PtG Comment 19.12.2017

Sport, the environment and climate change – A note from Australia

Sport is characterised by contradictions, conflicts and hypocrisies that simultaneously speak to growing awareness, positive action and hope in terms of environmental awareness and sustainability, say researchers Brett Hutchins and Libby Lester in this comment piece that discusses how sport can take on a role in protecting and creating a world worth playing in.

Keywords: Climate change

Last month marked the staging of a significant event in the Australian sporting calendar, albeit one that occurred under the radar of the news media and sport fans. The 2017 Sports Environment Alliance (SEA) Summit was held at the iconic Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) at the same time as the Victorian and Tasmanian Sheffield Shield cricket teams batted and bowled their way towards a stalemate on the playing field. Representatives from a diverse range of national and international sports appeared at the podium and in the audience over the course of the day, including tennis, American football, Australian rules football, surfing, golf and sailing.

Now in its second year, the SEA Summit signals a growing awareness of the pivotal relationship between sport, sustainability and environmental issues across the national and global sport industries. This change is cause for both optimism and critique when considering the role sport can play in communicating the impacts of climate change and carbon intensive lifestyles to the millions of people who play and watch.

Sport possesses unique potential in this regard. As a source of massively popular spectacles and activities, sport sits at the junction of culture, nature, economic development, urban and regional planning, tourism and the market. This realisation has, for instance, registered in the General Assembly of the United Nations. Speaking about the UN's Sustainable Development Goals in December 2016, Peter Stone (Advisor to the Australian Mission to the UN) made pointed reference to ‘sport’s popularity, capacity as a communications platform and ability to connect with people’.

The capacity of this platform is demonstrated by the Forest Green Rovers, a League Two football club in the UK. Despite their lower league status, the Rovers have been declared ‘the world’s greenest sports team’ by The New Yorker magazine. In a remarkable series of environmental action and branding initiatives, the club’s 5,000-spectator capacity New Lawn home ground features solar panels, a rain water collection system and charging stations for electric cars. The team plays on an organic and vegan pitch and even the groundskeeper’s lawnmower is solar-powered. These measures are driven by club chairman and owner, Dale Vince, who also owns the ‘green electricity’ company, Ecotricity.

Athletes are also using sport as a platform to raise awareness about environmental threats and issues. Few pursuits underline the interrelationship between natural landscapes and sporting activity more than alpine competitions and the winter Olympics. Protect Our Winters is an alliance of athletes, activists and brands in the US and Europe whose efforts are directed towards addressing an obvious problem for snow sports. Climate change means that ‘snow levels are rising in elevation and winters are shorter’.

Shifting both season and altitude, the 2016 summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro generated a poignant moment prompted by rising sea levels in the central Pacific Ocean. Weightlifter David Katoatau from the small island nation of Kirabati danced offstage to loud cheers from the audience after his performance in the men’s 105kg B group competition. His dance was motivated by neither joy nor a desire to entertain. Katoatau deliberately sought the attention of the world’s media to speak about the perilous future faced by the inhabitants of Kirabati because of climate change and extreme weather events. The upcoming 2018 Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast will be Katoatau’s last multi-sport competition and final chance to dance internationally for his island home.

The forthcoming 2020 Olympics in Tokyo are already the subject of an organised international environmental campaign. A coalition of groups and NGOs, including Markets for Change and Friends of the Earth Japan, are challenging the legality and sustainability of the timber sourcing practices used in the construction of major Games venues, including the Olympic Stadium. This unwanted attention follows the identification of Malaysian tropical plywood on a building site that was sourced from a company linked to alleged illegal logging practices in Sarawak. The use of such timber is a problem given the detailed Sustainability Plan and Sourcing Code developed by the Games’ Organising Committee and their aspiration to ‘demonstrate a truly sustainable event model’.

At the top of the sporting pyramid in the US, basketball’s Sacramento Kings staged a recent ‘spotlight on sustainability night’ for their game against the Denver Nuggets attended by 17,000 fans. Atlanta’s new Mercedes–Benz Stadium – home of the NFL’s Falcons and Major League Soccer’s Atlanta United – has just become the first US professional sport venue to receive Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Platinum Certification from the US Green Building Council.

While an admirable achievement, the awarding of this certification highlights the need for open debate about the strengths and limitations of such rating schemes in driving behavioural change. Debate is necessary due to the unavoidable contradictions produced by the pursuit of the ‘triple bottom line’ (economic, social and environmental outcomes) by leagues and teams, stadium operators, sponsors, clothing and equipment manufacturers, and manifold sport-related corporations. For instance, the new stadium in Atlanta is a shining example of sustainable design innovation. But, in exchange for a considerable naming rights fee, it also wears the label of a German automobile maker whose profits have long relied on the extractive and polluting petroleum industries.

The tension identified here is precisely why sport is useful for thinking about and communicating environmental issues. Much like the contending environmental futures that are presently stretched out before us all, sport is a site of seemingly ‘cosmic ambivalence’ characterised by contradictions, conflicts and hypocrisies that simultaneously speak to growing awareness, positive action and hope.

As the examples presented in this article show, sport creates space for important initiatives and discussions about the environment and sustainability and places them on one of the biggest stages available in global media and popular culture. This opens the possibility of serious engagement with fans, citizens and the public at large, moving beyond the hyper-partisanship that characterises many discussions of climate change and so-called green issues.

Understood as a question of land, air, water, weather and food, the future of the environment is the future of sport, with each impacting the other. The promotion of this message and the changes required because of it are part of why the SEA Summit exists. In this sense, the SEA’s Chairman and sport administration doyen, Malcolm Speed, led by example at the MCG by his attention and questions for the speakers.

A real sign of progress at future Summits will see Speed joined by similarly engaged figures such as the Australian rules football’s Gillon McLachlan, rugby league’s Todd Greenberg, netball’s Paolina Hunt, football’s David Gallop, cricket’s James Sutherland, rugby union’s Cameron Clyne and the Sports Commission’s Kate Palmer. Their attendance would be a welcome display of national leadership and a visible recognition of sport’s role in protecting and creating a world worth playing in.