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The Role of Sports in Climate Change

by Balša Dragović Global Commons Dec 20th 202214 mins
The Role of Sports in Climate Change

The magnitude of climate change is arguably best depicted in the fact that most, if not all, aspects of life are altered by it. The sport industry, one of the most popular forms of entertainment across the entire world, is no different. In the recent past, a surge in extreme weather conditions has already caused problems in holding sporting events. With the sport industry significantly contributing to global warming, it also has a large potential to be a part of the solution. However, its positive contribution has still not been maximised. We take a look at organisations that have found a way for sports to join the fight against climate change and continue to pave the way for others to follow.


A few years ago, the negative consequences of climate change in the world of sports were first-hand experienced by tennis players and fans. In 2018, organisers of the US Open were forced to implement a new tournament policy that allows players to take “a heat break” during their matches. The rule came into effect after several athletes withdrew from the tournament due to extreme heat conditions in New York City. Just two years later, a similar situation happened at another tennis Grand Slam. As wildfires were raging all over Australia, the poor air quality caused organisational problems at the Australian Open, once again forcing some players to retire from the tournament.

As expected, experts predict that climate change will continue to negatively affect sporting competition. For example, a study shows that around half of the former winter Olympics host cities won’t be able to sponsor the Games by 2050 due to a lack of snow and ice. A different research projects that nearly a quarter of English football stadiums will be partially or completely flooded every year.

Of course, none of these alarming forecasts appear to be as troublesome as the most threatening climate change-triggered events (water and food insecurity, energy shortages, and mass migration to name a few). Nevertheless, it is important to analyse the role of sports since they provide both a significant carbon footprint but also potentially impactful solutions.

The Impact of Sports on Climate Change

When examining the contribution of the sport industry on climate change, it is easier to describe how such a negative impact is made than to precisely state its magnitude. The reason is that an accurate method of keeping track and following its own carbon footprint is still not widely practiced within the industry.

However, according to a report by Rapid Transition Alliance: “The global sport sector contributes the same level of emissions as a medium-sized country.”

Examples of this are the 2016 Rio Olympics and the 2018 Russia World Cup, which resulted in 3.6 and 2.16 million tons of carbon dioxide respectively. In order to understand such substantial impact, one must take into account the carbon footprint that comes out of the construction and usage of sporting venues (lighting, heating and cooling), the transportation to/from competitions, as well as the production of sporting equipment.

You might also like: Qatar 2022: The Environmental Cost of the FIFA World Cup

How to Lower the Carbon Footprint of Sports?

Fortunately, there are numerous ways through which sports can help in our battle with climate change. The first (and most obvious) step is to halt their further negative impact by transitioning to sustainable means of operation (e.g. partnering with energy providers who generate electricity from the renewable sources). This change would not only decrease their carbon footprint, but also create financial savings.

Next, thanks to its broad popularity, sports could be a powerful tool for raising awareness about the climate crisis among people across the world, regardless of their geographical location and social background. Simply put, the industry could share important messages about the environment to billions of individuals that are involved in sports either as spectators, practitioners, or facilitators. Such strategy of increasing awareness and educating has shown good results in the past. Research found that fans are receptive to ecological initiatives organised at sporting events, some even to the extent that they are willing to change their lifestyle habits regarding sustainability. This study precisely concluded that “the norms related to sport events have a significant relationship with positive perceptions of the efforts undertaken by sport organisations while also influencing at-home environmental behavioural intentions.”

Social status of athletes can even have a further effect. For instance, at COP26 in Glasgow last year, more than 50 world Olympians and Paralympians (from Tokyo 2020) united to urge for ambitious climate change actions from global leaders. By doing so, athletes spread the word and raised awareness among their fans and especially young people who follow and, often, idolise them. This goes to show that, as the United Nations have perfectly put it, sport can be “recognised as a low-cost, high-impact tool to reach sustainable development, including addressing global warming.”

The Olympic Torch Lighting the Way

The sport organisation that has emerged as the industry’s sustainability leader is the International Olympic Committee (IOC). The involvement of IOC in climate change began in the aftermath of the 1992 United Nations summit, one of the first world meetings on the topic. The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), also known as the Earth Summit, took place in Rio de Janeiro and concluded that “the concept of sustainable development was an attainable goal for all the people of the world, regardless of whether they were at the local, national, regional or international level.”

