Sport takes on climate change

By Claire Poole, Founder and CEO, Sport Positive Summit

Published:17 December 2019

2020 is set to be a big year. The UK will compete in the Winter Youth Olympics, the Six Nations rugby, the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, ICC World T20 and host part of UEFA Euro 2020 and a Formula E race. Oh yes, and Glasgow will host the UN climate summit (COP26), the most important such meeting since the Paris summit in 2015.

Imagine a world where people cared as much about climate change as who is winning on the track or field. It might not be as far away as you think, because the world of sport is stepping up to both reduce its own emissions, and to leverage its power to influence fans to reduce theirs and engage them on climate.

There are many reasons why, but one is something that none of us can get away from, sport included; our planet is changing and the impacts are getting impossible to ignore.

Temperature extremes has disrupted sports such as the US Open. Image: AP
Temperature extremes has disrupted sports such as the US Open. Image: AP

Air pollution has stopped play at cricket games in India, local football teams in the UK have been forced out of their stadiums by flooding, the landscapes on which snow sports and outdoor ice hockey takes place are disappearing, extreme heat has disrupted tennis matches in the US and Australia, and water sports are alarmed by the levels of plastic pollution where they train and compete.

As well as environments being impaired, athlete’s physiology being affected and individual events being delayed, some sports events may see themselves wiped out entirely by the rise of extreme weather; as we saw this year when the mountain biking Ard Rock Enduro Festival was cancelled after flash floods in Yorkshire.

Global action

One year ago the UN climate convention’s Sports for Climate Action Framework (SCAF) was launched at the climate summit in Katowice with 17 founding signatories.

Now, nearly 100 global sports organisations are committed to positioning their sectors on the path to a low-carbon economy. These sports organisations have rallied behind a clarion call: to measure, reduce, and report on their greenhouse gas emissions, as well as using their sport as a unifying tool to federate and create solidarity among global citizens for climate action. We at Sport Positive we have set the challenge to get this number to 350 by the time the UK’s summit takes place in Glasgow at the end of 2020.

As a recent BBC article highlighted, however, only four of the SCAF signatories are UK-based; the Rugby League World Cup 2021, the All England Lawn Tennis Club (Wimbledon), Forest Green Rovers Football Club and the Great Britain Sail Grand Prix team.

That’s not to say that many UK sports organisations aren’t making serious progress in this area, but in the year to Glasgow, we expect far more to come out fighting and we’re here to help.

Claire Poole is founder of the Sport Positive Summit, taking place next March in Wembley Stadium
Claire Poole is founder of the Sport Positive Summit, taking place next March in Wembley Stadium

Bill Shankly’s saying, ‘some people think football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it's much more serious than that,’ outlines perfectly the role sport will play ahead of the UK summit. If athletes, teams or national squads lead from the front in reducing emissions, talking about their positive actions and climate change, fans will pay attention.

When it comes to climate change, sport offers ‘the possibility of reaching people on an emotional basis, where they are, about something they care about, and really transport this message,’ said Martin Frick, Senior Director at the UN climate convention (UNFCCC) secretariat in a recent interview.

At Sport Positive, we saw this when we launched the Premier League Sustainability Tableearlier this year. The competitive spirit that sport engenders drove tens of thousands of reactions, comments and engagement with football fans around their team’s environmental performance and wider issues.

The Sport Positive Summit, taking place in March at ISO 20121-certified Wembley Stadium, is a key milestone in 2020 ahead of the UN climate summit, where the world of sport will convene to push forward the sector’s advancement and scale ambition. We are working with key international sporting events in 2020, with the aim of using their platform to raise awareness of climate change and COP26; more announcements will follow over the year to the summit.

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