Closing the gap between sport and climate policy

Closing the gap between sport and climate policy

Governments and policy-makers must better utilise sport to drive the ecological transition, while sport needs to make the case for inclusion

Twenty-four. That’s how many days of sport France will lose per year if global temperatures rise, as expected, to 2°c. A month and a half where taking part in sport – elite or grassroots – will either not be possible or dangerous for the health of participants, spectators and officials.

While many working in sport’s ecosystem may view climate change as an abstract concept (a few months ago a sponsorship manager working with a ski event told me there was no need or appetite to work on climate-oriented activations), hard numbers like this demonstrate clearly what we stand to lose.

And while this particular WWF report focused on the French landscape, every nation will almost certainly lose a significant amount of sporting opportunity if we hit or surpass 2°c.

That alone should be a wake-up call to every athlete, recreational player, spectator and sporting professional in the world.

Even if you don’t enjoy watching or participating in sport, it’s undeniable that its benefits spread far and wide through society.

In terms of public health, regular participation in sport supports cardiovascular health, muscle growth, fat loss, not to mention a myriad of benefits for a person’s mental health.

This translates into gains for the economy. Looking solely at football and the continent of Europe, a Social Return on Investment model developed for UEFA found that, since 2017, participation in the sport generated a cumulative €39.5bn in positive economic, social and health impact, with €28.6bn derived from “implied benefits” relating to education, integration, reduced crime rates, improved wellbeing and reduced risk of type II diabetes or heart disease.

In the UK, Sport England, the grassroots funding organisation, asserts that for every £1 spent on sport and physical activity almost £4 will be returned through health, wellbeing and “stronger communities”.

Indeed, £42bn worth of value was created from “improved life satisfaction” for 24 million people in the following areas:

– £5.2bn in healthcare savings

– £20bn came from “stronger and safer communities”, with 10,000 fewer crime incidents, value of work done by sport volunteers and improved levels of trust and community engagement

Now consider that lost 44 days of sport (or even more) per year because of climate change, and we see a potential domino effect that impacts the economy, the healthcare system, cohesion in society and even the criminal justice system.

It makes sense then that climate change and environmental protection should have a place in every nation’s sporting policy.

In a move to shift away from funding sports bodies solely on levels of participation, the UK government, in 2015, produced a sporting strategy that assessed funding bids on a number of other criteria, including physical wellbeing, mental wellbeing, individual development, community wellbeing and economic development, with concrete measures and KPIs.

There’s no reason why environmental or climate criteria could not be included in government funding grants for sports organisations the world over. This could include an assessment of carbon reductions, mandatory sustainability policies and reports, or infrastructure grants to help grassroots clubs and national governing bodies transition to renewable energy.

This works on a number of levels; sport, with government support, can play a key role in addressing its foremost existential threat on a practical level and, culturally, can engage the millions of people who interact as a player, spectator, official or organiser with climate action and instigate behaviour change.

We’re at a crucial juncture now, with many national governments and continental policy makers, such as the European Union, firming up their climate and environmental commitments, or at least being pressured to do so. 

There’s no doubt that engaging the sport sector should be part of any environmental policies, but when it comes to the policy-making cycle, we’re still very much at the “agenda setting” stage where the case has to be made to people who cannot yet see the direct link between climate change and sport, both in terms of the industry’s impact on the planet, and climate change’s impact on sport and its associated benefits.

It’s becoming clear that sport is becoming one of the primary ways to reach large sections of the population, with different points of view and life experiences, and talk to them about climate change in a way that resonates with them.

Rather than talking about this big, macro issue that feels very abstract, far away and overwhelming, positioning climate change in a way that crosses over with people’s everyday lives – such as the threat of losing 44 days of sport per year – makes it more real and tangible.

Therefore, not including the sports industry when it comes to climate policy would be a bit of an own goal for policy-makers.

They would ignore a segment of the population with high levels of identification and care for their sport or team, who could become mobilised if the threat to that is well articulated. They could miss the opportunity to use sports venues, grassroots and elite, as potential testbeds for innovative technology or processes. They will certainly miss the chance to build a greater understanding with athletes – for many nations, their key to soft power – who know the risks better than anyone.

Governments and policy-makers must utilise sport better to drive their own ecological and climate transitions – that much is clear. But it’s also incumbent on sports organisations – and those who lead in the industry – to make the connections demonstrated in this article better understood.

However, that’s easier said than done. Even for those working in professional sport in the realm of public affairs and policy would probably have had little contact with climate policy, while very few people working in sport have a ‘sustainability’ or ‘climate’ job title.

In October last year The Sustainability Report sat down with Richard Brisius, the chairman of The Ocean Race, who explained how the round-the-world sailing competition was attempting to support EU policy around ocean rights and protection.

There is a total understanding on behalf of the organisation that the ocean is their “field of play” and must be protected at all costs. This is the type of mentality all sports organisations can adopt to make climate and environment a key part of decision making, creating the chance to open up dialogue with policy-makers.

In a practical sense, The Ocean Race acts as a convener, and instead of positioning itself as the expert (although its sailors have had more contact with the ocean than most people on the planet) it uses its regular Ocean Race Summits to bring knowledgeable professionals in different climate- and ocean-related fields together to discuss and accelerate key policy points, action and collaboration.

While sports actors need to recognise their role and power in this context, it’s also the responsibility of governments and policy-makers to understand the unique perspective sport can provide to climate policy.

Last week, I was one of a number of people invited to the European Parliament in Strasbourg by the French Sports Ministry to discuss the ways in which climate policy, such as the EU Green Deal, could be incorporated by sports organisations and events.

It was a conference full of diverse voices; there were rights holders (Formula E, UCI), NGOs (IUCN), athletes, advocacy groups (Protect Our Winters, Surfrider Foundation Europe), brands (Timberland, Decathlon), industry groups (FESI, ENOS) and media (Discovery).

The core purpose was for the French Sports Ministry to canvass the experts in their field to understand how sports policy and environmental policy can cross over, and address the risks and opportunities presented.

From an impassioned speech by Italian surfer Stella Lauro to full and frank discussions about the impact climate change is having on sport, as well as how major sports events and the production of equipment are impacting the environment, a comprehensive picture was painted for those who will shape policy in this area.

Convening and agenda-setting is well underway. The next steps – policy formulation and decision making – is the exciting part.

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