Sport’s carbon footprint is global bad news

Sport gives pleasure to countless millions: Could it also give them hope? Image: By Thomas Serer on Unsplash

The result of sport’s carbon footprint is worldwide damage. And global heating is itself penalising players and fans alike.

LONDON, 22 June, 2020 − The amount of damage caused by global sport’s carbon footprint and the other forms of climate pollution sport produces matches the havoc resulting from the activities of entire countries, a new study by a British journalist says.

Emissions from global sport fuelling the climate emergency could, at the low end of estimates, equal those of a nation like Bolivia, but could reasonably also match those of nations like Spain or Poland, which consume much more fossil fuel.

But the climate crisis is in its turn exacting a heavy price from the sporting world. The study says that by 2050:

  • A quarter of English league football grounds will be at risk from flooding every season
  • One in three British Open golf courses will be damaged by rising sea levels
  • Globally, half of previous Winter Olympic cities will be unreliable as winter sports hosts.

The studyPlaying against the clock: Global sport, the climate emergency and the case for rapid change − was written by the British sports journalist David Goldblatt for the Rapid Transition Alliance (RTA). It warns that the climate emergency, already damaging, will have far more severe consequences for several individual sports.

“Perhaps most important of all, the global sports industry needs to reprioritise grassroots and local sport over professional and global sport”

Climate change affects every aspect of human life, sport included. In 2019, the Rugby World Cup was disrupted by unprecedented Pacific typhoons; in early 2020, the Australian Tennis Open was disrupted by the smoke blowing in from the country’s devastating bush fires.

The Tokyo 2020 Olympics had to move long-distance running events 600 miles north of Tokyo, as the city’s sweltering summer now makes them impossible to run there.

The impact on competitors can be severe. “Once you start hitting 33-35°C and you are playing sport, it’s all bad news”, the report says, “and there are going to be a lot more days like that in the global sporting calendar in the next few decades.” And that’s before allowing for the inevitable increase in humidity.

Few sports appear likely to remain immune: the study lists some of the ways in which football, cricket, tennis, athletics, motor racing and others will be hit, as well as possible threats to spectators and fans, many of whom will have travelled long distances to see the events.

Inertia prevails

The report suggests radical reforms for the rapid decarbonising of world sport, from committing every organisation to a carbon-zero plan by 2030, to ending sponsorship by fossil fuel interests. While it acknowledges the best and most innovative practice in sport’s environmental governance, it paints a stark picture of inaction.

In sporting parlance, the world is already deep into extra time. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has warned that we must deliver carbon reductions in the next decade if we are to mitigate the worst aspects of climate change. Dr Goldblatt believes global sport can offer visionary leadership on climate action.

One positive suggestion is this: “Perhaps most important of all, the global sports industry needs to reprioritise grassroots and local sport (low carbon) over professional and global sport (high carbon).”

And he goes further: “Sport may be just big enough to register, in terms of carbon emissions, as a small nation state, or a single mega-city, but its own efforts are just a fraction of a percentage point of the world total”, he says.

“Yet few human practices offer such an extraordinarily large, global, and socially diverse constituency as those playing and following sport.

Hope for humanity

“Making a carbon-zero world the common sense priority of the sports world would make a huge contribution to making it the common sense priority of all politics.

“Sport, from the street to the stadium, generates hope … [and] a precious set of cultural treasures to hold in trust for the world. If global sport is ready to adopt and pursue really radical change in the field of climate action, it might be able to offer them, in all good faith, to humanity … and then you just never know.”

Andrew Simms, coordinator of the RTA, echoes that. He says: “Sport provides some of society’s most influential role models. If sport can change how it operates to act at the speed and scale necessary to halt the climate emergency, others will follow.

“If its players also speak out and say they believe clean air and a stable climate matter, millions more will see the possibilities for change. It will not only send a send a message of hope for the wider world, but it will help to guarantee a planet that is safe for sport.” − Climate News Network

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This report is published by the Rapid Transition Alliance, which is kindly supported by the KR Foundation, and the report is backed by Play the Game. The climate is changing faster than we are and the Alliance is an international initiative asking how we can speed up responses. It is coordinated by a small group of people drawn from the New Weather Institute, the School of Global Studies at the University of Sussex, and the ESRC STEPS Centre at the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU) and the Institute of Development Studies, and with help from our friends, colleagues and supporters.

The Climate News Network is partnering with and supported by the Rapid Transition Alliance, and will be reporting regularly on its work. If you would like to see more stories of evidence-based hope for rapid transition, please sign up here. Do you know a story of rapid transition? If so, we’d like to hear from you. Please send us a brief outline. Thank you.

About Alex Kirby

Alex Kirby is a former BBC journalist and environment correspondent. He now works with universities, charities and international agencies to improve their media skills, and with journalists in the developing world keen to specialise in environmental reporting.