Having that in mind, the major accomplishment of UNCED was the development of an action programme and cooperation strategy for the 21st century – the Agenda 21. One of the first organisations that followed this lead was the Olympic Movement (OM), which is governed by the IOC. Six weeks after the Rio Summit, the OM’s leading members (International Sports Federations and National Olympic Committees) signed the Earth Pledge at the XXV Olympiad in Barcelona.

In 1994, the environment was officially included as the third pillar of Olympism, and the role of IOC became “to encourage and support a responsible concern for environmental issues, to promote sustainable development in sport and to require that the Olympic Games are held accordingly.” Furthermore, the OM published its own Agenda 21 that outlined the ways for the sporting community to be more sustainable and oriented towards a greener future.

Ever since then, the promotion of these values has been demonstrated during the actual Olympic Games. At the 1994 Lillehammer Winter Olympics, which were the first Games to explicitly include environmental concerns, the IOC and UN Environment Programme agreed to a cooperation. The Olympic Village for the 2000 Sydney Olympiad became the world’s largest solar-powered suburb, proving that green technologies for housing are possible even on a large scale. Two years later, the Salt Lake Games demonstrated an energy recycling system, which used the curling hall’s air conditioning unit to heat up the venue’s showers and bathrooms.

Athens, home to the first-ever modern Olympic Games in 1896, was chosen to be the host once again in 2004. For that occasion, the city transport infrastructure significantly improved, resulting in better air quality. Similar outcomes were accomplished in preparation for the 2008 Summer Olympics, which were held in Beijing. Since poor air quality had historically been a major issue in Beijing and the country as a whole, the Chinese authorities, as a part of their pre-Olympic plan, took many steps to improve it. For example, they removed more than 300,000 high-emitting vehicles from the street, relocated polluting factories, and converted old household heating systems from coal to natural gas. Additionally, by creating urban greenbelts, the total green area of the city increased to 43%. The final outcome of all projects resulted in 16.4 million of tonnes of carbon dioxide being absorbed during seven years prior to the Games.

sports climate change; olimpics

The Olympic Games in Beijing. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The last decade’s Olympics also presented various sustainability innovations and environmentally friendly practices. According to many, the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games set new standards by coming up with several great ideas. For instance, the Olympic speed-skating venue was built by salvaged timber which had been eaten by mountain pine beetles. Biological diversity was also given much attention, as several species (e.g. locally significant plants, tailed frogs) were relocated rather than endangered during the construction of sporting venues. 

London 2012 was the first Olympiad to measure its carbon footprint throughout the entire project term as well as to commit to and achieve a ‘zero waste to landfill’-target. By doing so, the organisers managed to save an equivalent of 400,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide. The Olympic Park, which was built on once-contaminated industrial land, was later converted into the biggest urban parkland in Europe over the previous 150 years. The following Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro also had some significant positive accomplishments: total of nine kilometres of rivers were recovered through restoration practices, while new waste and wastewater treatment stations were established.

However, probably the most impressive sustainability results were achieved at the last Summer Olympics – Tokyo 2020. Among many ecological initiatives, the ones that particularly stood out were in domains of recycling and carbon neutrality. Recycling was indeed one of the “3Rs” (Reduce/Reuse/Recycle) promoted during the Games. For competition purposes, only eight new venues were built from scratch, 10 sites were temporary constructed, while some of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics locales were just renovated.

Furthermore, 99% of non-consumable items acquired for the tournament, including timber wood, computers, tablets, electrical appliances as well as office desks and chairs, were reused or recycled afterwards. Even the beds in the Olympic Village were built from recyclable cardboard and the athletes’ 5,000 medals were made out of precious materials extracted from old electronic devices, which were obtained from the Japanese public in a nation-wide donation campaign.

In terms of carbon footprint, the Tokyo Games did not only use most of its energy from renewable sources (solar arrays, wood biomass power), but they also went beyond the neutrality by offsetting all the direct and indirect emissions produced throughout the event. This was mainly accomplished through emission trading programmes, which ended up creating an offset of 4.38 million tonnes of CO2 in comparison to the total 1.96 million tonnes of generated carbon footprint.

Additionally, the organisers put an emphasis on the usage of hydrogen. For the first time in the tournament history, this fuel flamed the Olympic torch and nearly 500 hydrogen-cell electric vehicles were used for transportation. At the same time, electricity generated with pure hydrogen supplied power for many residential buildings in the Olympic and Paralympic Village. As a matter of fact, the Village will become Japan’s first hydrogen-powered town, as it has been planned to transform it into “hydrogen-powered flats, a school, shops and other facilities.”

