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European Climate Pact
News article12 May 2023Directorate-General for Climate Action7 min read

Sport – a key player in climate action?

Sport – a key player in climate action?

Sport is an integral part of European culture, with the power to bring people and whole nations together. It supports healthy lifestyles, builds strong communities, improves social cohesion, and employs millions of European citizens. For many, sport is a key part of their life and culture.

Sport’s relationship with climate can be described as complicated: on the one hand, emissions from sport make a significant contribution to climate change, but on the other hand heatwaves and other extreme weather phenomena negatively affect competitions and impact athletes’ health and performance.

There is a growing movement of people who understand the importance of transforming sport to be more climate friendly. With billions of spectators, players, athletes or facilitators around the world, sport has an extremely broad social platform and geographical reach. It can play a key role in raising awareness, influencing behaviours and changing attitudes to climate action – as well as pioneering high-impact solutions for reducing emissions.

So, how do sport and climate change interact, and what could that mean for the future?

Climate change is already disrupting play

All over the world, we can already see the impact of a changing climate on sport, particularly on large-scale events that draw millions of fans.

For example, during the 2020 Australian Open, poor air quality caused by wildfires forced some tennis players to withdraw from the tournament. Similarly, the US Tennis Association introduced an ‘extreme heat policy’ after the 2018 US Open, to allow players periodic breaks during high temperatures.

And extreme heat doesn’t just affect summer sports. According to a 2022 study, half of the former Winter Olympic host cities could be unable to sponsor winter games by 2050, due to a lack of snow and ice.

A warming world with unpredictable weather patterns means postponed races and cancelled competitions, which can be highly disruptive for sports organisations, and disappointing for athletes and spectators.

At local level, the impacts can be felt in the form of poor ski seasons due to a lack of snow, or sports lessons and practices being cancelled due to heavy rain and flooded pitches. Millions of people – as well as organisations managing sports facilities and activities – have already faced some sort of climate impact on their sport, and these will only increase with time.

Acknowledging sport’s position on the field

Although large sporting events can be a source of enormous fun and celebration, they can also have huge carbon footprints. Flying to and from events, building stadiums, manufacturing sports equipment, and the waste generated by attendees all have a significant environmental impact.

For example, it has been estimated that the 2016 Rio Olympics released 3.6 million tons of CO2, while the 2018 Russia World Cup released 2.16 million tons – equivalent to the greenhouse gas emissions of more than 465,000 cars on the road for an entire year. 

The source of multiple controversies, the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar described itself as the first ever carbon-neutral football tournament. While it’s promising that such global events are focusing on climate action, reports have shown that this claim was misleading. This is just one example of climate claims being held up to scrutiny and has led to the coining of a new term: sportswashing. Closely related to greenwashing, sportswashing is a tactic used to improve the reputation of a country or organisation through sport.

As the host of the 2024 Olympics, Paris organisers published ambitious environmental goals leading up to the event, including it being a ‘climate positive’ event overall. While some are sceptical of the claims, the event’s carbon footprint will be dramatically reduced by the fact that 95% of the venues used to host sporting events already exist. Learning from Qatar will be key to ensuring that Paris can live up to its climate ambitions and set an example for the industry moving forward. 

Sporting organisations, fans and athletes can all play an important role in resisting sportswashing by holding sports bodies accountable for their climate claims, and by engaging in meaningful climate action.

Kicking off positive change

The potential of sports to help the climate is not just about reducing the carbon footprint of events, it’s also about promoting climate awareness and action among the millions of sports fans.

As the most popular sport in Europe, football has the potential to reach wide audiences and drive significant change. In 2022, UEFA (the Union of European Football Associations) cooperated with the European Commission to raise awareness on energy saving and launched its new sustainable football infrastructure guidelines as part of its Football Sustainability Strategy 2030: Strength through Unity.

LIFE TACKLE, a project co-financed by the EU, also aims to improve the environmental management of football matches and increase awareness of climate change. It does so by engaging with key stakeholders, gathering best practices, and supporting national football associations across Europe to change the way football events are organised.

Another sport exploring a greener future is the motorsports industry, which is already going electric. European Climate Pact Ambassador António Gonçalves Pereira, who founded the not-for-profit EcoMood Portugal, is an expert in electric mobility. He feels hopeful that sport is becoming more sustainable: “The World Rally Championship, for instance, already uses hybrid cars (electric combined with synthetic low-emissions fuel), showing that solutions like this can be both sustainable and perform even better than petrol cars. That’s a huge step forward.”

Climate champions

Slovenian Climate Pact Ambassador and former Olympic kayaker, Urša Kragelj, encourages other athletes to get involved in climate action: “Firstly, advocate for an issue that is dear to your heart. Talk to your institutions and organisations and try to make a change, such as reducing waste at events.”

Athletes and sports stars can also use their platform to spread the word about climate change and its impacts, set an example or engage directly in climate activism.

Norwegian professional footballer and Climate Pact Ambassador, Morten Thorsby, encourages fellow players to speak up about climate through his platform We Play Green and is taking his message to a wider public, including speaking about the need for industry-wide action at a Climate Pact event in Brussels in early 2023.

And during the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, in November 2021, over 50 global Olympians and Paralympians who had participated in the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games came together to advocate for more ambitious climate action.

A unifying force – at every level

At grassroots level, sport can often be the perfect tool to engage with communities, providing a much-needed hook to capture the interest of sports fans and get them thinking about sustainability. 

Urša uses her position within the Slovenian Olympic Committee to advocate for sustainable change in her community. Keen to get people involved in a sports game while learning about how sport is connected to sustainability, Urša organised a basketball activity with a climate angle for the Europe Day celebrations on 9 May 2023: “I came up with the idea of players choosing a climate pledge and committing to it when they threw the ball into the net. We generated 193 pledges, which could save 123,256.50 kg of CO2 emissions. One of those was even made by the Slovenian president, Nataša Pirc Musar, who pledged to reduce food waste.”

Local events can be highly impactful in influencing the behaviour of communities. In Portugal, António organises numerous green events throughout the year, including the colourful Kidical Mass cycling campaign, and a car-free day for European Mobility Week every September. “It’s important to raise awareness about sustainability in a practical and fun way. Sport is an excellent way to do this, and it’s really effective,” he says.

Step up to the plate

Sport has the power to be one of the most influential drivers of climate action. From large-scale, global events to local community sports teams, everyone will be affected by a changing climate. The joy, sense of belonging and emotional connection that sport brings to society is something we should all feel driven to protect.

Whether you’re a tennis pro, an avid runner, or enjoy a local get-together to watch the football, you can play a part in fighting climate change. Why not make a bigger impact this year? AWorld, the United Nations sustainability app, is a great place to get inspiration and track your climate actions, such as walking or cycling to your next sporting event. You can also visit the Climate Pact website for inspiration on climate-friendly steps you can take alone or with your sports team.

This article was updated on 6 February 2024.


Publication date
12 May 2023
Directorate-General for Climate Action