Carbon and Climate Cost of Professional Sports

carbon climate cost of sportProfessional sports will always be a huge draw for people around the world. They provide entertainment and excitement for fans who enjoy seeing their favourite players and teams competing in large stadiums and arenas. And this is the way that it has been for a considerable number of decades now. Sporting events remain exceptionally compelling for many people. But there could be a very big downside to such professional sporting events taking place.

With a World Cup held in Qatar in 2022, including air-conditioned stadiums built at huge cost that are largely defunct afterwards, it begs the question whether these types of events will continue to take place in the future.  When the competition was awarded to a country with little footballing history based in a desert very few people were considering the climate in the process.  That is to say nothing of the cost incurred from all the teams and fans that travel to watch their teams play.

Even domestically top football clubs will now often fly to matches, if Manchester United are playing Arsenal in London these days they will likely fly rather than drive.  You can imagine how much more of a carbon cost this is now causing.  In the Champions League, and other competitions, clubs can also ramp up their carbon footprint.  The 2021 final, for example, was the 5th final in 9 years contested by two teams from the same country.  The final was moved from Turkey to Portugal due to coronavirus restriction but still fans need to travel ~1000 miles to attend one game of football between two home nations.  Over those nine years average fans will used an estimated average 133 million kilograms of carbon compared to 27.7 million if finals had been played at more suitable venues.

What exactly is the carbon footprint of these events? And what cost do they have on the world’s climate? Obviously, in recent times there has been a large call for many industries and countries in general to reduce their own carbon footprints as a way of reducing climate change. With this sort of thinking being quite common for the modern-day world, what will the sports sector do? Which sports are contributing the most to climate change, and do they even have any plans in place to reduce such for the future?

What Is a Carbon Footprint?

carbon footprint

When speaking of carbon footprints, this relates to the total greenhouse gas emissions caused by an individual, an event, an organisation, product, etc. expressed as a carbon dioxide equivalent. Greenhouse gases can be emitted by the burning of fossil fuels, land clearance and the production and consumption of food, manufactured goods, materials, transportation and other services. Those gases contribute to global warming, which in turn, has an effect on the Earth and its environment.

In recent years, it has been heavily focused on by campaigners, considering the larger number of people in the world, the larger number of flights being taken, food being consumed, events taking place and so on.

In 2014, the global average annual carbon footprint per person was rated at around 5 tonnes Co2eq. From that information, it was determined that more needs to be done to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide being pumped into the air. Some of the world’s largest contributors to excessive CO2 emissions in 2017 include the United States of America, Saudi Arabia, Iceland, Kazakhstan, Estonia, Australia, the United Arab Emirates, Turkmenistan, Oman, Russia, Taiwan and South Korea.

But what about sporting events? Which sports actually send more emissions into the atmosphere and contribute more to the threat of excessive climate change than others?

Sports That Have a Huge Impact on Climate

toy airplane and footballIt would be quite common for many people to consider that readily obvious sports like Formula 1, where vehicles are being driven around tracks at top speed, are the highest contributors to global warming. And of course, that’s only natural. These events do feature cars that utilise fuel to speed around courses, and those cars do emit carbon dioxide. Without a doubt, they seem like the obvious choice to target.

Yet can Formula 1 or NASCAR for example, really be considered the largest contributors in the sporting world to climate change? Probably not. It is much more likely that football or American football contributes so much more to this. Why? Because they have a much larger following of fans. Those fans travel long distances to watch their favourite teams compete in huge stadiums around the world. Can you imagine what the air miles are like during the FIFA World Cup or during the Super Bowl? And when you also consider that the players, managers, coaches, event organisers, staff and so on have to be present, that adds on to the travel.

While a huge number of studies have not been done regarding the different sports of the world, it is readily clear that spectators travelling to and from cities where events are taking place, highly contribute to carbon emissions. With football being probably the most popular sport in the world, it can probably be singled out as also having the highest emissions, too.

You also have to consider that football players are paid huge sums of money, which in turn leads them to living lavish lifestyles with multiple flashy cars, expensive travel on coaches and even internal travel on top-tier private jets. Undoubtedly, this all contributes to CO2 emissions in a big way.

According to The Irish Times in 2019, the world’s top 20 players caused 505 tonnes of CO2 emissions. The vast majority of this came from often-unnecessary air travel. Speaking with regard to the massive amount of carbon footprint being left behind by such players, Andrew Welfle of Manchester University said that soccer bodies need to combat climate change by curbing this form of travel on such a frequent basis.

Non-European players travelling over long distances to attend international matches racked up the largest number of air miles. Brazil’s Marquinhos and Roberto Firmino, as well as South Korea’s Son Heung-min ranked as the top three carbon footprint offenders. Together, they contributed 148.1 tonnes of CO2 emissions in 2019, and that is solely due to their travel between locations. Others on the list included Neymar, Koulibaly, Aguero and Salah.

The National Hockey League (NHL) was also targeted last year following its postponement. Welfle mentioned that with the cancellation, more than 200 tonnes of CO2 carbon emissions had been stopped from being released into the atmosphere. A report from June in 2020 suggested that the Los Angeles Kings, Anaheim Ducks and San Jose Sharks were all responsible for high levels of CO2 emissions in 2019. The total carbon footprint of the NHL from that same year stood at 1430.3 tonnes. Those total emissions were calculated based on a first-class return flight for one player.

