Playing together to protect the climate

By Manuel Pulgar-Vidal, leader of WWF’s global climate and energy programme

© MayaEye Photography

Sport brings the world together. And it relies on common rules, governance and cooperation, making it a powerful metaphor for the global effort to tackle climate change, and a powerful tool for promoting the adoption of sustainable thinking, behaviours and outcomes.

That was the one of the messages from the 2018 EU Sport Forum, which I attended in Sofia, Bulgaria last month. The event, which brought together nearly 400 delegates from sport organisations, policymaking bodies, EU institutions and Member States, focused on how sport can forge strong relationships around the world — and how it can help address some of our common challenges.

As with every human activity, sport is threatened by a changing climate, with winter sports in particular at risk from the rising temperatures and declining snow fall. On the other hand, heat waves in hotter parts of the world will make outdoor events, particularly endurance sports such as long-distance running, impossible during summer months. Coastal golf courses around the world are threatened by sea-level rise.

© picselweb / Pixabay

But there are also many opportunities to co-opt sport to help promote sustainability. First, enormous investment goes into the infrastructure needed for large sporting competitions. We have seen a number of recent Olympic hosts pledging to minimise their environmental impacts. These efforts have had mixed results: we believe sports bodies can go further in committing to use sustainable materials, aim for zero-emission buildings, and to construct infrastructure that will be resilient to the effects of climate change. An example is the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) which uses their platforms for WWF’s Earth Hour to help promote climate awareness and action. They also ensured their EURO2016 tournament was certified with the international sustainable event management standard ISO 20121.

Second, the events themselves, which can bring together hundreds of thousands of spectators, provide opportunities to promote sustainable and healthy behaviour. Whether in terms of recycling and the circular economy, or encouraging public transport, cycling and walking over car use, sporting events can help to influence behaviour change on a large scale.

Third, sport can be used to reinforce the link between human health and climate change. Sportspeople rely on clean air to perform at their best, and the pollution caused by coal-fired power plants and diesel engines, in particular, makes record-breaking performance impossible.

Fourth, sport can help promote the acceptance of new, cleaner technologies. The most obvious example is Formula-E, an electric vehicle equivalent of Formula 1 motorsport. Not only does the racing series demonstrate the capabilities of cutting-edge electric vehicles, it also provides a test-bed for the technology, developing innovations that will improve mass-market models.

Fifth, sport relies on governance structures that can be used to promote sustainable outcomes. For example, the Olympic Charter has, since 1996, included a statement on environmental protection. Sustainability is one of the three pillars of the Olympic Agenda 2020. Those governance structures can be used to promote action on climate change by, for example, requiring event sponsors to commit to environmental messaging and the avoidance of unnecessary environmental impacts.

© Hervé Lethier / WWF

They can also be used to commit the sporting world to protect vulnerable, priceless natural environments. Just 200 kilometres from the conference, in Sofia, lies the Pirin national park — a Unesco world heritage site and one of Europe’s best preserved habitats of large mammals such as bears, wolves and chamois. It is under threat from plans to develop the Bansko ski resort and expand logging.

Sportsmen and women provide role models of millions around the world, especially children, and most of them use their platforms to promote good health, fair play, and human endeavour. A growing number of sportspeople share the rising concern about environmental issues: they, and sporting governance bodies, sponsors and fans have an opportunity — and an obligation — to call for sport to play a greater role in addressing climate change and promoting sustainability.

Manuel Pulgar-Vidal is leader of WWF’s global climate and energy programme. He is based in Berlin.

Building a future in which people live in harmony with nature.