soccer field

Sports events: Not as ‘green’ as they may seem?

February 01, 2023

Co-authored by Anna Sykes, Trainee Solicitor

Whilst global sports events are well-revered by many, from organisers and sponsors, to athletes and spectators, past experience has shown that such events may have significant environmental consequences which often go overlooked. In this article, we take a look at the commercial and legal issues and challenges which the sports industry faces in the context of such events, from inception to game day. We consider how global sports events can act as both contributors to, and potential combatants in, the wider environmental crisis and take a closer look at the legal and regulatory framework currently in place.

In February 2022, the United Nations (the UN) published a report identifying climate change as one of the most pressing issues of our time and acknowledged that unsustainable practices in sport have contributed to this. Travel to and from sports venues, supply chains in respect of sports-related equipment, the construction of stadiums, and the manufacturing and distribution of event apparel may all seem relatively insignificant on the surface. However, whilst sport is not an obvious culprit, on closer assessment, its negative effects on the planet are indisputable. For example, it has been estimated that the 2016 Rio Olympic Games released 3.6 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, while the 2018 Russia World Cup released a further 2.16 million tons.1

The environmental impact of mass sports events is evident in their use (and often waste) of natural resources and the carbon emissions generated by things such as food, travel, water, infrastructure and waste. A study by Cardiff University which assessed the ecological footprint of one major event – the FA Cup Final2 – found that the average event attendee generates a footprint seven times greater than someone going about normal, daily activity. Increased travel to the event accounted for the largest proportion of this increase, with food and drink consumption, and the energy resources required to produce these goods, coming in second place. Interestingly, the study apportioned only a small footprint to the Millennium Stadium, which hosted the games, due to its amortization over a 100-year life span. However, this seems a somewhat generous estimate, especially in light of the fact that the typical lifespan of a sports venue is just 30 years and the average lifespan of NFL stadiums in the US is now falling below this3. Organisers of the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea dismantled a $110 million stadium shortly after they had constructed and used it for the games4. The trade-off between the potential gains which a city can reap from the influx of infrastructure and urban development funding and the short- to long-term sustainability and carbon impact such events have is the subject of much debate.

The root of many of these issues lies in the current lack of any real legal or regulatory framework. The transient pop-up nature of ‘cities’ often established to facilitate mega sporting events leaves insufficient time for requisite or specifically-tailored environmental regulation and legislation to be passed. Further, the ‘emergency’ planning imperative which comes with organising these events can lead to a lack of consideration for existing planning and procedural rules. This can be seen, for example, in the preparation for the 2018 World Cup, where Russia allowed federally protected forest lands to be cut down without following the standard procedures set out in its Forest Code to create space for sports-related infrastructure.5

In her Missouri Law Review article, Big Sports Have Big Environmental and Social Consequences, Gina S. Warren noted that the closest we have to any governing law is Agenda 21, a non-binding action plan for environmental sustainability in economic development adopted by the UN in 1992 and re-asserted in The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Whilst such agendas do not specifically address sports events, the International Olympic Committee (the IOC) confirmed that it is fully aligned with Agenda 2030 and has even adopted its own framework, the Olympic Agenda 2020, which has sustainable development as one of its three pillars.

Some argue, however, that these voluntary, ‘opt-in’ agendas do not go far enough to counteract and off-set the impact which large sporting events have. Up until recently, the closest the IOC had come to imposing binding environmental measures was in Theme 4 of the Manual for Candidate Cities: “Environmental Protection and Meteorology” which specified that they would consider the environmental impact of a plan in its selection of a host city, but there was a lack of clarity around the decision-making process and the weight this factor bore in that. Further, it made clear that the implementation of any environmental measures was at the discretion of the host cities: the “main responsibility for the environment, [is] with the Candidate and Host Cities”. The lack of incentive for bidding cities to put the time or money into ensuring environmental measures were up to scratch meant that they often paid little more than lip-service to the matter. For instance, at the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, despite planting tens of thousands of trees in an attempt to offset some of the emissions from the event, the games were projected to require over 49 million gallons of water to create enough artificial snow to stage the events. In recent years, however, the IOC has come to recognise the limitations of the non-binding nature of such guidelines and, as an organization, has now adopted one of the most ambitious emission commitments, not just within the sports sector but beyond. This is evident in its announcement ahead of the 2021 UN Climate Conference in Glasgow (COP26) that it aims to become ‘climate positive’ in 2024 by reducing its direct and indirect emissions by 30 per cent and compensating more than 100 per cent of its remaining emissions through the Olympic Forest project. Most notably, from 2030, the IOC will contractually obligate each host city for the Olympic Games to be climate positive and the 2024 Olympics in Paris aims to be the first climate positive games.

Such sports events do also perhaps fall victim to the wider environmental crisis; indeed, studies have shown that around half of the former winter Olympic host cities will not have the requisite temperature and precipitation to stage the winter games by 20506. The cyclical nature of the issue is widely evident. In 2019, the Rugby World Cup was interrupted by Super Typhoon Hagibis and the impact of wildfires on the 2020 Australian Open led to calls from top players, such as Serena Williams, to speak out about the poor conditions.

The issue at hand seems to be two-fold; firstly, despite the notable recent steps taken by the IOC, there is general absence of mandatory regulation and legislation across the industry and, secondly, there is no real mechanism to reprimand or punish countries, events or athletes that come up short. Moving or cancelling events when environmental standards aren’t met is inconceivable to those in charge, especially given the amount of money and time invested and the value of contracts involved. Whilst ‘top-down’ action via the implementation of a concrete regulatory framework monitoring both more regular and transient ‘pop-up’ sports events is undoubtedly needed, this must be complemented by support and action from the ‘bottom-up’.

Sport has an unprecedented platform, largely through broadcasting and social media, which few other industries can match. For example, this year’s edition of cycling’s Tour de France pulled in 41.5 million viewers on French public service broadcaster France Télévisions and athletes have become commoditised social media stars, evident in Manchester United player Cristiano Ronaldo’s sizeable 541 million Instagram followers at the time of writing. Athletes are not exempt from accountability and the sheer number of spectators and consumers willing to follow and engage with these sporting stars provides the perfect sounding board for them to encourage change amongst the public for the better. For many, such as Olympic sailor Hannah Mills, the outdoor environment is quite literally their office, a fact which itself encouraged her, in the aftermath of winning gold at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, to lead a group of more than 50 fellow athletes in addressing the COP26 global climate summit in a video demanding world leaders to do more. Ultimately, spectators and athletes are the keystone of sports events, and they wield the power to stand up to and demand more from organisers and governing bodies.



5  Martin Müller, How Mega Events Capture Their Hosts: Event Seizure and the World Cup 2018 in Russia, 38 URB. GEOGRAPHY 1113, 1116 (2017).