Sports clubs and competitions around the world are making dubious claims about their environmental credentials. We ask why they’re doing this, and whether sports can become more eco-friendly.
At a recent event run by the Global Sustainability Benchmark in Sports, Christian Hartmann, the company’s CEO, asked experts from a law firm what they saw for the future of sustainability in sport. “I was thinking they would say regulators and governments will start to set reporting standards [for things like emissions]”. Instead, the legal experts told him: “We’re expecting more lawsuits, because these organisations are claiming something that is not actually the case.”
The claims those lawyers described can broadly be categorised as ‘greenwashing’. This is the idea that sports events, leagues, and individual clubs around the world are making a lot of noise about environmental initiatives which fail to stand up to scrutiny. If they continue claiming to be eco-friendly without being so, then the legal minds Hartmann spoke to reckon clubs and leagues will start being taken to court over false assertions.
Greenwashing isn’t exactly new, and it’s found in many industries. However, given the enormous reach and appeal of sports, dubious environmental claims by the bodies behind them are especially concerning.
While many sports organisations make declarations about their greenness, the most scrutinised are those with the highest profiles: FIFA’s World Cup and the Olympics. On examination, it seems that some of the claims made by the organisers of recent and upcoming events are questionable, at least.
The most recent men’s football jamboree was billed as the first ever carbon-neutral World Cup. This was despite the construction of seven new stadiums, countless flights by players and fans, and the emission of 3.6 million tonnes of CO2 (up from two million tonnes at the 2018 Russia World Cup). Qatar accounted for its carbon neutrality by buying lots of carbon offsets, mainly for renewable energy projects.
However, the World Cup came in for a lot of criticism about these claims. Khaled Diab of Carbon Market Watch, a non-profit, says “the World Cup’s carbon neutrality claim is founded on very shaky ground”. In that organisation’s analysis, Qatar significantly undercounted emissions associated with constructing venues, as well as the enormous amounts of air travel associated with fans flying into the tiny nation.
Beijing also claimed last year’s Winter Olympics were carbon-neutral, thanks to offsetting (millions of trees were planted) and its extensive use of clean energy to power the event itself. But once again, the games’ eco-credentials have been widely disputed. For instance, all the snow used on the arid mountains where the games took place was artificial – troubling, given China’s pervasive water shortages. Sensitive nature reserves were also damaged by the creation of ski slopes.
The Tokyo summer games also made a lot of noise about its carbon neutrality. The Japanese organisers saved quite a lot of emissions by reusing existing infrastructure where possible and powered the event with renewable energies. They also supplied zero-emissions vehicles to ferry athletes around. The fact that Covid-19 prevented foreign fans travelling surely helped to keep down emissions too.
However, activists and researchers have found some questionable goings-on. For example, Dr Sven Daniel Wolfe, a geographer at the University of Zurich, explains that organisers claimed they’d used sustainably sourced timber to build many of the stadia. However, investigations by NGOs revealed that the wood actually came from protected rainforests in south-east Asia.
For the forthcoming Paris Olympics, the event’s organisers plan to limit emissions to 1.5 million tonnes of CO2, down from the average of 3.5 million for recent games. Paris’s residual emissions will be offset, they say. But again, these lofty ambitions receive a lot of scepticism from experts.
Wolfe points out that surfing events at the Paris games will be taking place in the French overseas territory of Tahiti, 11,000km from the city of lights. “Is that ecologically sustainable, to fly a tonne of people out there? And then, of course, you’re going to have to build a bunch of other infrastructure to host all those international guests.”
Perhaps the most disappointing thing about the claims of these major events is how far from reality they seem to be. Wolfe and his colleagues have analysed data from all the Olympic Games (winter and summer) since 1992, and found that their environmental, social and economic impact has become progressively worse.
From an ecological perspective, Sochi 2014 was the worst-scoring winter games, while Beijing 2008 was the worst-performing summer spectacle. The reason they’re getting worse is simple: each city feels their games needs to be bigger, better and brasher than the last. That, inevitably, entails more emissions.
