Why it's time for sport to stop taking climate for a ride

Welcome to 2022, the year of a Winter Olympics on artificial snow, and a football World Cup in air-conditioned stadia.

Far from climate change being a distant threat, the impacts of our warming planet are fast becoming a fact of life — and one that sporting bodies are waking up to.

“Climate change is one of the biggest threats facing society today,” said UEFA President Aleksander Čeferin this week, as European football’s governing body signed up to a UN climate plan to cut pollution.

“We have unfortunately witnessed how flooding and unseasonable weather patterns have lately devastated infrastructure across the world,” he added.

World Rugby launched its own climate plan this month, with England rugby great Sir Bill Beaumont — chair of the global governing body — talking of “solidarity” with Pacific Islands at risk from impacts.

“There are more frequent examples of rugby grounds being unplayable due to floods or drought,” he wrote. “These are not simply isolated environmental concerns.”

These are just two examples, but scan club and federation websites and it’s clear: sustainability and care for the climate are core elements of messaging.

Still, words are one thing, actions are another. The beauty and brutality of sport is that whatever they say in the pre-game build up, athletes need to deliver on the pitch, the track and in the ring.

Yet that’s not being matched by the suits in the boardroom.

All too often we’re seeing federations, clubs and various administrators say one thing on climate while building long term alliances with the fossil fuel sector.

Formula One’s 2030 net zero goal has much that deserves praise, and the developments it delivers may yet lead to shifts in the broader motorsport sector, which is fast moving towards electrification.

But F1 remains one of the biggest and most effective global platforms for oil companies to advertise their wares, notably Saudi Arabia’s state oil company Aramco, which it partnered with in 2020.

There’s UEFA, which also talks a good game, but in 2021 signed a multi-year sponsorship deal with Russian state gas company Gazprom, a company desperate to polish its image in Brussels.

According to Climate Action 100 — an investor platform assessing climate governance — Gazprom has no substantive plan to cut planet-warming emissions between now and 2050.

Take the New Zealand All Blacks — always keen to talk up Pacific Island heritage — who in 2021 teamed up with major gas and chemicals firm INEOS, or Australia’s Wallabies, backed by gas giant Santos.

Only this week the Australian Olympic Committee signed a deal with Hancock Prospecting, a vast mining company whose boss has been linked with climate science denial — much to the chagrin of climate campaigners down under.

The last two years have been tough for sports administrators, watching revenues dry up, crowds scarper and sponsors leave due to Covid constraints.

There are some superb sport-led climate groups, notably BASIS in the UK and the team behind the Sport Positive Summit, which highlights the depth and diversity of sport leaders driving social and environmental change.

It’s important to acknowledge that, while at the same point observing that what many bodies say on climate is very different to how they act.

It’s important — because the sheer size, scale and following of global sports means this multi-billion dollar sector matters — and carries immense political and moral heft.

Deloitte’s Sport Business Group picked up on this last year, noting sports role “as one of the greatest convenors of people in our society” in championing progress.

“Those organisations that are most innovative and that make the most progressive steps can gain a competitive advantage over their peers.”

Many of the federations named above have joined various UN climate initiatives to burnish their credentials — but again this deserves closer scrutiny.

The Australian Olympic Committee (AOC), for example, is a member of the United Nations’ Sports for Climate Action Framework.

This explicitly commits partners to “systematic efforts to promote greater environmental responsibility” and to be climate advocates.

Instead it’s now partnered with Gina Rinehart, a mining magnate with a track record of questioning climate science and little apparent interest in accelerating the green transition.

Does that mean the UN will kick the AOC — which will organise the 2032 Olympics — off its climate platform? Don’t hold your breath.

UEFA recently joined the Race to Zero, a UN initiative to encourage businesses and organisations to ramp up their work to hit net zero emissions.

It’s not clear how that tallies with offering one of the world’s largest gas companies a global platform through the 2020s, or if the UN took this into account when accepting the body as a member.

There are no easy answers, but there appears to be a lack of honesty among some in the sporting world when it comes to climate change.

Tough choices

Some, like World Rugby — which recognises the role climate vulnerable Pacific Islanders play in the sport — appear set in the right direction.

Sadly many others seem stuck in the delusion that occasionally saying and tweeting green stuff gives them a pass.

Administrators seem happy to claim UN plaudits for various initiatives, while signing Faustian pacts with fossil fuel companies desperate to prevent the erosion of their social licence.

As it stands, 2022 will be a rough year for those who love sport and worry about the climate.

Vast swathes of forest were chopped down and hundreds of artificial snow machines fired up for the 2022 Winter Games — albeit China’s Olympic Committee says it will be the greenest yet.

The Qatar World Cup will have the highest greenhouse gas emissions footprint on record according to FIFA — albeit the organisers say it will be climate neutral with pollution offset by tree planting.

It may be administrators really believe they're on the right track, that they are doing the best they can in horrendously hard economic circumstances. All said though, it doesn't look good.

Ultimately, a radical bout of honesty along the lines of Al Pacino's searing address in Any Given Sunday may be required to dig the sector out of a hole that’s getting deeper every year.

“We’re in hell right now, gentlemen, believe me. And, we can stay here — get the shit kicked out of us — or we can fight our way back into the light. We can climb outta hell one inch at a time.”

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