For two November weeks in the Scottish city of Glasgow, the world’s principal environmental scientists and its political leaders fought to set a new line of attack in the battle against climate change.
The Cop26 conference ended with an updated agreement that confirmed an international ambition to restrict the warming of the planet to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. That represented progress but given the concerns among some governments that there had been too much compromise – to say nothing of the fears of activist groups – it is clear that years of urgent, difficult work lie ahead.
Sport will have its own challenges in enacting the complex and systemic policy changes that will mark its contribution to the cause. Estimates from the Rapid Transition Alliance suggest that the global sports industry accounts for around 0.6 to 0.8 per cent of global carbon emissions but the networked effect of its buying activities and its prominent place in the culture can lend it greater influence on public behaviour.
The argument to do better is a strong one. As Cop26 opened on 1st November, a group of more than 50 athletes from 40 countries – including tennis icon Sir Andy Murray, former NBA All-Star Pau Gasol, men’s marathon world record holder Eliud Kipchoge, and multiple Paralympic champion Hannah Cockcroft – issued a challenge to the world’s most powerful politicians to make the climate threat their biggest priority.
“The platform athletes have and the support they receive from fans means we are in a key position to communicate about what matters,” said two-time Olympic sailing champion Hannah Mills, in a video entitled ‘Dear Leaders of the World’.
It is inevitable that athletes would want to declare their opinion. Not only do they represent a younger cohort, they are also already seeing dramatic change to their seasons and training conditions as a result of accelerating extreme weather patterns. World Athletics commissioned a survey to coincide with Cop 26 that found 80 per cent of track and field athletes were seriously concerned about climate change and over half had already detected an effect on their own lives.
82 per cent said they had made changes to their lifestyle to be better environmental citizens, with 76 per cent suggesting they were extremely willing or very willing to adapt their actions further and 78 per cent saying they would actively encourage others to do the same. In the grand scheme of things, however, the impact made by elite sportspeople through international travel and other private activities is incredibly small.
Much of the focus on sport’s role in combating climate change will fall in other areas. The management of major events inside and around sports venues is one of the most consequential points of development. The landfill waste that can be produced by tens of thousands of sports fans is an especially dangerous contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, emitting methane as it decomposes. More and more venue operators are therefore more sensitive to the need to introduce compostable products from which fans can consume food and beverages, while eliminating single-use plastics. The availability of greener transit options like public and self-powered transport is also essential – as is more efficient energy use.
There are other opportunities for the sports business to communicate better choices when it comes to climate impact. One interesting example is food. If elite sportspeople can advocate for more plant-based diets with an emphasis on high performance – meat production is one of the biggest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions – they can help to educate people about the possibilities of making that shift and dispel doubts about nutritional deficiencies.
For all that, it is sportswear companies who will be watched most closely. The clothing industry is estimated to be responsible for as much as ten per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions, as well as 20 per cent of wastewater, and it is linked to other environmental damage through practices like chemical use. Commercial trends such as fast fashion have sped up that degradation in an era where more constructive ideas were desperately needed.
Some organisations have begun showing that a different approach is possible. Outdoor clothing brand Patagonia has worked hard to turn its strategy around in the past decade, using organic cotton in its products, discouraging shoppers from unnecessary over-buying, and investigating its supply chains to see where its suppliers can be improved.
That has set a higher bar for brands like Nike and Adidas, which are now being pushed to go beyond messaging and smaller set-pieces, such as limited-run items made from recycled materials, to fully examine their processes and their relationship with the consumer. ‘On-shoring’, whereby more products are made closer to the point of sale to reduce shipping needs, is one medium-term goal for the industry. Another is to make it easier for fans to trade in and recycle goods they no longer want to wear.
The position of the sports industry makes it vulnerable to the practice of ‘greenwashing’, where sponsors and other parties can use its platform to distract from a failure to act in other areas. That only makes it more important for sports bodies and brands to understand what their real responsibilities are.
The climate crisis is bigger than sport and the response to it must be much farther reaching. Yet sport has the power to model better behaviour and to help build better models. When it comes to the most interconnected issue of our time, anything that touches so many parts of life is sure to have a role to play.
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