How to cut emissions from ‘big sport’?

With the 2024 Euros and Paris Olympics vowing to be greener, Dialogue Earth explores the challenges of cutting emissions from major sporting events
<p>A plane flies over a football match at the Japan National Stadium, the primary venue for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The upcoming UEFA Euro 2024 football tournament and Paris Olympics have both pledged to be greener than previous iterations (Image: Alamy)</p>

A plane flies over a football match at the Japan National Stadium, the primary venue for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The upcoming UEFA Euro 2024 football tournament and Paris Olympics have both pledged to be greener than previous iterations (Image: Alamy)

It’s time to add another new word to the Olympic motto: Faster, Higher, Stronger, Greener – Together.

The Paris Olympics has made an ambitious climate pledge this year, to halve its carbon footprint relative to previous Summer Games.

For comparison, the 2012 London Olympics and 2016 Rio Olympics emitted 3.3 million tonnes and 3.6 million tonnes of CO2 respectively, according to the organising committees. Even the Tokyo Olympics, where there were no spectators due to the Covid-19 pandemic, reportedly generated 1.96 million tonnes of carbon.

To meet the emission target, Paris 2024 has employed an “ARO” approach, meaning Avoid and Reduce emissions, and Offset the rest. The organisers of the Games say they have developed a “pioneering” tool to anticipate emissions and thus guide their decisions, such as whether to use an existing building or construct a new one.

Sporting competitions draw global audiences of billions. Their large socio-economic and cultural influence means environmental impacts go far beyond their direct emissions.

Sustainability has therefore become a growing consideration, at the Paris Olympics as at football events such as the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar and the upcoming Euro 2024 in Germany. In China, carbon-reduction initiatives were introduced in recent years for the Beijing Winter Olympics, the Chengdu World University Games and the Asian Games in Hangzhou.

However, concerns remain about the accuracy of emission calculation for some events and the effectiveness of carbon offsets.

What drives emissions from ‘big sport’?

Reusing venues and replacing fossil fuel with renewable energy use are essential to cutting emissions at a large sporting event.

Approximately 95% of venues for the Paris Games will be pre-existing or temporary facilities, and this factor alone is expected to reduce carbon emissions by one million tonnes compared to new buildings. The Asian Games in Hangzhou also prioritised using existing venues, with only 12 of the 56 competition sites built from scratch.

Paris 2024 has also committed to using 100% renewable energy, primarily wind and solar but also biogas. It expects to save the equivalent of 13,000 tonnes in emissions by avoiding the use of diesel, as compared to the 2012 London Olympics, during which four million litres of it were burned for electricity.

The Beijing Winter Olympics in 2022 also had a 100% renewable energy policy. The competition area received energy from wind, solar PV and pumped storage from newly built facilities in the neighbouring Zhangjiakou region. After the games, this infrastructure has continued to deliver about 14 terawatt hours of clean electricity to Beijing every year, supplying one-tenth of the city’s electricity.

However, the largest carbon footprint of sporting events tends to come from air and road travel by contestants and spectators. The absence of spectators from the Tokyo Olympics due to the Covid-19 pandemic resulted in lower emissions. Similarly, at the Beijing Winter Olympics, the exclusion of foreign spectators meant that attendance fell from the intended 2.29 million people to 1.58 million, avoiding 512,000 tonnes of carbon emissions.

With travel recovering and spectators returning to sports arenas, UEFA (the Union of European Football Associations) expects that more than 80% of the carbon footprint for Euro 2024 will be attributable to fan transportation, citing data from the German environment ministry. Germany has responded by introducing Euro 2024 travel passes to encourage supporters to use public transport and connect by train between the host cities.

Freddie Daley is a research associate at the University of Sussex in the UK, who runs The Cool Down, a network encouraging sport to lead the low-carbon transition. He tells Dialogue Earth that while organisers of sporting events always wish to reach a wider audience, it is sometimes necessary to limit the scale of an event. The host should also encourage spectators to use more sustainable forms of transport, he adds.

Co-hosting of international events by different countries has become common in recent years, but this can come at a cost for transport emissions. Euro 2020, postponed to 2021 due to the pandemic, was co-hosted by 11 countries, and widely criticised for the climate impact of the resulting international travel.

Daley expresses concern about the 2026 World Cup, to be jointly hosted by Canada, the US and Mexico: “The rail network in North America will not allow for low-carbon transport options throughout the tournaments. Spectators will ultimately have to fly.”

According to the environmental impact assessment from the organisers, international travel to and from North America will account for 51% of the tournament’s total emissions. Travel within and among the three host countries will reportedly generate a further 34% of emissions.

Controversy over carbon offsets

When emissions cannot be avoided, offsets can be the last resort for a sporting event wishing to be carbon neutral.

The Beijing Winter Olympics, which declared itself carbon neutral, offset its emissions mainly through afforestation projects in Zhangjiakou and Beijing, neutralising a combined 1.1 million tonnes of CO2, according to the organisers.

The Asian Games in Hangzhou similarly resorted to offsets to reach for carbon neutrality. The event reportedly generated 882,900 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions, following which the organising committee received approximately 1.10 million tonnes in offset donations from various contributors.

Planting forests as a carbon sink is China’s preferred way of trying to make sporting events carbon neutral. According to implementation guidelines issued in 2019 on a trial basis by the Ministry of Ecology and Environment, organisers of such events should “neutralise the actual greenhouse gas emissions generated by large-scale events through the purchase of carbon allowances, carbon credits, or newly established carbon-sink forests. The receipt of carbon credits from impoverished areas, or development of carbon-sink forests in such areas, is to be encouraged.”

