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Sport must accept its role in the climate crisis and change its game

The industry’s response to climate change faces a series of problems – now, at COP26, it must resolve them

David Goldblatt
2 November 2021, 12.00am
View of the flooded cricket ground at Worcester
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Pete MacKenzie / Alamy Stock Photo

One glimmer of hope for the UN’s upcoming climate conference, COP26, is that the global sports world will be more present – and more engaged with the climate crisis – than at any previous such gathering.

The UN’s Sports for Climate Action Framework, which asks sports organisations to take steps to achieve a carbon-zero future, will be meeting in Glasgow, the city hosting COP26. In the official programme, Sky Sports and the UK government will be asking how sport can tackle the climate crisis, while athletes, sports NGOs and campaigns will be present on the conference fringe.

This is good news because global sport, like a medium-sized nation state, is responsible for around 0.8% of the world’s emissions. More importantly, its unique cultural reach and weight make it a voice in mobilising support for mass climate action. Sport is also seriously threatened by the climate crisis. At this summer’s Tokyo Olympics, tennis had to be played at night and the marathon sent 800 kilometres north because the city has become so hot and humid. The recent floods in Germany reportedly caused €100m worth of damage to sports facilities and destroyed the famous Königssee bobsleigh run.

However, the sports world’s response to the climate crisis, like most wider efforts, faces a series of unresolved problems. In the Global North, a small number of sports federations and clubs are taking serious climate action – with the likes of World Sailing, World Athletics and the Paris 2024 Olympics having vowed to reach carbon zero by 2030 – but there are an awful lot of laggards. Moral persuasion aside, there are almost no policy instruments to make organisations reduce their impact on the climate.

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'Comforting illusion'

In the Global South, meanwhile, there has so far been little engagement with the issue. The sports federations and leagues of China, India, Latin America and Africa are conspicuous by their absence in the list of UN Sports for Climate Action participants. This is particularly unfortunate given that the climate crisis’s worst impacts on sport – from the flooding of coastal stadiums across East and South-East Asia to the impossibility of playing football and cricket outdoors in temperatures over 40°C – will fall on the poorer regions of the world. Nor are there systems of financial transfer, from North to South, or from professional to grassroots sport, that could help poorer sports and regions to make the shift to carbon-zero operations.

While the initial focus of the sports world has rightly been on reducing its emissions, there has been precious little action on mitigating the impact of the climate crisis. Even if we are able to keep global heating below 2°C, we can still expect significant disruption to the way we play and watch sports today.

Many of the big players in the sports industry also remain under the comforting illusion that their efforts to offset emissions are an adequate response to the sector’s dependence on aviation and the seemingly unending plans for more international events and competitions. Football’s governing body, FIFA, is currently discussing plans to hold the men’s World Cup every two years, instead of four, while, in Europe, UEFA’s expanded Champions League will involve more travel.

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Sport, like everybody else, needs to be making deep emissions cuts now, not planting trees that may or may not absorb some emissions in 30 years. Also overlooked are the carbon emissions of two of the most powerful players in global sports: the sportswear industry and the fossil fuel companies that sponsor events.

Sport is not going to sort out all of these problems by itself. The huge emissions associated with mass spectatorship require a revolution in our urban transport systems. The protection of sport infrastructures from flood and wildfire risk extends beyond the remit of any one club or federation. But sports organisations, athletes and fans can all be part of the wider climate movement that pressures governments to make those kinds of difficult changes.

To speak authentically as part of that movement, sport needs to make some difficult decisions itself. At COP26 it could make three.

Banning fossil fuel sponsorship

A moratorium on more international events would be a good start. More proactively, the Bundesliga (the top league in German football) is introducing proposals for an annual environmental audit for its clubs along the lines of ‘no carbon zero plan, no play’. It would be simple to introduce such a model at every global sports federation – requiring national members to join the UN’s sports climate initiative for example – and in every professional sports league. Sportswear companies should also be taken to task and made to join the initiative – and actually calculate and publish their real carbon footprints before they launch yet another ‘recycled’ set of trainers. And finally, sport miraculously survived the ban on tobacco advertising, it now needs to go down the same route with fossil fuel sponsorship.

Rejecting expansion, enforcing environmental standards, and challenging corporate power and secrecy would go against the grain of the sports industry’s usual mode of operation. But if COP26 isn’t the moment to change our game, then when is?

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