Precisely the longevity of Olympic sites is another aspect to which the IOC has paid a great attention to. The Olympic Games Impact (OGI) studies were created to help city candidates understand and quantify potential impacts of hosting an Olympiad. Such studies are a prerequisite for all host cities, and they encompass a total of 12 years (two prior to the Host City Election plus three post-Games years).

Thus, the IOC strives to explain the environmental impacts, including the positive legacies that carry over beyond the immediate world of the Games. Interestingly, in the past, many unsuccessful candidate cities were able to deliver legacies, as they developed and implemented ‘green’ initiatives regardless of the negative outcome of their bid. Great examples are New York City, Manchester, Chicago, and Sion.

You might also like: The Uncertain Future of the Olympic Winter Games

Private and National Actions for Sustainable Venues

There has been a handful of organisations established in the previous years with the goal of promoting green and circular economies in sports. One of them is the Sports Environment Alliance (SEA), a not-for-profit organisation created to protect and improve the natural environment of Australasia. Their idea is to use the sport industry as a ‘megaphone’ from which the importance of sustainable development and regeneration will be transmitted. Through creative campaigns, like #NoPlanetNoPlay, the SEA wants to motivate sport participants to specifically address climate change by protecting spaces where games and matches are played.

The list of SEA members varies from local community and professional clubs to city councils, schools, state and national sports organisations such as the Australian football, tennis, cricket, and golf federations. Aside from contributing to scientific research reports, the SEA has presented at the COP21 and co-chaired the 2018 Sustainable Innovations in Sports Forum. To stimulate a responsible use of resources, the organisation strives to educate, encourage, and engage general public with the idea of clean future.

Similarly, a membership platform GOAL (Green Operations and Advanced Leadership) aims to help sporting venues operate in environmentally friendly ways with a software that has “a tactical roadmap, a library of resources, progress tracking tools and the free exchange of knowledge and experience among GOAL member venues.” The platform was created by the American Oak View Group (OVG) and among its first members were the NBA franchise Atlanta Hawks and its State Farm Arena.

Another organisation that has been doing significant work in connecting sports and sustainability is the Green Sports Alliance (GSA). Interestingly, this past November, GSA and OVG entered a strategic collaboration “to better support the sport industry’s response to climate change.” The Green Sports Alliance is an environmentally focused trade organisation that aims to create awareness and change for a more sustainable future. To reach such a goal, the GSA gathers various stakeholders from the sport industry and currently counts 600 members. The most notable include the NBA and some of its franchises (Spurs, Celtics, Suns, Jazz, 76ers, Cavaliers, Heat), numerous NFL teams (Patriots, Broncos, Chiefs, Yankees, etc.), as well as United States Tennis and Golf associations, NASCAR, NHL and MLB. Additionally, many U.S. universities are also involved in the GSA: Yale, Notre Dame, Penn State, Texas A&M, North Carolina State, Loyola Marymount, etc. Stanford University, another GSA member, went a step further and offered a course on “Sustainability in Athletics” in its curriculum.

One of the GSA’s strategies is to share recourses and experience from which their members can learn and find inspiration. A concrete example of that strategy is Food Waste Diversion and Compostable Packaging Playbook, where the Alliance presented numerous case studies of stadiums from the United States which transitioned their waste from landfill to circular economy. It is also important to mention that, on GSA’s initiative, October 6th is now recognised as the Green Sports Day, during which sport teams raise public awareness about the green movement. Interestingly, in 2016, the initiative was supported by The White House and the Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Around the same time period, the US government passed two analogous federal initiatives. The first one established a workshop that created a roadmap for the design, construction, and operation of energy efficient sporting facilities; while the second one selected sport ambassadors (professional athletes and coaches) and sent them abroad to educate youth on issues including the environment.

A few other countries, such as Zambia, Cape Verde, and Palau, also addressed the importance of sustainability in sports. The last two countries are especially interesting, as they are both archipelagos, which are naturally in the most danger of sea level rising due to climate change.

The Football Contribution

Since football is globally considered to be the most popular sport, it is noteworthy taking a look at how some professional clubs have addressed the issue of sustainability.

Some European football teams with the longest traditions have lately been contributing to this field as well. For example, the Italian football powerhouse AC Milan joined Puma’s ‘Re:Jersey’ campaign that has a goal of closing the loop on training clothes. Ever since, the club has been urging its fans to donate the unwanted polyester-made jerseys to be chemically reprocessed and used to produce 100% recycled polyester training kits. Aside from Milan, the campaign has been joined by Manchester City, Borussia Dortmund, and Olympique de Marseille. 

