Sport and the Environment

Dr Sarah Zipp, Faculty of Health Sciences and Sport, University of Stirling

Sport is a major global industry, which has its own, unique environmental footprint. In her contribution to the bite-sized lecture series, Dr Sarah Zipp considers how the sporting world is addressing its contribution to global heating, and assesses whether the efforts are meaningful, or merely ‘greenwashing’. Watch the lecture online and read the transcript below.

I’m Sarah Zipp and we’re going to go over some of the impacts of sport on the environment, the dual goals of sport and environmentalism and some sustainable solutions. And throughout this session, I want to talk about some of the reforms that are in place and take a critical perspective about whether or not they are real reforms for real change or just more greenwashing. 

There are three environmental impact types that we see in the sports world, the first is major sporting events, large impacts over a short period of time, events like the Olympics that we just had this summer, the World Cup, and things like that. These are very high-profile events that people think about when they think of major sports. But there are also daily sport activities that have a smaller individual impact over time on a daily basis. There’s also sporting goods production, things like equipment, kit, uniforms, that has an environmental impact. 

I want to point out here that estimating the carbon footprint of sport events often includes the direct impacts like facility building events themselves, athlete travel. But it’s hit and miss whether or not they include the surrounding impacts like spectator and media travel, some of the sponsorship events surrounding sporting events and things like that. 

So, when we look at the mega events like the Olympics, we’re going to take the Olympics as an example because I think it’s still on everybody’s mind from this summer. The Olympic movement has three pillars and historically, it’s been sport and culture.  In the 90s, they added the environment as the third pillar of the Olympics, and this was a signal that they were taking climate change seriously and that there was concern about the impact of sport on the environment. The IOC, the International Olympic Committee, has also signed on to the United Nations Agenda 21 pledge, which is 21 principles about protecting the environment. The IOC has also put together a new host city requirement so when a city bids to host the Olympics, they have to meet certain requirements to mitigate the environmental impact and do things like promote climate change awareness. 

But the question is, again, is this real reform or is this greenwashing? We don’t have the numbers yet from Tokyo, but Rio 2016, had four and a half kilotonnes of greenhouse gases for the games and spectator travel. So that’s a really big impact on the environment, and that’s just greenhouse gases. There’s, of course, other pollutants. There’s been environmental damage, water, redirection, and things like that. We also can look at the Winter Games as sort of a telling sign about how sport is dependent on a healthy climate. There are new climate change models out that predict that only 12 of the 21 previous hosts of the Winter Olympic Games could be relied upon to host again now in a warmer future where climate change is happening.  

To that point, we’re going to talk about a few specific sports that have a great environmental impact and first up, skiing and golf courses. Both of these sporting events require a large amount of land that disrupts the natural landscapes and that includes impacts on the animal species and the flora, they cause erosion from the building of these landscapes, and they divert water. For ski and snow, sports in particular it’s interesting because they’re dependent on colder climates and we’ve seen in some recent events, particularly the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Games and the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic Games that there was problem having enough snow. Vancouver was actually considered a very green Olympics for the time, but they still had a too warm of a winter and had to make snow. Making snow creates pollutants and there’s a lot of water use involved. And that’s not just for the Olympic Games, of course, that’s for all the ski resorts that are happening around the world. They have these kinds of problems where they disrupt the landscape, they take water use and they might need to make snow. Keeping in mind that these are in fragile alpine environments where small changes can have big impacts.  There are some reforms on the books. For example, the Sustainable Slopes Initiative in the U.S. has something like 200 ski resorts signed on to look at the environmental impact around their design, water usage, forest management and other elements.  

Golf is another sport that has a large impact on the environment – it takes up a lot of space and there are these big landscapes being disrupted – but also, to keep the golf courses as green and as perfect as an environment as they want them to be there’s a lot of pesticides in use. There’s also a lot of lawn care that requires diesel equipment and fuel powered equipment. There’s also a lot of water for irrigation and that can be redirected from other sources. Now, there are some new organic golf courses and there are initiatives around carbon offsets for golf. But it’s still one of these sports that has a very high impact on the environment. In both cases, I think we see that there’s an interdependency of sport and the environment, particularly in skiing and snow sports, we need a healthy cold climate to support those kinds of sport. 

Now, I want to talk about the dual goals of sport and environmentalism. We can see that people that are concerned with climate change and environmentalism and sport, they’re making efforts to reduce carbon footprint of sport activities, things like zero waste stadiums. But there’s also an effort to exploit the popularity of sports to raise environmental awareness and this is a popular platform that sport serves in a lot of different social justice issues, whether it’s around race, diversity, violence, peace, things like that.  Sport, because it’s so popular and because it gets a lot of views, there’s also a lot of spectators and there’s a lot of publicity around it, it can be used as a vehicle to raise awareness over certain issues. 

