The Climate Impact of Major Sports Tournaments

As the climate crisis intensifies, the environmental impact of major sports tournaments has come under increased scrutiny. The expanding scale of these events, characterised by an ever-growing number of participating teams and the influx of international fans, poses significant ecological challenges.

Here, we examine whether the climate impact of major sports tournaments is improving or worsening, considering the balance between expansion and sustainability initiatives.

The Growing Scale of Major Sports Tournaments

In recent years, major sports tournaments have expanded considerably. Football World Cups, the Olympic Games, and even regional events like the Euros have seen increases in the number of teams taking part and events taking place.

This trend is not confined to one sport; rugby, basketball, and cricket tournaments are all scaling up. While this expansion can enhance the global appeal and inclusivity of these sports, it significantly increases the carbon footprint associated with travel, infrastructure, and resource consumption.

Environmental Impact of Increased Participation

The environmental toll of hosting larger tournaments is considerable. Firstly, the carbon emissions from international travel, both for teams and fans, is substantial. According to studies, the 2016 Rio Olympics generated approximately 3.6 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent, with 60% stemming from travel.

Moreover, the infrastructure required to accommodate larger tournaments often leads to substantial ecological disruption. Building new stadiums, hotels, and transportation networks can result in deforestation, loss of biodiversity, and increased waste. These activities not only contribute to greenhouse gas emissions but also strain local ecosystems and resources.

Efforts Towards Sustainability

Despite the growing scale, some sports organisations are making earnest efforts to mitigate their environmental impact. For instance, the International Olympic Committee has committed to reducing its carbon emissions by 50% by 2030.

This will involve measures such as using renewable energy, improving energy efficiency in venues, and offsetting unavoidable emissions through reforestation projects and other carbon offset programmes.

Similarly, the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar aimed to be the first carbon-neutral World Cup, employing strategies like sustainable stadium designs, green building certifications, and extensive use of solar energy. Additionally, organisers pledged to plant over 16,000 trees to offset the event’s carbon footprint.

Live rugby events, too, have seen initiatives aimed at reducing their environmental impact. For instance, the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan implemented various green practices, including waste reduction, recycling programmes, and the use of eco-friendly materials.

The Problem of Greenwashing

While these initiatives are commendable, there is growing concern about the prevalence of greenwashing—where misleading claims are made about the environmental benefits of a product, service, or organisation’s activities. For sports tournaments, this can manifest in exaggerated or unsubstantiated claims about sustainability efforts.

Critics argue that some of the green initiatives are more about image management than genuine environmental stewardship. For example, the lack of transparency and independent verification in some sustainability claims raises questions about their authenticity.

Balancing Growth and Sustainability

The key challenge lies in balancing the growth of sports tournaments with genuine sustainability efforts. To achieve this, organisers must adopt more stringent environmental standards, promoting public and eco-friendly transportation, minimising waste, and ensuring sustainable sourcing of materials.

Furthermore, there needs to be greater accountability and transparency in reporting environmental impacts and sustainability efforts. Independent audits and certifications can help verify claims and build trust with the public.

Conclusion

The climate impact of major sports tournaments shows both positive and negative trends. While expansion increases their environmental footprint, genuine efforts exist to mitigate this. However, the distinction between meaningful action and greenwashing is unclear.

To ensure sustainable growth, a concerted effort is needed. With a true commitment to sustainability, the sporting world can help address the climate crisis.