When talking about the detrimental impacts of climate change, we typically think of increased temperatures, lack of access to food and water, broad changes to the energy sector, and so on. We don’t think of how a rapidly changing environment impacts sports. But the costs to the industry from disruption are enormous, as are those to the health of athletes.
Implications of Disruption
2020 has seen major sporting events postponed due to the pandemic — Wimbledon, the Euros, the Tokyo Olympics, and many more. But cancellations and disruptions are increasingly common due to extreme weather. The 2019 Rugby World Cup saw several cancellations because of Typhoon Hagibis, long-distance running events were cancelled due to air quality concerns, and up to 27% of England’s home cricket games have been affected by rain since 2000.
While such points may seem trivial, or little more than a temporary lack of entertainment, to non-sports fans, the costs are significant. According to 2018 data, the global market for sports was $488.5 billion annually, and expected to grow to over $600 billion by 2022. The impacts of coronavirus, entirely halting in-person attendance in many countries and severely restricting numbers in others, may well be compounded by climate change in the coming years if significant action is not taken.
A 2020 report by the Rapid Transition Alliance studied the impacts of a changing climate on sports by 2050 and provided several serious conclusions, including:
- 25% of English league football grounds could be flooded every season
- 1 in 3 British Open golf courses will be damaged by rising sea levels
- 50% of previous Winter Olympic host cities will be unreliable to host winter sports
These are especially concerning estimates when we consider that the Premier League contributed £7.6 billion annually to GDP in the latest year, paid £3.3 billion in taxes, and provides 100,000 jobs (including at the 20 clubs). £4 billion is spent on UK golf each year and millions watch tournaments. Meanwhile, the winter sports industry in the US alone is worth $20 billion every year, but a decrease in snow levels of 41% since the 1980s has led to snow seasons shortening by 34 days. What were once solid industries making easy money and providing mass employment are now gravely threatened.
Challenges extend further. The world of sports sponsorships is wildly lucrative. Environmentally damaging companies, often including fossil fuel businesses, are entrenched in sports. It’s not easy for anyone, especially those involved in less popular sports that receive much less funding, to walk away from guaranteed money based solely on environmental commitments.
Health and Performance
The physical toll of high temperatures on the human body is well known, possibly causing dehydration, heatstroke, or worse. Understandably, these impacts degrade performance and health in athletes.
In January, the Australian Open activated its extreme heat policy when temperatures reached a blistering 43°C, forcing the temporary suspension of all matches except those on courts with roofs. Other matches were cancelled in the tournament due to smoke from the devastating bushfires at the turn of the year causing air pollution to reach an unplayable level. Bushfire pollution impacted Australian cricket matches as well as baseball.
Nike completed their own research on the impacts of climate change on various sports and their athletes. For example, football players — professional or not — face additional fatigue and strain on their health in higher temperatures. By 2050, the average player could experience 42% to 70% more extreme hot days. In Bangkok, 301 to 342 days each year could be above 32°C compared with 263 to 293 currently. Negative impacts are also visible in running performance. Nike tested elite-level and everyday athletes over the marathon distance at different temperatures. At 10°C, the optimal performance temperature, elite athletes completed the race in 2:29:33 and everyday athletes at 4:24:57. When the temperature rose to 24°C, times increased to 2:33:28 and 4:41:41 respectively, gaps of nearly 4 minutes and 17 minutes.
Unsurprisingly, motorsports rank pretty high up the polluting leader board. Formula 1, the motorsports posterchild, sees 21 races every season (excluding the shortened 2020 season due to COVID). These are almost all in different countries, and across 5 continents. Weekly flights for hundreds of personnel alongside transport of heavy freight by air, road, and sea propelled the total 2018 emissions to 256,551 tonnes. While the sport itself — driving very fast cars — may be seen as highly polluting, total car emissions account for just 0.7% of the total.
So, in 2019, F1 announced a hugely ambitious net-zero by 2030 goal that covers both on track racing and the incredibly complex off-track operations. The plan covers many areas, including running their offices, facilities and factories 100% on renewable energy, demanding that petrol in the cars has at least 10% biofuel, and moving to “ultra-efficient logistics”, all while engineering ways for carbon capture.
The racing world is already changing. Formula E (electric) is a championship that “actively promotes electric mobility and renewable energy solutions to contribute to reducing air pollution”. Equally, 2021 marks the first season of the Extreme E championship — a new off-road racing series using electric vehicles in some of the most challenging and remote landscapes on the planet (glaciers in Argentina, the Saudi Arabian desert, Greenland, etc) to raise awareness for climate change.
Decarbonisation is happening in other sports too. In football, smaller clubs have become trailblazers. Forest Green Rovers, in the fourth tier of English football, became the first carbon-neutral club in the world in 2018. Running on renewable energy and serving vegan food, the team received official certification from both FIFA and the UN, and, in doing so, received significant investment from footballers in the premier league. Initiatives like this show the power to implement change and the financial benefit in pursuing it. While larger clubs have much broader operations and supply chains, and therefore higher emissions, they also have access to much greater financial resources.
The global appeal of sports combined with the money they draw in annually could draw further attention to the need for climate action. Andrew Simms, an environmental researcher, says, “you have to talk about the things which matter to people…and, of course, the number one pastime globally is sport.”