This is all despite the International Olympic Committee’s 2014 announcement of ‘Agenda 2020’, a plan to improve the games’ overall sustainability (among other positive ambitions). But this well-intentioned drive doesn’t seem to have been a great success, as Wolfe explains: “I really cannot overstate how massive the Agenda 2020 has been at reshaping the processes of Olympic reform, how sincerely people at the IOC believe in their mission… and how spectacularly they managed to change the window-dressing, but leave the fundamental inequalities intact. It’s actually impressive to see!” Neither the IOC nor FIFA replied to several requests for comment on this article.
Organisers of big events like the World Cup or Olympics appear either naïve or cynical. Why would they even claim to be carbon neutral when this is quite patently not true? Did they really expect everyone to believe they are bastions of environmentalism?
For Diab of Carbon Market Watch, it’s little more than a feel-good marketing fad. “Everyone and his uncle is claiming to be climate friendly and carbon neutral and net zero” today, he says. But for the Qatari organisers of the World Cup in particular, it was also an attempt to tackle a lot of the criticism around how the country was awarded the event (it was dogged by allegations of bribery) and poor conditions for construction workers. Talking about the positive environmental impacts might have been a misguided attempt to improve the competition’s image.
It’s a shame such big events, which capture billions of people’s imagination and emotions, do seem to be behaving so hypocritically. But how much does it really matter? In 2021, humanity emitted a whopping 37 billion tonnes of CO2, while the World Cup released 3.6 million tonnes. The football bonanza therefore represents about 0.01 per cent of the total. Is it really that fair – or even that relevant – to focus so heavily on these events?
Professor Robert Wilby, a geographer at the University of Loughborough, points out that “sport brings a lot of joy and pleasure into people’s lives. Estimates vary, but there are something like four billion soccer fans worldwide. So that’s half the global population following soccer to varying degrees. 2.5 billion support cricket, 2 billion support ice and field hockey, 1 billion support tennis.” Although the emissions of sports themselves are negligible, these events “have a disproportionate scope to influence and inform people’s behaviours”.
There’s no doubt that other activities, such as cement production, are far worse for the environment. Yet who’s going to get excited, or be influenced by the activities of the cement industry? So, when highly influential organisations make big environmental claims then fail to back them up with action, they’re asking for scrutiny. What’s more, if they really do ‘walk the walk’ and become more climate friendly, then they could influence fans’ behaviour in a way other industries just can’t.
So how do sporting events affect the environment, and what can be done about measuring then reducing those impacts?
“It’s travel,” says Professor Robert Wilby. “When you look across the board, regardless of the sport, it’s the travel, and especially international travel,” which is the major source of sporting emissions. With colleagues, Professor Wilby has conducted a study which tried to categorise the environmental impacts of all sports, and found that travel always dominated emissions. As a very rough estimate, about half of sports emissions come from teams and fans travelling to events, about 25 per cent are from infrastructure and operations, and most of the rest is related to accommodation (plus a bit for food, drinks, equipment and so on). Of course, there’s a huge amount of variation within and between sports.
Christian Hartmann of the Global Sustainability Benchmark in Sports (GSBS) argues that to help address their emissions, clubs, leagues and competitions need to start measuring and reporting them. His organisation was only set up in 2020 but has created a comprehensive reporting framework for sporting organisations to start measuring their environmental efforts (plus social and governance issues). By providing data about their activities, sports bodies can then get a score for how they’re doing, and work towards improving it.
Although there are bright spots (see box on Formula E), Hartmann notes that many sports are starting from a very low level when it comes to being ‘sustainable’. Many lack basic knowledge of how to measure their direct and indirect carbon emissions, and what they should be measuring. Responsibility for sustainability is also often done in-house by employees with little or no relevant qualifications.
To make matters worse, Hartmann says, “we very often see long-term goals, such as being carbon neutral by 2030. But when you look at these clubs’ plans, it means very often not doing anything for the next five or six years,” then basically hoping it will sort itself out. Many sports clubs and leagues appear to believe that some new technology, such as carbon capture and storage, will come along soon, thereby letting them achieve carbon neutrality without really changing anything.