However, forestry carbon offsets are highly controversial. As Daley notes, a survey by scientists last year found that more than 90% of rainforest carbon offsets from Verra, the world’s largest certifier of carbon credits, “do not represent genuine carbon reductions”. Verra disputed the conclusions, saying the methods used in the survey cannot capture true impacts on the ground. Many carbon credit agreements were also found to have brought no benefit to Indigenous communities, some of whom were even forced from their homes as a result of the schemes.

Jin Lei is a researcher at the International Institute of Green Finance at Beijing’s Central University of Finance and Economics. She tells Dialogue Earth that carbon-sink afforestation projects are affected by natural factors including local geography and species diversity. While assessing and measuring each project, more attention should be given to local conditions in determining methodologies, she says, adding that a third-party authority should also be fully involved in the measurement, monitoring, and verification of a project.

In the case of Beijing’s Winter Olympics, public information from the organising committee indicates that there was a rigorous and comprehensive process for ensuring veracity and compliance in the accounting of carbon-sink forest projects, Jin Lei says.

“What matters most is reducing emissions rather than relying on offsets,” says Daley, adding that we should probe further when a sports event claims to be carbon neutral, and ask the organisers how much CO2 they are offsetting. The greater the percentage they offset, the smaller their effort to avoid or reduce actual emissions.

In Jin Lei’s view, the carbon offsetting practices of the Beijing Winter Olympics were reasonably balanced, fair and transparent. However, she recognises that carbon offsetting has limitations, carries controversy, and is open to charges of greenwashing. Action towards carbon neutrality should still centre on absolute emissions reduction, with offsetting playing more of a complementary role, she says.

UEFA’s climate fund is an important example of football’s support for meaningful emissions reduction. For every tonne of “unavoidable” CO2 emissions produced in connection with Euro 2024, UEFA will pay EUR 25 into a climate fund. The fund, which is expected to reach EUR 7 million, will support German amateur clubs carrying out environmental projects in the fields of energy, water and waste management.

Global Sustainable Sport is a UK-based consultancy that develops sustainability programmes for sports stakeholders. It says the fund offers a good example because emissions-reduction outcomes are not pocketed for other purposes. While the project does include an offsetting approach, it makes no claim to carbon neutrality. Instead, the conversation shifts from compensatory payments towards concrete actions and community engagement.

But Daley questions the fund’s adequacy, finding the EUR 25 figure too low. The US Environmental Protection Agency puts the social cost of carbon at USD 190 per tonne, he pointed out. Although funding grassroots clubs to reduce emissions is appealing in theory, its actual impacts are yet to be known, meaning greater transparency is required, Daley says.

Do we still need ‘carbon neutral’ sports events?

Qatar 2022 claimed to be the “first carbon neutral World Cup”. However, advertising regulator the Swiss Fairness Commission later ruled that FIFA had made “false and misleading” statements about the environmental impact of the event. The commission said that not only did the offsets lack credibility but that the 3.6-million-tonne carbon footprint was a gross underestimate. Some measurements put the actual figure at more than 10 million tonnes. FIFA stated that it was reviewing the commission’s findings and may consider an appeal, though it has not yet taken action.

“This reflects the transparency problem with carbon offsets in the sports industry,” says Daley. “Sport events must disclose information regarding carbon emissions and offset schemes, both before an event and afterwards, and make this available for public scrutiny.”

In 2018, the International Olympic Committee issued a new methodology for measuring carbon footprint, which it made mandatory for the organising committees of every Games. Daley expresses the view that similarly stringent methodologies should be established for other large sporting events. The organisers should also be more careful about claiming to be carbon neutral so as not to mislead the public, he says.

Jin Lei says that big sporting occasions often provide opportunities for raising climate awareness among spectators, contestants, staff, partner bodies and other stakeholders. “Carbon neutrality” and “sustainability” are themes that can help promote and drive more interest in an event, she says.

“To ‘walk the talk’ in terms of carbon neutrality, the big sporting event organisers not only should set up and be fully committed to a comprehensive system of carbon management, they also need well-developed provisions and professional external support,” Jin Lei tells Dialogue Earth. This would, for example, mean having a full third-party assessment and verification of an event’s end-to-end carbon management, including the accounting for its emissions and emissions reduction.

The Paris Olympics is introducing an emissions-reduction innovation, drawing on the popular appeal of the Games to mobilise people for climate action. “Sporting events are a cohesive force, across cultures, and that is exactly what is needed for climate action,” says Daley. “If event organisers could lead by example, committing to reducing their own carbon emissions and encouraging spectators to take action, then the impact would be enormous.”

However, a 2021 report by Badvertising, a campaign in which Daley is involved that seeks to end high-carbon advertising and sponsorship, exposed over 250 global sponsorship deals between sports groups and high-carbon industries such as oil and gas, aviation and automotive. The report noted that brands are willing to lavish money on sporting events for their soft power. Sponsorship enables brands to gain credibility through association with experience that bears strong cultural meaning and often emotional connection for viewers. This might help the brands to normalise environmentally destructive behaviour in society.

Daley argues that if much effort has gone into reducing emissions for a big match, for example, yet all the adverts around the pitch are promoting airlines and oil companies, or some environmentally controversial brands, then those efforts may have been in vain. “We should see the influence that sport has as a whole. We’re not just looking at the carbon emissions from one sporting event.”