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Volume 22 No. 35
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Sport can be a model industry on climate issues, now and later

As of state, influential business leaders and diplomats descended upon New York in the latest attempt to thrash out a solution to the impending climate crisis during Climate Week in September, a few blocks away the New York Road Runners — the body responsible for organizing the annual TCS New York City Marathon — made a commitment to reduce its own carbon footprint by agreeing to the principles of the UN’s Sports for Climate Action Framework.

Unveiled last December, the Framework has been devised as sport’s Paris Agreement — a roadmap for the industry to achieve climate neutrality by 2050. Since then, a host of major U.S. sports properties have signed up and pledged to measure and reduce their carbon emissions, as well as offset all emissions they can’t avoid, such as those related to travel.

The NBA, the New York Yankees, AEG and the United States Tennis Association should be commended for making the commitment, particularly during a period when the U.S. federal government has moved in the opposite direction and climate change, in general, continues to be argued about rather than acted upon.

But once the press releases have been sent out and the fanfare (or criticism) has died down, bold statements have to be backed up by significant and concrete actions.

The New York Road Runners and the TCS New York City Marathon committed to a UN climate directive.
Photo: getty images

The fact is that sport is one of the biggest victims of the climate crisis. During the summer just gone, a number of test events for next summer’s Olympic Games in Tokyo were adversely affected by the intense heat, with a number of young athletes being treated for heatstroke.

Summers are getting hotter, but for winter sports the picture is even gloomier. The Alps in Europe, one of the spiritual homes of skiing, are forecast to lose up to 70% of their annual snow cover before the century is out. Mountain ranges across the globe are facing similar threats. It seems the number of locations able to host a Winter Olympics — and that are willing to do so — will dwindle rapidly.

What, realistically, can sports entities like the New York Yankees and U.S. Tennis Association do about a big, macro issue like climate change? 

The early adopters of the Sports for Climate Action Framework already do a lot to mitigate their own negative impacts. Energy efficiency, water conservation, LED lighting, composting and carbon offsetting are fairly commonplace. But in signing the framework, these organizations have suggested that their endeavors in this area will be cranked up a notch in the not-too-distant future.

This means looking beyond internal operations and out into sport’s wider sphere of influence. That’s where the real impact can be found. What if, for example, every sports organization had a sustainable sourcing policy like the Paris 2024 Olympic Games? Imagine what the impact would be if every signatory told all of their suppliers — and sponsors — that they had to commit to the same climate action principles if they want their business relationship to continue.

Transportation partners could be encouraged to provide electrified vehicles for staff and events. Energy providers could be pressured to transition into renewables. Merchandise manufacturers could be asked to source sustainable materials and produce goods in renewable energy-powered facilities.

This may seem like a lot of effort, but with the framework as a reference point, additional resources like the International Olympic Committee’s Sustainability Essentials guides — which look at carbon reduction and sustainable sourcing as two key topics — and support from bodies including the Green Sports Alliance and SandSI (Sport and Sustainability International), the transition doesn’t have to be too overwhelming. 

It does, however, require leadership, a long-term view and a genuine concern for the future of sport. For such a traditionally conservative industry, change of this scale can seem daunting, particularly if those in leadership positions are not super literate about climate issues. The prospect of asking too much of sponsors may also make sports executives shuffle uncomfortably in their seats.

But the clock is ticking. According to a landmark report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, we only have 11 years to put the brakes on catastrophic and irreversible climate change. By the time Super Bowl LXIV and the FIFA 2030 World Cup come around, we could be living in a world totally unrecognizable from the one we live in today. And that may change the face of sport forever.

Sport, with its impact on so many other industries (not to mention its influence over fan behavior), can play a significant part in making sure we don’t get to that stage. But now is the time to take action and to position sport as a genuine climate-leading industry.

Matthew Campelli is founder and editor of The Sustainability Report.

Questions about OPED guidelines or letters to the editor? Email editor Jake Kyler at jkyler@sportsbusinessjournal.com