Sport has to accept its role in the climate crisis and change its game

One glimmer of hope for the upcoming UN climate conference COP26 is that the global sports world will be more present – and more committed to the climate crisis – than at any previous meeting of this kind.

The United Nations Sports for Climate Action Framework, which urges sports organizations to take steps to achieve a carbon-free future, will meet in Glasgow, the city hosting COP26. In the official program, Sky Sports and the UK government will ask how sport can tackle the climate crisis, while athletes, sports NGOs and campaigns are present on the sidelines of the conference.

This is good news, because global sport, like a medium-sized nation-state, is responsible for around 0.8% of global emissions. More importantly, because of its unique cultural reach and weight, it becomes a voice in mobilizing support for massive climate action. Sport is also seriously threatened by the climate crisis. At the Summer Olympics in Tokyo this summer, tennis had to be played at night and the marathon sent 800 kilometers north because the city had become so hot and humid. The recent floods in Germany reportedly caused 100 million euros in damage to sports facilities and destroyed the famous Königssee bobsleigh run.

However, the sports world’s response to the climate crisis, like most broader efforts, faces a number of unsolved problems. In the global north, a small number of sports federations and clubs are taking serious climate action – including World Sailing, World Athletics, and the Paris Olympics in 2024, which vowed to be zero carbon by 2030 – but there are plenty of laggards. Aside from moral conviction, there are almost no policy tools to get organizations to reduce their impact on the climate.

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“Comforting Illusion”

In the Global South, on the other hand, the topic has so far not been dealt with much. The sports federations and leagues of China, India, Latin America and Africa stand out due to their absence from the list of UN Sports for Climate Action participants. This is particularly unfortunate given that the worst effects of the climate crisis on sport – from flooding coastal stadiums in East and Southeast Asia to the inability to play football and cricket outdoors in temperatures above 40 ° C – are affecting the poorer regions of the world World. There are also no systems of financial transfers from north to south or from professional to popular sport that could help poorer sports and regions switch to carbon-free activities.

While the sports world was initially rightly focused on reducing its emissions, little action was taken to mitigate the effects of the climate crisis. Even if we manage to keep global warming below 2 ° C, we can still expect significant disruptions in the way we play and watch sports today.

Many of the big players in the sports industry also remain under the comforting illusion that their carbon offsetting efforts are an appropriate response to the sector’s reliance on aviation and seemingly endless plans for more international events and competitions. The football association FIFA is currently discussing plans to hold the men’s World Cup every two instead of four years, while in Europe the expanded UEFA Champions League will involve more travel.

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