So, in terms of reducing carbon footprint, we can see certain reforms in campaigns. As I mentioned, Agenda 21, you have not only the IOC, but many of the international federations that have adhered to these pledges. The international federations are our governing bodies over specific sports. One of the main associations people think of is FIFA – FIFA is the governing body, the International Federation, over the sport of football. But all the Olympic sports have international federations, FIBA for basketball, FIVB for volleyball, there’s FINA for the Swimming Federation and things like that. The Sustainable Slopes Initiative, golf course pollution reform and I also want to add in Formula E – the new Formula One electronic racing car in motor sports as they try to be more sustainable in that way.  

There are also efforts for net zero stadiums with carbon offsets, redesigning of stadiums so that they are carbon neutral or don’t produce any carbon impact. Sporting goods – reducing chemical waste in the production of sporting goods -such an example is the chemical PVC that’s used in things like cricket balls. There have been problems with that in terms of pollutants in the past, as well as how they’re manufactured – which is often in poor and developing countries that can create not only environmental damage but health damage to the people that work in those factories. Recycling is another example of efforts to reduce carbon footprint: Nike has a Reuse a shoe programme where they take shoes back that are worn out and they grind them up and make them into pitches and playgrounds in different communities.  That’s just one example but there are other similar re-use a shoe type programmes. 

In terms of promoting environmental awareness, we can see campaigns by clubs, leagues, sport governing bodies, so you see the blues pledge to try and turn green, that’s from the Welsh rugby team. There’s the Sky 0 promoting the net zero production of a football game, the #GameZero campaign to highlight efforts to reduce carbon footprint in sport. We then have athlete activism and sport events as fundraisers like races on a beach to help clean up the beach. Another thing to think about is sponsorships and who is sponsoring sport and how the sponsors can signal to viewers around environmental issues – you will see some of the adverts in sporting events that might be geared towards environmental issues.  But again, greenwashing is not enough, and these things must connect to real reform.  

What are some sustainable solutions? Well, there are some things that kind of apply to any major event or industry such as energy efficient facilities, recycling, carbon offsets, using things like green transport, renewable building materials and energy sources, water conservation and pollution reduction. Then we can move into some more sport specific elements like environmentally friendly sponsors, host city requirements. We talked a little bit about how the IOC has these requirements so when a city bids to host the Olympics, they must meet certain environmental requirements. Maybe those should be increased. Maybe those should be reanalysed to promote better, more sustainable mega events.  

We can also look at facility use. So having multiuse facilities that leave a legacy for people and the environment rather than building big stadiums that end up going unused or very underused over time after these events like the Olympics. 

But is it enough? Here’s an idea for an alternative model to mega events such as the Olympics or the World Cup: the organisers of those events, the IOC or FIFA, could declare one host city per continent and then rotate every Olympiad so that a different continent gets to host but we can select certain cities that already have the infrastructure in place. We would select those cities that have robust climate change policies. In this way we are rewarding the countries and regions and cities that are taking climate change seriously and adjusting their policies, rewarding them with an event like the Olympics.  Make better use of sport facilities and surrounding infrastructure so every time a host city is selected to host an event like the Olympics, it’s not just that they build sport facilities, but they might reroute train routes, improve their airports and make hotels and roads and cycle paths and things like that around their city are those infrastructure points are going to be improved to host games like this.  But if we host in specific cities again and again, then we don’t have to rebuild all those things -they can just be renovated and the specific sport facilities as well, could be renovated rather than rebuilt each time. In this way, we won’t see those images like we do in that that picture below. That’s from the Athens 2004 Olympics and it’s what they call a white elephant: a big stadium that is underused or not used at all.  

We could also lower the standard of newness. that’s one of the, you know, criticisms of organisations like the IOC and FIFA because they say they want to be green. They put together these campaigns and make pledges about environmental sustainability, but then set the standard for hosting events so high that you can’t really meet those ideals about environmental sustainability. So maybe we don’t have to have the newest, the most updated, the biggest stadiums to host these events. Maybe we can make do with some renovations around stadiums that are already there.  

In the end, we want to think that sport is ideally about health and well-being. We need a healthy environment for sport, from the top level of sport policy, we need these reforms, and they need to be serious and not just about greenwashing. That, in conjunction with some grassroot efforts from athletes, community clubs and just everyday people around the world can help align our policies and our efforts to better protect the environment and keep people in the game. 

Thank you. There are some references here, and I hope you’ve enjoyed this lesson and I hope you’re enjoying the conference on climate change. 

Theme by the University of Stirling