Time Out: To Save Itself, Sport Must Join the Fight Against Climate Change
Why this matters
Sport is increasingly thought of in the context of climate change, leading many sports and leagues to go green and limit fossil fuel usage just as the dire effects of extreme weather and environmental degradation start to become clear for sports organizations around the world.
Sports and the environmental movement have a long history of antagonism. Conservationists who opposed the destruction of precious mountain ecosystems to build ski runs helped scuttle Denver’s proposal for the 1976 Winter Olympics. Golf has long been deemed an environmental bête noire for its copious use of water and pesticides. Recent Olympics have seen one host city (Athens) fail to meet 14 of its 15 environmental targets, another (Rio) build a golf course that no one wanted on a rare wetland, and three cities (Sochi, Pyeongchang, Beijing) cut down forests to make way for Olympic infrastructure.
But things may be changing. Four years ago, the United Nations – along with some of the major international sports federations – established the UN Sport for Climate Action Framework (UNSCAF), a voluntary agreement open to all sports organizations to become carbon zero by 2050. At the UN Climate Change Conference (or “COP26”) held this past November, sport’s role in the climate crisis received wider media coverage than ever before, and UNSCAF committed to faster and deeper carbon emission reductions.
All of this comes not a moment too soon. As a journalist, academic, and author of the 2020 report Playing Against the Clock: Global Sport, the Climate Emergency and the Case For Rapid Change, I’ve come to realize that recreational and professional sports alike are already facing serious challenges and threats due to climate change, and they can expect bigger problems in the future. Metaphorically speaking, the stadium is on fire; literally speaking, our stadiums are facing flooding, extreme storms, excessive heat, and smoke from wildfires.
Sports currently are part of the problem, contributing to climate change. But sports also can be part of the solution – provided, of course, that they understand their role and take decisive action sooner rather than later.
Climate Threats To Sports
Sports that rely on snowfall already feel the impact of global warming. Ski seasons are getting shorter, and the use of artificial snow is now ubiquitous for both the tourist industry and many professional events, including most of the world biathlon circuit. According to current climate projections, over half of the cities that have staged the Winter Olympics will be unreliable future hosts. Many of the world’s ski resorts figure to become economically unsustainable as the costs of producing and maintaining artificial snow – water, energy, and infrastructure – become prohibitive.
All outdoor sports can look forward to higher average temperatures and more frequent, more intense heat waves. The physiology of how this will affect athletes and fans is complex, but a good general rule is that once temperatures rise above 95 degrees Fahrenheit (35 degrees Celsius), the human body suffers. Memory, hand-eye coordination, and concentration suffer – and then there are heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and heatstroke. If current global sports calendars hold, future games and events will be held and played more often on days where temperatures exceed 104 to 113 degrees Fahrenheit (40 to 45 degrees Celsius). In areas where these temperatures combine with extreme humidity, outdoor sports will simply be impossible.
The 2014 Australian Open tennis tournament gave us a preview of what the future may look like. Played in the middle of a punishing heatwave that saw four consecutive days of temperatures above 105 degrees Fahrenheit (41 degrees Celsius), the tournament saw a record nine players retire during the first round of play. One of them, Ivan Dodig, recalled that on court he was thinking, “I could maybe even die.” Another, Frank Dancevic, actually began hallucinating on court before vomiting and departing. Meanwhile, Daniel Gimeno-Traver carried off a ball boy who collapsed in the heat, Caroline Wozniacki saw her plastic water bottles melt, Jo-Wilfred Tsonga saw his sneakers melt, and John Isner compared the hot wind on the court to “when I open the oven and the potatoes are done.” Over the course of the two-week event, more than 1,000 fans were treated for heat exhaustion.
At the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, a heatwave forced organizers to reschedule part of the tennis tournament at night. Meanwhile, the marathon and walking races already had been moved to Sapporo, nearly 1,000 kilometers north of the Japanese capital – an acknowledgement that Tokyo summer temperatures were too hot for both events and that a plan to air condition the race route was, frankly, ridiculous.
In much of the world, more heat will put additional stress on already overstretched water supplies. In 2018, Indian Premier League cricket matches had to be moved from drought-stricken regions, and water shortages in Cape Town imperiled South Africa’s 2020 test match with India.
Wildfires are another consequence of rising temperatures and longer droughts. In early 2020, Australia was wracked by the worst fires in a generation, big enough to fill cricket stadiums in Sydney with smoke and threaten the staging of the Australian Open in Melbourne.
By contrast, other regions will be coping with more extreme weather in the form of hurricanes, powerful rainstorms, and widespread flooding. Typhoon Hagibis forced the cancellation of three games at the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan, and rowing, surfing, and sailing events at the 2020 Tokyo Games had to be rescheduled for similar reasons. The increasingly powerful hurricanes that are hitting the Caribbean have shredded five of the region’s major cricket grounds, including Ronald Webster Park in Anguilla and Carib Lumber Ball Park in Saint Martin.
