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Not Just a Game: Examining The Intersection Between Climate Change and Sports

Sports do not occur within a vacuum. From the grassroots level up to the global sports market (projected to reach over $614 billion USD in value by the year 2022) (1), sports are influenced by a range of social, political, and environmental factors. Just ask any fan who’s favourite league has been put on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This relationship between sports and external factors is not unidirectional, as athletes and organizations maintain a massive platform from which they can exert influence on society, should they choose. Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the national anthem to protest racial injustices is a contemporary example of a prominent athlete using their platform to address social issues (2).

This article seeks to examine some of the intersections between the issue of climate change and the world of sports. Specifically, this article will discuss how climate change has the potential to negatively affect sporting activities, followed by an overview of the environmental impact of sporting events. Finally, recognition will be given to some sports-related policies, organizations, and athletes that are addressing carbon emissions and promoting climate action.

As global temperatures continue to rise, the number of extremely hot days in certain parts of Canada is expected to more than double over the next 30 years (3). It should not come as a surprise that “people who exercise in the heat” are at a higher risk for experiencing heat-related illness, and this risk is even greater for young children and older adults who are physiologically more vulnerable to the effects of extreme heat (3). As part of their Footprint Series on climate change issues, CBC News investigated how summer camps and youth sports could face more cancellations and safety concerns due to climate change-related heat waves (4). It’s important that coaches and players take these risks seriously, as overexertion in extreme temperatures can prove fatal in some tragic circumstances. For instance, there have been 141 documented heat-related deaths among American Football players between 1969-2015 (5).

Beyond summer activities, climate change also poses a threat to winter sports and their associated tourism economies. Since the 1980’s, researchers have pointed out that warmer winters could negatively affect skiing conditions in Canada, and similar concerns are echoed for the European Alps and other prominent skiing destinations around the world (6). The future of the Winter Olympic Games has also been questioned following a study finding that less than half of all previous host countries will be cold enough to host another Winter Olympics at the end of this century (7). A more recent study published in June 2020 further accelerated this timeline, concluding that “half of previous Winter Olympic cities will be unreliable hosts of winter sports” within the next three decades (8). Over this same time period, English football (soccer) stadiums and British Open golf courses will also experience greater risks of flooding (8).

Air quality is yet another climate change-related variable that could negatively affect the future of sports. Not only a serious burden on health, air pollution can decrease athletic performance and disturb the experience of spectators, as was the case at the 2020 Australian Open where the smoke from nearby bushfires became a focal point of the tournament (9).

Turning now to the environmental impact of sports, carbon emissions are associated with almost every aspect of major sporting events, from the energy required to power stadium operations to the transportation of fans and players. For a sense of scale, the 2006 Super Bowl generated 500 tons of carbon dioxide emissions, and each game of the 2006 World Cup was estimated to use up to 3 million kilowatt-hours of energy (the equivalent annual consumption of 700 European homes) (10). These are extreme examples of high profile events, but considering all the different sports leagues, tournaments, and casual matches held around the globe, it’s no surprise that domestic and international travel for millions of fans and players represents a large source of CO2 emissions (11). Analyzing the life cycle of sports apparel (such as equipment and jerseys) reveals additional environmental costs, including greenhouse gas emissions, production of hazardous waste, and use of non-renewable resources (12).

The environmental impacts discussed thus far have primarily been ‘external’ to the sporting activity itself (i.e. attributed to the spectacle and promotion of the sport). However, show business aside, certain sports undoubtedly have more of a direct impact on the environment than others. For instance, golf requires large amounts of land coupled with heavy pesticide and water usage, sport fishing can negatively affect fish populations, and NASCAR is intrinsically tied to the burning of fossil fuels (10).

A discussion of how each sport is addressing their unique environmental impact is well beyond the scope of this article, but we’ll conclude with a brief overview of how some actors in the world of sports are beginning to confront the issue of carbon emissions. From a policy perspective, an initial move in this direction was marked by Agenda 21: A non-binding agreement on sustainable economic development put forward at the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment & Development (13). The original document does not focus on sports, but in 1999 the International Olympic Committee and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) published their own version of Agenda 21 for the Olympic Movement to advance sport for sustainable development (14). Prior to this, the UNEP established a Sports and Environment Program in 1994 intended to promote “environmental awareness through sports as well as the design of sustainable sports facilities and equipment” (10). More recently, United Nations Climate Change released the Sports for Climate Action Framework in 2018 which calls for unity among the global sports sector in addressing, and increasing public awareness of, climate change issues (15).

Aside from these large multinational agreements, there are many organizations working towards similar goals of improving environmental sustainability in sport. While certainly not an exhaustive list, some examples include Global Sports Alliance and their movement to fly an ‘ecoflag’ at sporting events, Protect Our Winters formed by winter sport enthusiasts, Green Sports Alliance, and Sport and Sustainability International.

It is now fairly common for professional sports leagues and teams to outline efforts they are taking to be ‘more sustainable’, but of course, there remain large discrepancies in the ambition and potential impact of each strategy. One standout performer is Forest Green Rovers, a club in the fourth division of English football (soccer) described by FIFA as the “greenest football club in the world” (16). Among other achievements, Forest Green Rovers were the first club on earth to be designated carbon neutral by the UN, and their stadium sells exclusively vegan food and drink (16). The National Basketball Association's Sacramento Kings also deserve recognition for their new stadium (the Golden 1 Center) which earned LEED Platinum certification and reportedly operates on 100% clean energy (17). Additionally, in 2014 the National Hockey League (NHL) became the first major North American sports league to publish an official Sustainability Report detailing their environmental footprint and highlighting internal efforts to improve sustainability (18).

Regarding the potential of individuals to make a difference, some athletes have also used their platform to speak out on climate change issues. Former snowboarder Gretchen Bleiler is a member of Protect Our Winters and has been involved in climate change lobbying efforts, and retired Canadian hockey player Andrew Ference partnered with the David Suzuki Foundation to launch a Carbon Neutral Challenge for NHL players (19).

While progress has certainly been made in addressing the environmental impact of sports, there remains much room for improvement going forward. Efforts to date have received valid criticisms, including accusations of greenwashing and conflicting ties with corporate sponsors from the energy and resource extraction industry (20). Going back to the early days of this movement, even the International Olympic Committee’s Agenda 21 was published with support from Shell International (14). Moreover, it’s questionable whether simply purchasing carbon offsets can be considered a solution for highly polluting activities on the part of sports organizations, especially when this grants a social license to keep polluting in a business-as-usual manner.

Sports have the capacity to unite people from all around the world and can truly serve as a force for positive change, but ultimately, playing and watching sports is a privilege. We must remember that climate change is inherently an issue of social justice, and those who are systematically more vulnerable will disproportionately experience the burdens of climate change. As such, the privilege to participate in high profile sporting events (as an armchair fan, spectator, or player) should not supersede the right of all humans to a healthy planet and a livable future. More activism and a demand for concrete actions on the part of fans, athletes, and organizations can help ensure that future generations are also able to enjoy the games we love.


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1 Comment

This was an AWESOME article, and I thank you for writing it! I know this is the most random thing in the world for somebody to find, but this is exactly what I was looking for. Stellar job!

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