoenix Open golf tournament.

Sarah Farrell is a graduate student studying sports journalism at Arizona State University.