At the same time, spectators travelling to attend sporting events has increased over the past decade. In 2018, evidence showed that in Europe, an average of 25.6 million spectators travelled to attend large-scale sporting events. Those fans generated around 210,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions and 8kg of CO2 is emitted by each individual. At the same time, it was discovered that around 73 million people attended Major League Baseball (MLB) games. The highlight of the research though is that every team in the MLB plays 81 games every year, meaning that each sports team should travel to 40 games to compete, too. A large number of spectators follow their favourite teams to games away from their home stadium as well.

qatar on a map pinned with a footballOther examples include sporting events that take place every four years, such as the FIFA World Cup, the Olympics and so on. Spectators to these events supposedly travel over 2,000 miles.

Events themselves are also becoming bigger.  The football World Cup is to expand to 48 teams and the Champions League is increasing the number of matches, for example. The 2020 Euros (held in 2021) were played across the continent massively increasing travel for players and fans.  It seems at some point there needs to be a reckoning as these sports and competitions cannot continue to expand in the way they are while also becoming greener.

Football Making a Push to Become Greener

football pitch chalk board with paper airplanes last one greenBecause of the focus that has been placed on creating a greener environment, some sports have been looking at introducing methods of reducing their carbon footprints. Of course, sustainability is an important factor in this industry, so sports organisations are trying to ensure that any measures they do undertake will allow them to continue in a huge way.

With football being accused of having quite the excessive status where carbon footprint is concerned, two teams in the German Bundesliga are making efforts to improve upon this. This does beyond basic efforts of installing recycling bins around the stadium and removing single-use plastics. First of all, club TSG Hoffenheim made announcements toward the end of 2019 that it was making moves to become carbon neutral. Speaking of this decision, Hoffenheim co-managing director, Frank Briel stated:

“Making all of our activities climate-neutral is a continuation of the steps we took years ago to equip all of our facilities, including the stadium, with state-of-the-art environmental protection technology in order to conserve resources and operate in an environmentally-conscious manner.”

This saw the club start to offer its fans what it defined as “climate tickets”.

A portion of all those tickets sold would go towards planting trees in Kikonda Forest, Uganda. This, it said, would help the club offset the carbon emissions produced through everyday operations of its football team.

The other club, Mainz 05, announced such carbon-neutral plans back in 2010. This saw the team’s home stadium, the Opel Arena, incorporate solar panels on the roof, providing power for the stadium and reducing the amount of non-renewable resources that the club itself consumes.

That type of sustainability within stadiums is something that many football teams around the world have decided upon focusing on. And it is definitely possible for a football club to become carbon-neutral, too – just look at Forest Green Rovers.

The League Two club from the United Kingdom operates as one of the most environmentally-friendly teams around the world. It was the first to be certified as carbon-neutral by the United Nations, embracing sustainability in everything that they do. An exclusive vegan menu is served at the stadium, to both fans and players alike. The team plays on a completely organic pitch, which is cut by a solar-powered lawn mower. Even recycled rainwater is utilised to water the pitch itself, and electric-powered cars are embraced heavily for getting fans and players to the stadium in an eco-friendly way.

And this is something that has spread across to Major League Soccer in the U.S. as well. The Seattle Sounders football club are setting the bar for sustainability by being the first carbon-neutral team in North America. By pledging this, Sounders FC intends no net contribution to atmospheric carbon dioxide – something that it has the intention of continuing with in the proceeding years.

As it stands though this is still a drop in the ocean and it seems any significant movement in making football, and other sports, more green will require enforced rules to do so.  Are Man City really going to drive their team on a bus to play Southampton when they can fly there in half an hour?  Not unless someone tells them they have to do it.

Electric SUVs and Formula 1 To Go Zero-Carbon

forumla e carIn February 2021 it was reported that Jenson Button was test driving electric SUV for a new rally series, highlighting climate change in the process. The car that he was testing went by the name of the Odyssey 21, and it has the ability to reach speeds of 62 miles per hour in 4.5 seconds. However, it is also twice the weight of a standard Formula 1 car, at 1.6 tonnes.

Button spent two days in the Welsh Valleys testing the 100% electric SUV. The event highlighting climate change, where the vehicles will be used, is known as the Extreme-E. It will take place in remote parts of the world, including the Amazon rainforest and the Arctic. All locations have been chosen so as to raise awareness with regard to aspects of climate change. The series is also promoting gender equality in motorsport, with all teams consisting of both a male and a female driver who share driving duties equally.

The first season of Extreme-E started at the beginning of April 2021 in the Saudi Arabian desert, bringing attention to the Red Sea turtle conservation programme. The next in the series of events is due to occur in Senegal at the end of May, focusing on the Mangrove restoration. Five events in total are scheduled for the season, with the last taking place at the end of the year in Argentina.

Button is set to lead one of 10 teams throughout the Extreme-E series, which will also call at Greenland and Brazil. Other teams include those being led by Lewis Hamilton, Nico Rosberg and Chip Ganassi. The event will also see scientists from Oxford and Cambridge universities join the race in order to carry out experiments in the locations.

As it happens, Formula 1 announced quite the ambitious plan in 2019, to have a zero carbon footprint by the time 2030 rolls around. That initiative is set to cover the Formula 1 cars and all on-track activity as well. The carbon reduction projects began immediately, enforcing the fact that the sport looks to become much more sustainable throughout the proceeding years. As well as having plans to eliminate the carbon footprint of the F1 car and the on-track activities, other initiatives include the action to ensure F1 moves to ultra-efficient logistics and travel.

By 2025, all events surrounding Formula 1 will be sustainable as part of the plans, with sustainable materials in use and single-use plastics being eliminated altogether. All waste will either be reused, recycled or composted in the process. Fans will also be offered greener ways of getting to the stadiums, with circuits and facilities enhancing the wellbeing of all spectators in attendance.