By Matt Thorogood, former Senior Analyst at Sancroft.
There has been growing awareness of the circular relationship sport has with the climate over the past few years. Sport contributes significantly to climate change, through stadium development, energy use, and through travel to events and matches. Climate change also poses a significant, and in some places existential, threat to some sporting teams – and in its extreme to entire sports:
- It is estimated 23 out of the 92 Football League clubs in the UK will be partially or completely submerged by rising sea levels by 2050.
- The conflict between golf and the environment has come into the news recently due to the actions of Extinction Rebellion protestors, who highlighted the exemption for golf clubs from the water ban in effect for the majority of the UK. Even in the most water stressed areas, where villages were understood to be short of drinking water, golf courses were still allowed to continue watering (with some key restrictions) – a situation XR flagged as unjust.
What impacts do sports have on the climate?
There are many ways that sporting organisations and events have an impact on climate change. The impressive stadia that are developed in advance of sporting events contain huge amounts of embodied carbon. Emissions are produced during the production and shipping of replica sportswear, which is a key revenue source of sports teams, particularly elite football clubs – and which add to the ever-increasing mountain of textile waste. There is also energy usage associated with the operations of a sports organisation, and on matchdays. However, undoubtedly the most direct damage is done by travel associated with sports, whether that be travel of participants, volunteers, staff and the media, or travel of fans and spectators. It is estimated that over 85% of the emissions of major sporting events are caused by long-distance and local travel. Transport is believed to account for over 60% of the carbon footprint of Premier League football clubs.
Case study 1 – pre-season team travel
Chelsea fans and environmentalists alike winced as the now former Chelsea manager, Thomas Tuchel, excused a disappointing loss against Leeds on the fact that staff couldn’t fly the 200-mile journey from London to Leeds and instead had to take a coach. But this is not out of the ordinary. Manchester United faced criticism for flying the 59-mile journey from Manchester airport to East Midlands airport ahead of a 4-2 loss against Leicester City in 2021. Although the impact of one team flying may not be too high, the effect is multiplied due to the number of fans, supporters and other staff that travel with the team, and of course by the number of matches that the team play in.
Nowhere is the troubling amount of air travel associated with the Premier League clearer than in pre-season friendlies. The table below shows the colossal mileage that many football clubs go to play in other countries (as a Leicester fan it is a league table that I am happy to be bottom of), aimed at attracting and maintaining support from foreign fans, which drive financial performance and therefore enable clubs to compete on the biggest stages. And that is precisely the challenge climate sustainability faces – it is perceived by football clubs to limit their abilities to compete and win football matches in the long run.
|Premier League teams||Air miles travelled in pre-season||C02 emissions per passenger (in Kg)||Carbon emissions per football team in Metric Tons|
|Brighton & Hove Albion||1916||296||8.88|
|West Ham United||1206||278||8.34|
Ultimately the desire of football clubs to compete in European and wider tournaments to prove themselves on a global stage, and the theory of playing friendlies across the world as the way to nurture a fanbase, must be in some way mitigated or compensated for in order to have a serious impact on climate change.
Case Study 2 – fan travel at sporting events
The sustainability strategy for both the Qatar World Cup and the Paris 2024 Olympics identifies the climate, and specifically emissions which cause climate change, as focus areas. Notably, both events have identified many ways to reduce emissions, with the additional commitment that they will offset the remainder of the emissions including that of spectator travel. It is unclear what exactly is included under the umbrella of ‘supporter travel’, and the Qatar World Cup has already faced criticism over the emissions calculations which have driven its climate change strategy. FIFA has identified supporter travel as the main driver of emissions at the tournament, accounting for more than 50% of the total.
Compensating supporter travel emissions by offsetting is imperfect for multiple reasons:
- Offsetting itself is not a magic bullet, and should really be used as a last resort in an organisation’s emissions reduction playbook. It is hugely preferable to stop emissions getting into the atmosphere in the first place. This concept is becoming more widely accepted by large corporates, yet sports organisations are lagging behind by seeing offsetting as a primary response to emissions.
- By compensating fan travel emissions, sports organisations are encouraging conventional air travel as a carbon neutral method of transport. This sends a dangerous message to the public which encourages air travel to be accepted uncritically.
How can climate impact from sports travel be mitigated?
Ultimately, to reduce emissions organisations could:
- Use innovation:
- Embrace the concept of ‘digital fans’ to contribute to the transition to a greener economy, finding a way to monetise their digital footprint rather than depending on their physical one.
- Reduce emissions associated with travel, by:
- Improving the infrastructure associated with public transport, working with local authorities and private providers to ensure public transport is available and ensuring this form of travel is affordable and desirable for fans. This could be either short term or long term – providing new value-adds for host cities could contribute to a reduction in emissions over many years, mitigating the environmental cost of travel today (eg. Building a low carbon transport hub).
- Encouraging appropriate use of air travel to those situations where it can’t be avoided, such as by reducing global ‘glamour friendlies’.
- Offset those emissions that can’t be reduced.
- There is always likely to be some residual emissions associated with sports travel. Ensuring offset schemes are high quality, verified schemes is a good way to increase the chance that the offset will be realised.
Sport is, in some ways, inherently focussed on increasing travel by its constant desire to grow. To become more sustainable, sport must either challenge that relationship, or find new ways to add value and make travel more environmentally friendly.
Sancroft is a leader in sustainability strategy with expertise in the sports market. If you would like to find out about how we can help you to explore how your sports organisation can be more sustainable, or to discuss our case studies, please get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org.