Another famous club, Chelsea F.C., changed its energy suppliers to become more environment friendly. The Brook Green Supply Ltd now provides the club with the energy from renewable sources (wind, landfill gas, and solar). Chelsea’s front office called the change “massive” and pointed out how it will, among other things, help them climb the Sports Positive Premier League table. This sustainability league, apart from England, has been launched in the top French and German football competitions.

Nevertheless, the absolute star in terms of sustainability among football clubs is currently Galatasaray S.K. Last year, the Turkish team and its energy provider Enerjisa installed over 10,000 solar panels on the club’s stadium, making it the largest solar power plant of that kind. And in March 2022, a new Guinness World Record for the amount of megawatts produced by stadium’s solar panels was set when Galatasaray’s Nef Stadyumu generated 4.2 megawatts of such energy. The record-breaking number equals to the energy usage of 2,000 houses and it will decrease the annual carbon footprint by 3,250 tonnes, which furthermore translates to approximately 200,000 saved trees over 25 years.

sports climate change

Galatasaray Nef Stadyumu. Source: Wikimedia Commons

This Istanbul stadium has a capacity to host 52,280 spectators, and the solar energy provides 63-65% of the venue’s electricity usage. But, since Nef Stadyumu is fully using its lighting system only for the official matches (ca. 150 hours a year), a portion of the solar energy remains unused. Therefore, Galatasaray sells the remaining energy to the surrounding area. Interestingly, the whole idea of installing solar panels originated from the stadium’s director Ali Çelikkıran, who is an electric engineer by training.

Last but not least, it should be noted that, according to FIFA, Forest Green Rovers (FGR) is the world’s greenest football club. This English team, which competes in the national third tier league, became the world’s first UN-certified carbon-free team and it also received the UN’s “Momentum for Change” climate action award in 2018. There are several reasons for such recognitions. Club’s current stadium: uses 100% renewable energy, recycles rainwater, has an organic field pitch and a solar-powered robotic lawnmower. That being said, FGR plans to build a new carbon-free wooden stadium, which would among many sustainability features, increase its location’s biodiversity by 12%.

You might also like: Qatar 2022: The Environmental Cost of the FIFA World Cup

Hurdles on the Green Track

Over the years, it has been repeatedly shown that climate change is not bypassing sports. For a part of its community, such a realisation has served as a wakeup call that sports have the power to be a catalyst for positive change.

Among fans and especially among professional athletes, the Olympic Games represent the pinnacle of sporting competition. Therefore, it is very fitting to have the International Olympic Committee as the leading organisation for sustainability within the whole industry. Numerous private organisations, national governments and professional clubs stand right behind, following the Olympic direction.

Nevertheless, there are obstacles along the way. For example, a lack of comprehensive data on carbon footprint produced by sports organisations makes it difficult to provide precise recommendations and create an effective sustainable agenda. A possible solution for the issue is a standardised assessment approach that would be applied across the sport industry. Furthermore, in order to stimulate clubs and organisations to follow such a regulated practice, the national governments should also create policies to incentivise the transition to renewable energy and sustainability.

Additionally, sports organisations, in some instances, declare their commitments to sustainability, but at the same time develop partnerships with companies that do very little to contribute to the green future. Rather than participating in this type of greenwashing, the sports organisations should strive to follow the example of the Forest Green Rovers. Subsequently, fans would adopt the trend and the green domino effect would be created.

Sometimes, the barriers can also be very concrete. As pointed out by the director of Nef Stadyumu in Istanbul, the large solar panel installation was possible because of the venue’s retractable roof, which has the right shape to take in sunlight and sustain the weight of thousands of panels. Other stadiums (i.e. Camp Nou of Barcelona F.C.) maybe do not have that capacity, hence applying the Galatasaray’s idea might not be possible for every club.

Regardless, as we have seen – there are always ways to contribute. The bad news for sports is that they have a lot of room for improvement; however, the good one is that there are plenty of great examples to learn from.

You might also like: Achieving Net Zero: Where Are We Today?


About the Author

Balša Dragović

Balša Dragović is a graduate of Harvard College, where he studied History and Science with a focus on Environmental Science and Public Policy. Since completing his studies, he has been playing basketball professionally in various European countries. His research interests include biodiversity, conservation, and climate change, especially on the Balkan Peninsula.

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