Is the Sports for Climate Action Framework enough to save our sports?

The Sports for Climate Action Framework is supposed to encourage action and accountability on climate change from the sports world. But is it enough?

The sports industry isn’t often singled out as a major contributor to climate change. When searching for sources of global warming, we tend to think of more obvious sectors like transportation and electricity. But keeping sports running requires a collection of other industries, each with their own carbon footprint.

Consider the impact of just one sports venue. A 2014 report by Villanova University estimated that the average MLB stadium uses twelve million gallons of water per year, and that sports event attendees generate around 39 million pounds of trash per year. Thousands and thousands of fans use gas-powered vehicles to get to games; the EPA estimates that a single gas-powered vehicle emits about 4.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year.

And it isn’t just about the cars. Teams and players use planes to travel across the country. A report published by the journal Environmental Science and Technology found that the National Basketball Association, National Football League, National Hockey League, and Major League Baseball “generated almost 122,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide from air travel alone.” It all adds up.

Although full audits are not available, in a discussion held at the Aspen Institute, David Goldblatt, the author of a 2020 report published by the Rapid Transition Alliance, estimated that global sports generate 0.6 percent of global emissions. According to the report, this means global carbon emissions of the sports industry are equivalent to the output of nations like Angola and Tunisia at the low end, and Spain or Poland at the high end.

That is why, in 2018, UN Climate Change recognized the need to mobilize the sports industry to reduce its emissions, launching an initiative called the Sports for Climate Action Framework. Aimed at sports leagues, federations, teams, clubs, media, universities, and governing bodies, the movement is designed to support and guide sports actors while they work to achieve climate goals.

“We are here to help them develop a common narrative around climate,” says Lindita Xhafeeri-Salihu, the Sports for Climate Action lead at UN Climate Change. “People are enthusiastic, but it is a challenging undertaking and we know that. So the framework encourages them to help each other. It isn’t competitive, it is a good community of people who are committed to the cause.”

Xhafeeri-Salihu and her team stress that sports actors signing on to fight climate change is more than just a greater good, it also has a business case behind it. The Rapid Transition Alliance report estimates that flooding and sea-level rise will result in damage to one in three British Open golf courses and result in a flooding risk for one-quarter of English league football grounds every season.

Aside from flooding, heat can impact players and create health risks for players and fans. The damage and risk have already been seen; the Tokyo 2020 Olympics had to move their long-distance running competition away from the capital due to extreme heat.

Additionally, adaptation measures for stadiums cost a great deal of money to build and take time to install. Better environmental practices are necessary to keep the sports industry, and all industries, alive and making money.

The Sports for Climate Action Framework falls under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which is best known as the parent treaty of the Paris Agreement. Established in 2015 and set into motion in 2016, the Paris Agreement was created with the goal of keeping global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Signed by 193 parties, the agreement is legally binding and requires cooperation; developed countries are responsible for providing assistance to those who are unable to meet their goals without financial assistance.

The Sports for Climate Action framework has more than 350 signees, working for change

The Sports for Climate Action framework is built around the same premise, reporting greenhouse gas emissions and keeping them below the 2-degree scenario that is stated in the Paris Agreement. Additionally, as of 2021, participants are responsible for one mid-term target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent by 2030, and one long-term target to reach net zero by 2040. Those who sign on commit to supporting one another in the goal of reducing their carbon footprint, learning from each other, sharing best practices, and generally holding one another accountable.

A Portland Timbers fans covers his head to stay cool in the 100 degree heat before the start of a game against the Seattle Sounders at Providence Park. Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

This spirit is reflected in the five principles that the network is founded on: undertake systematic efforts to promote greater environmental responsibility, reduce overall climate impact, educate for climate action, promote sustainable and responsible consumption, and advocate for climate action through communication.

“Sports have massive power to advocate to policymakers too,” Xhafeeri-Salihu says. “Policy takes a long time and we need to accelerate that. Sports actors need to be vocal to ensure at the end of the day that sports as we know it will have a future.”

Xhafeeri-Salihu also points to the power that sports have in communicating positive messaging around climate action to their fans.

“Fans have a role to play, because everything dictates the demand,” says Xhafeeri-Salihu. “We do not need to kill sports, or not be going to games or watching games. It is more about trying to do something we haven’t done before, which is simply understanding the environmental costs. And that is only going to happen if we believe in science.”

As of today, the Sports for Climate Action Framework has 350 signees. Among them are BBC Sport, NBA, Sky Sports, World Athletics, Formula 1 and Liverpool FC. But while some big-name organizations and teams have joined, the agreement hasn’t captured the entire industry.

“Some sports actors were saying ‘we are here to stage games, we have fans – they have fun and they go home, it’s not our job to fix the world’,” says Xhafeeri-Salihu. “But we know the power of sports and we believe in it, and they have a role to play. And maybe they don’t have to speak about climate change every single day, but with very little input and resources they can mobilize fans to do the right thing.”

UN Climate Change has also run into obstacles with deliverables. Since the agreement is non-binding, it requires signees to hold themselves and their fellow sports actors accountable. So while the framework was originally created with loose goals and guidance, over time Xhafeeri-Salihu and her team have established more tangible steps and goals.

“We try to guide them, and we wanted to give them the flexibility to decide because they all have different capacities,” she says. “We didn’t want to be prescriptive but we found that everything was taking a long time, so we put together targets.”

Participants are now encouraged to report steps and initiatives they have tried, even if they have failed. And in order to remain in the framework, all signatories must submit annual public reporting. That reporting process was to begin in December 2021 and as of now, there aren’t any public reports available. Xhafeeri-Salihu also encourages participants to embed the framework goals in their business model as opposed to leaving it all to one person or representative.

Additionally, three years after the original initiative was launched, The Sports for Climate Action Framework took its goals a step further and joined the Race to Zero, a global movement to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Not every organization in the framework has also signed on to this portion of the initiative, but over 60 including BBC sport, Premier League, and World Rugby, have agreed to this stricter goal.

Some participants, like Premier League’s Tottenham Hotspur, have announced their pledges and the steps they are taking, available to the public. Others have not been quite so open in their concrete steps. Ultimately, even with some roadblocks and a slower than hoped-for pace, Xhafeeri-Salihu remains hopeful and committed to the framework.

“I want to increase this movement further and get more signees,” she says. “To sports actors I say – please take that leap of faith! This is not easy, but it is something we have to do. It is a journey and we have to figure out if we can learn from one another and leapfrog to the right solutions. We need to demonstrate that sports can do it. Sports need to set the pace for this, they need to be winners. It’s in their DNA!”

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