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  • Writer's pictureDavid Thibodeau

SDG #13 Climate Action

Updated: Mar 27, 2022

Today is the 50th Earth Day! To celebrate Earth Day, this article focuses on the climate emergency and sport's role in addressing it.

Collins’ Dictionary named “Climate Strike” as the word of 2019.

This term has become ever more popular as the months passed in 2019. I attended one of the strikes in Ottawa this year. The atmosphere was electric. It was amazing to see so many people come out in support of serious climate action.

Climate change is something that I have become really interested in over the past year, setting more aggressive resolutions each year to reduce my carbon footprint, and use of single use plastics. Personally I use Bullfrog Power to power my home with renewable energy and use the Ecosia search engine to surf the web (they use revenues to plant trees). I try to reduce my impact as much as I can as an individual. Because of my interest, I’ve been really excited to do this article for a while. This is a really big topic and I wanted to do it justice, so this is a long article.

The climate problem that we find ourselves facing today is one made from human’s love of convenience. For years the gas powered car, runs smoother, and can go further than electric cars. Renewable energy is less reliable, the sun doesn’t always shine, the wind doesn’t always blow. Coal power is simply more convenient and more reliable. Taking a single use coffee cup that I can throw away is so much easier than having to carry around a reusable one with me. Humans created this problem because we hate being inconvenienced.

Sport and the Environment

Winter and summer sports alike will be impacted by climate change. Warmer winters and less snow will impact winter sports. The Tokyo 2020 marathon event was moved due to heat concerns, no snow at the Vancouver 2010 Olympics, and polluted waters in Rio 2016 made it unsafe to swim in the water. Another example is the FINA Open Water 10KM world cup in Fujairah, several swimmers were treated for heat exhaustion. A more recent example is the Doha marathon, “where sweltering conditions caused numerous athletes to collapse and almost half the field failed to finish.”

We need to recognize that the sports industry has an environmental footprint. Sports may be falling victim to climate change, but we are also part of the problem. All the flights of the athletes, coaching, mission staff and fans, not to mention building the venues, and the energy consumed to run the facilities, and all the single-use plastics that will be handed out, the fireworks used during ceremonies. Everything has direct, or indirect impacts on the environment.

“Sports impact on our climate is complex and can be difficult to measure depending on the size of the organization and/or event. However, most sports organisations and fans would now acknowledge that sport’s contribution to climate change – through associated travel, energy use, construction, catering, and so on – is considerable. Moreover, sports’ global interest for billions of fans, and the media coverage generated in response, provide a strong platform for the sport sector to play an exemplary role in meeting the challenge of climate change, and inspire and engage large audiences to do the same.”

Everyone has a role to play when working towards fighting for climate change.

Tokyo 2020 Sustainability

The biggest sporting event is set to take place next summer. The Tokyo 2020 Olympics. It is such an exciting time for athletes working towards their dreams, and younger athletes being inspired by the amazing talent at the Olympics. It is also a time of international cooperation, everyone coming together in the spirit of humanity.

To the credit of Tokyo 2020, they planned for sustainability. They introduced their sustainability plan in 2018 which outlines all of the good things they are doing to reduce their carbon footprint. It’s a very comprehensive plan that accounts for emissions and waste.

They have a goal of “towards zero carbon”. They have 12 targets to help meet this goal. Some of these targets are to use existing facilities (25 out of 43 venues for the Games are existing), having high environmental standards during the construction of new venues, and using renewable energy to power the Games.

Their next goal of “zero wasting” also has 12 targets. These include: eliminating edible parts of food waste, reducing packaging of materials, reduce & reuse (one specific goal they have is “reuse and recycling of dishes”). This includes the 2020 medal project where all of their medals are made from recycled materials.

This is a great plan to reduce the impact of the Games on the environment. I commend the planning committee for this plan. I think that sustainability will be at the forefront of all future Games. Sustainability will be thought about from the beginning, not at the end.

