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Opinion | A radical approach to climate is the next frontier for sport’s sustainability movement

Matthew Campelli, founder of The Sustainability Report, outlines why sports organisations need to go even further than their current commitments if they want to become true climate action leaders.

21 February 2023 Matthew Campelli

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Standing at the lectern, Max Cobb held up a copy of the New York Times and tried to put into words how he felt. On the one hand, the secretary general of the International Biathlon Union (IBU) had been proud to see a picture from one of his organisation’s events “above the fold” on one of the most iconic newspapers in the world.

On the other, the picture in question was a stark illustration of the devastating effects climate change is having on snowsports like biathlon. Where white snow should have been, green grass dominated the scene.

Cobb’s closing speech at the IBU’s Sustainability Seminar, which coincided with the 2023 World Championships in Oberhof, Germany, was the familiar mix of warnings about the threats and commitments to act on them that many sports leaders now express when it comes to climate change.

The title of the seminar was ‘from energy efficiency to long-term decarbonisation’, reflecting where the sports industry is generally as far as a sector-wide approach to climate change mitigation is concerned. The low-hanging fruit of reducing direct carbon emissions is on the agenda for several, if not most, professional sports organisations.

But when it comes to long-term decarbonisation and taking a systemic approach, the route to progress becomes a little more foggy.

The IBU’s recent Sustainability Seminar coincided with the 2023 World Championships in Oberhof

At the Sport Positive Summit in 2022, renowned green sports leader Allen Hershkowitz said that while sport could “have the aspirational aim of being carbon neutral”, the nature of sports events makes carbon neutrality virtually unobtainable. The vast majority of carbon emissions in sport come from indirect sources, such as fan travel or suppliers, and tackling these aspects is extremely complicated, even for sports organisations leading in this area.

The traditional solution to address unavoidable emission, not only in sport, has been to purchase carbon offsets that claim to prevent or sequester a certain amount of CO2 to balance residual emissions. The efficacy of carbon offsets have often been called into question, even more so after a January 2023 Guardian investigation claimed that 90% of rainforest carbon offset projects offered by the Verra Carbon Standard – the world’s leading certifier – were “virtually worthless”.

In this context it’s likely that clubs, leagues or federations that want to be climate action leaders will have to become more radical in their approach.

During the IBU Sustainability Seminar, a value-chain-wide approach was discussed with a number of partners, including BMW, Viessmann, TechnoAlpin and Snowstainability. Knitting together coalitions with partners who can provide low-carbon solutions is among the most impactful policies – although a multi-stakeholder approach could be complicated by differing priorities. However, with virtually all major organisations having net zero targets, common ground is there for collaboration to be built.

With scrutiny on offsets intensifying, and unavoidable emissions remaining the elephant in the room, attention could turn towards insetting – where money traditionally earmarked for carbon credits is instead invested in decarbonising the supply chain or more sustainable modes of transport and fuels. In its Climate Action Plan, The Ocean Race team 11th Hour Racing highlights insetting as ‘a priority because it addresses the very real challenge in the value chain, enabling us to bring our emissions down year on year’.

In Oberhof, the 150,000 ticket holders received free public transportation within 50 kilometres of the venue and no parking was available in town to encourage mass transit further. But transformation in climate change mitigation will also require a radical approach to adaptation if it continues at its current trajectory. A few days after Cobb laid biathlon’s challenge bare in central Germany, Seb Coe, the president of World Athletics, floated the idea of “decoupling” long-distance athletics events from championships and competitions in the summer months to safeguard endurance athletes from the danger of extreme heat.

Alongside the International Floorball Federation and Swedish Floorball Federation, the organisations represented by Coe and Cobb are embarking on a three-year project to systematically decarbonise their events with the support of the Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies in Pisa (disclaimer: the author of this article works for Touchline, the dissemination partner on the Erasmus+ funded GAMES project).

Cross-sport partnerships, that attempt to leverage the cultural significance and popularity of each sport while engaging their respective partners, athletes and fans, could provide the support mechanism to at least explore the structural change sport needs to make to reduce its impact on climate change. This could include collective approaches to procurement, partner criteria, travel and calendar structure.

Evolving a traditionally conservative industry into one that takes radical steps to mitigate climate change is no easy task. But for those who do, a spot on the New York Times front page for the right reasons could be the reward.

This feature forms part of SportsPro’s Sustainability Week, a week of coverage exploring how the sports industry is trying to balance people, planet and profit. Click here to access more exclusive content and sign up to the SportsPro Daily newsletter here to receive daily insights direct to your inbox.

To find out more about SportsPro’s future themed weeks, click here.

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