Related: One Year Later: How COVID-19 Drove and Accelerated Change in Sports – and Beyond
Late last year, massive and prolonged rain storms hit Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany. Germany’s National Olympic Committee estimated that $110.5 million (€100 million) worth of damage was done to sporting facilities in that country; the world’s first permanent, artificially refrigerated bobsleigh, luge, and skeleton track, the Konigsee, was reduced to rubble. When Storm Eunice struck Northern Europe earlier this year, it left a dozen lower-league football grounds underwater in the north of England, while powerful winds whipped metal panels off the roof of Dutch football club ADO Den Haag’s stadium.
In the United Kingdom, coastal golf courses are especially prone to the threat of flooding. Scotland’s Montrose Golf Links – one of the five oldest courses in the world and a place where records of the game date to 1592 – has been forced to sacrifice its third tee to provide sufficient rock defenses for the even more threatened first and second holes. It expects to lose more in the near future. The Royal North Devon Golf Club, entirely flooded by Storm Deirdre in 2018, has seen its eighth hole disappear into a shingle beach. Six of the 10 courses in rotation for the British Open, including St. Andrews, Troon, and Carnoustie, are unlikely to last into the 22nd century.
The islands and archipelagos of the South Pacific are among the areas most threatened by rising sea levels, and their rich rugby cultures, nurtured on their beaches, are equally in jeopardy. California’s beaches and their surfing culture also look insecure, as sea level rises and big, surfable swells fall victim to new tidal and wind patterns. One recent study predicted that 18 percent of the state’s most popular breaks for surfing will be lost by 2050 and another 16 percent will be in decline. The study also predicted that two thirds of all beaches in the southern half of California will be gone by the end of the century, lost to the rising sea level and extreme weather events that will cause current surfing breaks to become unreliable or to disappear altogether.
Carlisle United, a lower-level football team in the north of England, saw its stadium submerged for seven weeks in 2015 after massive rain storms. Like the 2014 Australian Open, this could be a sign of things to come: By 2050, about a quarter of England’s professional football grounds will be threatened by major annual flooding or actually underwater. A similar fate awaits arenas in New York City and Jacksonville, Florida. Across East and Southeast Asia, dozens of facilities are under threat – and in the case of Jakarta’s brand-new national football stadium, the most likely outcome is that it will be submerged by 2050.
How Sport Contributes To Climate Change
To what extent are global sports responsible for the climate predicament they find themselves in? To answer definitively, we would need to know their exact carbon footprint – and, right now, we don’t.
However, we can make a reasonable estimate. If the global sports industry is turning over around $500 billion to $700 billion annually – not including the sportswear and gambling industries, which exist in symbiosis – then sports account for about 0.8 percent of global output. If we also assume that sports have an average carbon intensity per dollar (say, less than the concrete industry but greater than recreational singing), then they likely account for about 0.8 percent of global emissions.
That’s not, in itself, gigantic. But it’s also about the same as Spain or Poland – and no one is giving those countries a pass on worldwide efforts to reach carbon zero.
So where is all this carbon coming from? For the most part, it’s coming from us: the fans going to the games. Researchers have found that international air travel for spectators accounts for nearly 70 percent of the emissions generated by World Cups and Olympic Games. In the world of well-attended professional sports leagues, transport probably accounts for half of emissions, with the rest coming from energy use for sports equipment, lighting and heating, food consumption and waste disposal, construction and infrastructure, and all sorts of plastics used in facilities.
To reduce the industry’s carbon emissions to zero, all of this will have to change.
Taking Action Now
Climate commitments and pledges, like the kinds made at COP26 or by the 2022 Qatar World Cup (to recycle waste and water and limit energy consumption) and 2024 UEFA European Championship (which will also track carbon output in an attempt to be carbon neutral), are wonderful. But they are also worthless without action. And in this regard, the growing green sports movement has been busy.
Some global sports federations, such as World Athletics and World Sailing, have begun to implement serious plans for their events and operations to be carbon zero. At the national league level, Germany’s Bundesliga is leading the way, introducing an environmental auditing system into its strict club licensing program.
Currently, the best and most practical work is being done at the level of individual teams and franchises. Seattle’s Climate Pledge Arena – home to the National Hockey League's Seattle Kraken and the Women’s National Basketball Association’s Seattle Storm – is the most ambitious green sports infrastructure project in the United States. In 2018, Forest Green Rovers, a fourth-level English football club, became the first UN-certified carbon zero soccer club in the world by running on 100 percent clean energy, serving vegan food, and building the first new wooden stadium (which is less carbon-intensive than concrete) in England in over a century. It has since been joined at the leading edge of change by clubs such as Wolfsburg in Germany, Bohemians in Ireland, and Real Betis in Spain. In the Premier League, Arsenal F.C. installed extensive solar panels on the roof of the team’s stadium and added a huge lithium storage battery; Tottenham Hotspur created a large organic vegetable garden to supply training ground kitchens; and vegan options have become the norm across a previously carnivorous league. Meanwhile, Britain’s leading sports broadcasters have developed carbon zero production protocols and are covering the issue in much greater depth.