Professor Wilby at Loughborough says that starting to reduce a club’s environmental impact isn’t necessarily that difficult. Even small outfits can begin cutting carbon emissions themselves using readily available resources online to calculate where they emit greenhouse gases and how much.
While it’s positive to hear that there are efforts under way to reduce emissions from sport, is this anywhere near enough? For some, more radical actions are required. Wolfe at Zurich says many experts who study mega-events like the Olympics or the World Cup from a sustainability perspective reach the conclusion that they’re unreformable, and that the only real solution is to abolish them.
However, Wolfe thinks that’s unrealistic. “The problem with the ‘abolish’ argument is this: do people care that much [about sport’s environmental impact]? And I think the answer is no, they don’t. People really love these games; they give everything for it.”
Besides fans’ love of the sports, there’s a sort of tribal, national pride around them. “We need our bread and circuses,” Wolfe reckons. And that’s before we consider the vast sums of money these events generate for players, sponsors, and the whole media scrum.
For Wolfe, a big step to making the Olympics more sustainable would be to rotate the games between a handful of cities with existing facilities. That would avoid each host country having to invest vast sums of money building infrastructure that only really gets used for two and a half weeks. He envisages different countries ‘hosting’ a cultural programme (e.g. Peru running a Games in London using the existing buildings rather than building their own in Lima).
Reducing travel would also be a good start. Switching plane travel to train. Not inviting the whole executive board of football clubs to each international game. Choosing not to spread sports competitions over multiple countries (the next World Cup will take place in Mexico, Canada and the USA).
Meanwhile, for Diab of Carbon Market Watch, a good start would be “going back to the true spirit of international sports; the camaraderie and the solidarity and the interpersonal, human and intercultural exchange… rather than this commercial circus, that a lot of these mega sporting events have become”.
If it seems unlikely that big sports events would change for idealistic reasons, perhaps reality will reform them instead. Climate change may well make many sports harder if not impossible. Winter sports will suffer from a lack of snow. Many outdoor games will also struggle if temperatures continue to rise.
If the climate doesn’t do it, then maybe the money will. Hartmann of GSBS says major brands are likely to start rethinking their relationship with sports organisations that don’t take things like climate change seriously. During the recent World Cup, Rewe, a major German supermarket chain, said it would end sponsorship for the German football association over its stance on ‘one love’ player armbands at the Word Cup. In a similar way, the fear of lost revenues might just push sports to finally stop greenwashing, and enact change.
Formula-E shows how elite sports can be climate friendly
“I’d never say it’s easy!” laughs Julia Pallé, sustainability director at Formula E, the single-seater electric vehicle racing championship. Nevertheless, her organisation recently came highest in GSBS’s rankings for sustainable sports organisations, in recognition of its work to achieve ‘net zero’ emissions.
Pallé explains that ever since the championships began in 2014, Formula E has followed a three-step process to cut emissions: measure, reduce, and communicate. From the start, Formula E has been tracking emissions associated with every single race. This not only includes direct emissions (‘scope 1’ in the jargon) from things like energy used to light the tracks, but also indirect scope 2 and scope 3 emissions (suppliers, how fans travel to events, the emissions of racing teams, etc).
Measuring is followed by cutting as far as possible. One obvious example is to power the events with green energy. In some locations where there simply isn’t enough solar or wind power, generators are powered by biofuels. Formula E is also working closely with DHL, its logistics partner, to come up with the most efficient ways to transport cars and equipment to events. All the participating teams must have their own environmental management plan too.
The championship also tries to influence fan behaviour. It encourages the use of public transport to get to races, while also providing vegetarian and vegan food options. Finally, Formula E does offset some residual emissions, but Pallé says this is through “gold standard”, UN-certified projects.
Qatar is accused of significantly undercounting emissions associated with constructing venues as well as with air travel by those attending the event
‘When you look across the board, regardless of the sport, it’s the travel, and especially international travel, which is the major source of sporting emissions.’
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