The IOC New Norm

The IOC Sustainability Strategy outlines their commitment to the environment and shifting to a more sustainable operating model for the organisation itself and the Games. The IOC has an objective of being carbon neutral. Last summer the IOC opened their new Olympic House, which has a lot of sustainable aspects to the design.

The IOC has partnered with Dow in a global carbon mitigation collaboration which will compensate the carbon emissions of the IOC.

Through this partnership, Dow implements projects that reduce carbon emissions in things like infrastructure, manufacturing, transport and packaging materials. One of the projects they implemented was making housing more comfortable for bus, van and sedan drivers at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018. Dow’s PAPI™ Polymeric MDI is used in the houses’ PIR (polyisocyanurate) panels to insulate the walls and roofs, and were used to make buildings more energy efficient, and reduce construction waste.

The IOC 2018 annual report outlines the work that they are doing in the way of sustainability and decreasing sport’s carbon footprint. They are doing a lot of work. Their partnership with Dow “has delivered 500,000t of C02e to balance the OCOG’s estimated direct footprint, plus an extra 733,677t of CO2e towards the Games’ broader goals.”

The IOC is doing a lot in the way of moving to a more sustainable way of life. Some of this was due to the fact that the cost of hosting the games in recent years has become too much for countries. Focusing on a more sustainable approach makes it more affordable and reasonable for countries to host the Olympic Games. The IOC also announced that they would like the Olympic Games to become “Climate Positive” from 2030.

Air Travel

Air travel is a relatively small industry and yet it has disproportionately large impact on the environment, it accounts for 8 percent of the total global emissions (David Suzuki Foundation, 2017).

As of right now, we are not doing any competitions in separate places. We are not in a place where we can do virtual beach volleyball Brazil vs Sweden, or holographic speed skating. Perhaps some sports like ski jumping or bowling can be done virtually as it is not really required for everyone to be in the same place for the competition to work. As of right now, air travel is necessary for sports to occur.

Flying from the Toronto Pearson Airport to Tokyo Haneda airport and back generates more CO2 than an average person does in 87 countries in a year (this website is super handy for calculating the impact of your flight.) How are we offsetting that impact? Most teams will likely be flying to the Olympic Games in Tokyo (some could take a boat I suppose) but this is one huge area that is lacking in their plan.

Even nationals for swimming in Canada, I had to fly from Fredericton, New Brunswick to Calgary, Alberta (roughly 2400km). When I went in 2012, there were over 1500 swimmers. Many of them have to fly in from elsewhere. What is Swimming Canada doing to account for this impact? (Swim Canada currently does not have an environmental policy.)

The National Hockey League has 31 teams from across North America, on any given week during the NHL season there can be 50+ hockey games. Most, if not all, teams fly around the country to their games. The NHL Green program takes into account the overall carbon footprint, including natural gas, purchased electricity, and transmission & distribution losses, waste and employee & club travel. And they have “a long-term goal of the league is to better track and understand fan travel emissions.” The NHL Green program is a great example of how sport organisations can track and show their progress on their commitment to the environment.


Another thing to consider are fireworks. Everyone loves fireworks. But firework smoke has tiny metal particles, in addition there is smoke from the potassium and aluminum compounds that are used to launch fireworks into the air. Fireworks cause a lot of air pollution. Opening ceremonies for many sporting events include fireworks. We need to be conscious of these things when we are planning for events. We need to ask ourselves how we will clean the air after the event.

Note: I’m not suggesting we stop using fireworks. We need to pick and choose what we can eliminate (ie using coal to power our facilities) and what we cannot (ie enjoying fireworks during opening or closing ceremonies), I’m just trying to draw our attention to the fact that there are a lot of unintended side effects from our actions that we do not consider when we plan.

Environmental Policies and Programs

Many examples of programs and policies that sport organisations have implemented are scattered throughout this article. A lot of great work is being done (NHL Green, IOC-Dow partnership). Here I wanted to outline some green policies that sport organisations can implement easily and some other environmental innovation happening. For more on green innovation in the sport industry you can read The Sustainability Report!