A sports climate and environmental movement is also emerging from the bottom up, led by networks of athlete activists. Protect Our Winters has been the pioneer in this field and is joined by Eco Athletes in North America, Champions for Earth in the U.K., and Front Runners in Australia and New Zealand. David Pocock, a former captain of Australia’s rugby union team, has been an outspoken activist, challenging the fossil fuel and mining industries. Earlier this year, he was joined by 300 current and former athletes in publishing an open letter on the climate crisis, its threat to Australian sports, and the need for immediate action.
Alongside athletes, European football fans are becoming a force within the sports climate movement. In Germany, a national network of fan groups that produced a detailed and influential 2020 report on soccer reform successfully pushed for environmental action by the Bundesliga and its clubs. In England, groups including Football for Future, Pledgeball, and Planet Super League are campaigning for sustainability across soccer and encouraging climate conversation and behavioral changes among fans, and club-based fan groups at Burnley and Huddersfield have also pushed for change.
Going to the Next Level
These examples remain the exception – not the norm. If global sports are to live up to their responsibilities, they will have to make the kinds of commitments and changes already happening at the most progressive organizations. At the bare minimum, all sports organizations must sign up for UNSCAF and get busy halving their emissions within the next decade in order to reach carbon zero by 2040.
Along the way, the sports world will have to confront five difficult issues:
- Going carbon zero – and encouraging others to do so – is simply not compatible with fossil fuel sponsorship. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has seen Gazprom, a globally important sports sponsor, depart the field. However, many oil and gas companies remain embedded. They need to go.
- The use of carbon offsets – that is, investments in carbon capture, storage, or reduction that are intended to balance out an organization’s enduring carbon emissions – by sports organizations to reach carbon zero is a problem. Offsets are all too easily used as a “get out of jail free” card, allowing organizations to claim carbon neutrality without addressing the huge size of their emissions in the first place. Many of these programs are poorly managed, and even when they are well managed, they often rely on carbon sequestration that won’t kick in for another 30 years. That’s far too late.
- Volunteerism will take us only so far. While it’s probably the case that we can go a very long way simply by asking people to do the right thing, some organizations, leagues, and teams undoubtedly will prove to be intransigent. Is there a role for international sports federations to require their national members to join UNSCAF, or for sports leagues to require their clubs to create and execute carbon zero plans and programs, on pain of sanction or exclusion if they fail to do so?
- We need to expand the movement to grassroots and recreational sports – and bring the Global South into the debate. Not surprisingly, the worldwide conversation about sports and the environment has focused on professional sports in the Global North, with the vast majority of current USCAF members falling into this category. But the Global South is where many of the most difficult impacts of the climate crisis will be felt. As such, we need to rethink how financial transfers from North to South and from professional to amateur sports can and should occur, as well as the role of local and national governments in organizing and funding these efforts.
- The global sportswear industry needs to get with the program. It could start by calculating its carbon footprint and making those numbers available to the public. We have yet to see the industry’s major players do this; until that changes, we should view their claims of environmental virtue with skepticism. The sports federations and clubs sponsored by these companies need to demand full and transparent emissions accounting – and, if necessary, change their sponsors and suppliers to those that are willing to provide this information.
Ultimately, sports can’t address the climate crisis on their own. But they don’t have to. They simply need to leverage their enormous cultural resources to be the greatest and most powerful amplifier of the global climate movement. Sports have an unparalleled demographic and cosmopolitan reach, possess a high level of trust and power for many, and can speak more widely to more people than any other medium. In an era when expert knowledge, perceived political opponents, and governing institutions of any kind are all viewed unfavorably, sports have the potential to normalize climate conversations in a way that is badly needed.
Perhaps more importantly, sports remain a realm where we still believe in the possibility and potential of global collective action – the only kind of action that can adequately address climate change. In sports, we are only as good as our weakest link. Success and failure are shared. There are collective goods and communal interests. Playing together, a team can raise its game under pressure so that it becomes more than the mere sum of its individual parts.
There is also the matter of hope. From the streets to our stadiums, sports generate an inexhaustible supply of forward-looking faith: that hard work yields the possibility of development; that no cause is lost until the game is actually over; that miraculous recoveries, turnarounds, and rallies are possible; that when the time comes, human beings have the heart and wit to make it happen. That is a precious set of cultural treasures to hold in trust for the world. If global sports are ready to adopt and pursue truly radical changes in the field of climate action, they might be able to inspire all of us – and then, you just never know what might follow.
The Sustainability of Sport
Sport is a large-scale global pursuit that brings together people and places, often creating deep roots with the environment in which it is played. As a result, sport both contributes to ecological change and is affected by it.
As efforts intensify to address decades of carbon emission, commercial growth, and environmental deterioration, sport can take the lead in championing progress. If current trends continue, however, sport could face some of the more serious consequences of a changing Earth.