Sport plays a pivotal role in European culture, serving as a unifying force that brings people and nations together. It promotes healthy lifestyles, fosters strong communities, enhances social cohesion, and provides employment opportunities for millions of European citizens. For numerous individuals, sport holds immense value as an integral part of their life and cultural identity. And now, it can also play a pivotal role in climate action.
The relationship between sport and climate change can be characterized as complex. On one hand, sport's emissions contribute significantly to climate change. Conversely, extreme weather events such as heat waves pose challenges to competitions and adversely affect the health and performance of athletes.
A growing movement of individuals recognizes the imperative of making sport more environmentally sustainable. With billions of spectators, players, athletes, and facilitators worldwide, sport possesses an extensive social platform and global influence. It has the potential to raise awareness, influence behaviors, and shape attitudes towards climate action. Moreover, sport can lead the way in pioneering impactful solutions to reduce emissions.
Therefore, understanding the interaction between sport and climate change is crucial in shaping the future.
The Effects of Climate Change on Sport
Globally, the influence of a changing climate on sports, especially major events that attract millions of fans, is becoming increasingly apparent.
For instance, during the 2020 Australian Open, the tournament saw tennis players withdrawing due to poor air quality caused by wildfires. Similarly, the US Tennis Association implemented an "extreme heat policy" following the 2018 US Open, allowing players to take periodic breaks during high temperatures.
Extreme heat is not limited to summer sports alone. A recent study indicates that by 2050, nearly half of the previous Winter Olympic host cities may be unable to host future winter games due to diminishing snow and ice.
In a warming world with unpredictable weather patterns, races get postponed, and competitions get canceled, leading to significant disruptions for sports organizations and disappointment for athletes and spectators.
At the local level, the impacts manifest as meager ski seasons due to insufficient snow or the cancellation of sports lessons and practices due to heavy rain and flooded fields. Millions of individuals, as well as organizations responsible for managing sports facilities and activities, have already experienced climate-related impacts on their sports, and these challenges will only intensify with time.
Recognizing the stance of sport on the field
Despite the immense enjoyment and festivity associated with major sporting events, it is crucial to acknowledge their substantial carbon footprints. Activities such as air travel to and from events, stadium construction, sports equipment manufacturing, and waste generated by attendees contribute significantly to environmental impact.
For instance, estimates indicate that the 2016 Rio Olympics emitted 3.6 million tons of CO2, while the 2018 Russia World Cup released 2.16 million tons, equivalent to the greenhouse gas emissions of over 465,000 cars driving for an entire year.
The 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar, which positioned itself as the first carbon-neutral football tournament, faced controversy due to misleading claims. This exemplifies the phenomenon known as "sportswashing," akin to greenwashing, where sport is exploited as a means to enhance the reputation of a country or organization.
As Paris prepares to host the upcoming 2024 Olympics, organizers have set ambitious environmental goals, aiming for a "climate-positive" event overall. Although some remain skeptical, the event's carbon footprint will be significantly reduced since 95% of the venues for sporting events already exist. Learning from the lessons of Qatar will be vital to ensure that Paris lives up to its climate aspirations and becomes an exemplar for the industry.
Sports organizations, fans, and athletes all possess a crucial role in combating sportswashing by holding sports bodies accountable for their climate claims and actively engaging in meaningful climate action.
Initiating positive change through sports
The potential of sports to contribute to climate action extends beyond reducing the carbon footprint of events. It also entails fostering climate awareness and inspiring action among the vast number of sports fans.
Football, as the most popular sport in Europe, possesses the capacity to reach a wide audience and drive significant transformations. In 2022, UEFA (the Union of European Football Associations) partnered with the European Commission to raise awareness about energy conservation. As part of its Football Sustainability Strategy 2030: Strength through Unity, UEFA introduced sustainable football infrastructure guidelines.
LIFE TACKLE, an EU-funded project, aims to enhance the environmental management of football matches and increase climate change awareness. By engaging with key stakeholders, collecting best practices, and supporting national football associations throughout Europe, the project seeks to transform the way football events are organized.
The motorsports industry is another sector actively exploring a greener future, with a shift towards electric vehicles. António Gonçalves Pereira, a European Climate Pact Ambassador and founder of the non-profit organization EcoMood Portugal, is an expert in electric mobility. He expresses optimism about the growing sustainability of sports, highlighting that the World Rally Championship already incorporates hybrid cars (electric combined with synthetic low-emissions fuel). This example demonstrates that sustainable solutions can outperform traditional petrol cars, representing a significant step forward.
These endeavors within sports indicate a movement towards a more sustainable future, where sports play a vital role in driving positive change.
An inclusive force uniting communities at all levels
At the grassroots level, sports serve as a powerful tool to engage with communities, acting as a catalyst to capture the interest of sports fans and foster sustainable thinking.
Urša, leveraging her position within the Slovenian Olympic Committee, advocates for sustainable change within her community. Recognizing the potential of sports to connect with sustainability, she organized a basketball activity with a climate focus during the Europe Day celebrations on 9th May. By incorporating a climate angle, Urša encouraged players to choose a climate pledge and commit to it when they scored. This initiative generated 193 pledges, with the potential to save 123,256.50 kg of CO2 emissions. Notably, the Slovenian president, Nataša Pirc Musar, joined in and pledged to reduce food waste.
Local events hold significant influence in shaping the behavior of communities. In Portugal, António organizes a variety of green events throughout the year, including the vibrant Kidical Mass cycling campaign and a car-free day during European Mobility Week every September. He emphasizes the importance of raising awareness about sustainability through practical and enjoyable means. António believes that sport provides an excellent avenue to achieve this goal and has proven to be highly effective in inspiring change.
By utilizing sports as a platform, individuals like Urša and António are making a profound impact, engaging communities in sustainability discussions and actions, and fostering a sense of unity and responsibility at all levels.