One really cool thing happening is the use of synthetic grass produced from sugar cane-derived plastic that will be used to create the pitch for the field hockey tournaments in Tokyo 2020. The sugar cane that is used to produce the bio-polyethylene is a material that captures carbon dioxide. This is the kind of innovation that we need to be carbon negative in all aspects of our lives.

Sports organisations need to move to a carbon negative, and eventually a carbon positive operating model. This means taking into account the facilities that are used by organisations. A National Sport Organisation or Provincial Sport Organisation (or International Sport Federation) can make a policy that it will only hold events at facilities that are run by 100% renewable energy. Sport organisations in Canada can even use Bullfrog Power to power specific events.

Sport organisations can become climate positive by encouraging employees to take public transit, or bike to work, or work from home. Sport organisations offices can use renewable energy or even partner with an organisation like Alvéole and have beehives at their office buildings.

Sport organisations can also find innovative ways of providing competition information. At each swim meet I go to, they hand out heat sheets to coaches, swimmers, parents and officials. Thousands of pages over a three day swim meet. This is not all recycled. Many times I will leave and see piles of these sheets in the garbage can. How can we change this to be more sustainable? Can we use a QR code to share the heat sheets to whoever has a phone so we don’t have to print it out?

The Role of the Athlete

I often wonder what the role of the athlete is in the fight against climate change. If anyone was following the United Nations Youth Climate Summit in 2019, you may remember a session titled “A Race we must Win Together: Sprinting Together to 2020”. This panel was athletes talking about the importance of tackling climate change. The role of an athlete is not to be an expert in climate change (unless of course they studied environmental sciences at school or work in that industry). It is their role to use their platform and their voices to advocate for issues that they are passionate about. Their lives, just like everyone else’s, are being directly impacted by climate change. They can use their platform to advocate for better environmental policies from sport organisations and fans. Like the Athletes for Earth network.

Final Thoughts

We find ourselves in a position now where we will have to rebuild after the pandemic. We have an opportunity to do it right. When the dust has settled from the pandemic and when things start opening up, we need to build sustainably. The sport industry must use this moment to change for the better.

The IOC has set an example of how sport organisations can move to be more sustainable. Obviously they have a lot more resources at their disposal than community or local sports, but they too can make changes to increase their sustainability. Everyone can be doing more in the way of tackling climate change.

The old ways of doing things is no longer acceptable. We must transition to this new reality. For a while we will be inconvenienced until we have mass produced biodegradable plastics, and better ways of storing renewable energy for when the sun doesn’t shine to power our homes. Once we start doing things the right way, it will be easier and our lives will not be disrupted at all.

Sports can have a social impact by leading the movement to a more sustainable future. Sports are in a unique position where direct impacts of climate change are already being felt. Sports can use its visibility, through the athlete or the organisation, to highlight the need for a transition to a sustainable life.

We cannot continue business as usual if we want to continue enjoying sports. Climate change needs bold action and bold leadership. If we want to continue to participate in our sports we have a part to play.

1 Comment

Apr 23, 2020

While sport transportation and venues make up the the bulk of the resource use and should be a main focus for sustainable builds and use there are a million smaller ways to have an impact. You mentioned paper use - all flags, decoration, programs and advertising should be ECOFRIENDLY BIODEGRADABLE not just recyclable. Electronic use should be reusable (billboard types) All water bottles, food containers/utensils, garbage bags/cans, tables/chairs, all clothing - sport uniforms (mostly made from petroleum products!), memorabilia, swim caps, goggles, and a host of other products need to be made from ECOFRIENDLY BIODEGRADABLE SUSTAINABLE MATERIALS. Remember one of our oldest environmental phrases "Reduce" first and foremost, "Reuse" next and then "recycle" as a last resort. It is funny…

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