Sport, whether at a grassroots or international level, does not happen in a vacuum. It is embedded in both local and global social, economic and environmental realities. Needless to say, the sector is not discrete from one of the most pressing challenges of recent times – climate change. Sport has a vital role to play in tackling climate change. It has an unrivalled capacity to both be an advocate and lead by example.
From grass pitches for football and cricket, snow and ice for winter games, to water for sailing or surfing, sport is fundamentally linked to the environment. Correspondingly, the sector also greatly impacts the environment due to its sheer volume and reach. Considering the global sports industry is estimated to be worth around $600 billion, and is responsible for approximately 50 to 60 billion tonnes of CO2e, it’s worth examining what’s behind the staggering footprint of the industry.
The carbon footprint of global sporting events
The environmental impact of sporting organisations and events is complex and hard to measure. It includes emissions from transportation to and from events by athletes, staff and spectators, the construction and use of various sporting venues and facilities, supply chains for the merchandise and sports equipment, as well as food and beverages (looking at those hot dogs and chips).
Football is the most popular sport in the world, the FIFA World Cup being the sector’s most prominent event, with a projected five billion people globally watching the month-long tournament. In 2022, the FIFA World Cup Qatar generated an estimated 3.63 million tonnes of CO2e, of which the majority (95%) are indirect emissions, mainly from travel (1.9 million tCO2e) and accommodation (728,403 tCO2e) for match attendees in Qatar, including the general public, officials and staff.
Even though the world cup happens once in four years, elite football competitions continue year-round. Case in point: English Premiere League and UEFA Champions League consist of 380 and 125 matches each year. The annual emissions of Manchester City football club for the year 2021 were 1,297 tCO2e. It is estimated that the global football industry produces more than 30 million tonnes of carbon dioxide every year, which is about the same size as the total emissions of Denmark.
The International Olympics Committee estimated that the total carbon footprint of the Tokyo Olympics 2020 was 1.96 million tCO2e, of which most of the emissions came from business travel. It’s no revelation that air travel is one of the worst culprits of carbon emissions, especially for industries that rely on constant air travel like sports. Several leagues and international competitions showed a blueprint of what effect reduced travel could have on the overall footprint. In the case of the Tokyo Olympics Games 2020, the carbon emissions fell by 800,000 tonnes because the Games were held with almost no spectators.
In 2019, the carbon footprint of Formula One was estimated to be 256,551 tonnes CO2e, of which 45% of emissions came from logistics (including moving equipment), and 27.7% via business travel. However, in 2020 the emissions came down to 155,104 tonnes of CO2e due to fewer races, reduced travel and logistics.
The carbon footprint of grassroots sports
When it comes to sport at a grassroots level, it is challenging to measure carbon emissions due to the various factors involved, such as
According to a report, local sports facilities and leisure centres contribute as much as 40% of a council’s carbon footprint. For instance, a Buckinghamshire-based tennis and fitness centre produced 121 tonnes of CO2e in 2019, equivalent to powering over 100 homes.
According to a 2018 study in Germany, the average annual carbon footprint for individual sports was around 1006 kg CO2e, while for an individual participating in team sports was 514 kg CO2e. Sport-specific comparisons show skydiving has the highest carbon footprint (2,841kg CO2e), followed by golf (2,195 kg CO2e). Ironically, golf, which may seem green from the outside, has a considerable environmental impact. An average golf course in the US has an annual carbon footprint of approximately 796,577 CO2e, most of which comes from energy consumption and the manufacture, transport and application of pesticides on the grounds.
What can sport do?
A quick glance at the above numbers shows the massive difference in the impact of sports at a grassroots and global level. While the sport industry is in general lagging behind in the green transition, some organisations are now progressively trying to reconstruct their business model to a more sustainable approach.
Existing climate action
At an international level, football clubs such as Manchester City and Arsenal FC are investing in carbon reduction initiatives, including obtaining LEED certification for stadiums, switching to renewable energy and installing automated LED lighting on club sites.
While at a grassroots level, local sports centres are implementing carbon reduction strategies to reduce their overall emissions. For instance, the Halton Tennis Centre in Buckinghamshire switched from 2000w halogen bulbs to 900w LED bulbs on 13 courts, resulting in enormous carbon savings of nearly 5.2 tonnes of CO2e.
Read more about existing Climate Action in the Sport Sector.
Impetus for further action
Much like any other industry, stakeholder groups, be it fans, sponsors or governing bodies, are demanding sustainability action. A 2019 study found that 74% of football fans agreed that they cared about the sustainable impacts of their favourite football club. Therefore, sport has a vital role to play in climate education and action. Much like sport, climate change requires collaboration at a local and global level. Sport has several factors, such as reach and resources, that enable the sector to influence behaviour change amongst staff, fans and players.
The upcoming Carbon Literacy Sports Kit will be instrumental in helping the sport sector to take up the mantle of facilitating this behaviour change. The kit is set to be launched in Spring 2023 and will give sports organisations, clubs, and centres the capability and confidence to drive real change and make climate and community smart choices towards a low-carbon future. For more information, email email@example.com.