This story is an excerpt from an article that was originally written by Matthew Campbell for Sport Sustainability Journal. You can read the original piece in full on the Sport Sustainability Journal website here.
WHAT DOES THE RANGIT RIVER in India, the Russian province of Kostroma and Mathira East district of Kenya have in common? The same thing that links Brazil's Rio Grande do Sul state, Pocillas and La Estrella in Chile, southern Thailand and the nation of Pakistan.
None of the locations are connected by anything historically significant. The common denominator, in fact, is the latest edition of the FIFA World Cup – more specifically, the negative environmental impacts generated by the Russia-hosted tournament.
In a bid to mitigate the event's large environmental footprint (from the construction of new stadiums, to the impact caused by legions of fans, players and officials travelling en masse), FIFA offset 243,000 tonnes of carbon emissions – just over 10% of the total 2.2 million tonnes generated by the whole tournament – by contributing to climate neutral projects in the seven locations.
A process which is generally used by organisations when they can't reduce their environmental footprint any further (or if they come across unavoidable emissions), offsetting allows them to buy and retire carbon credits by investing in low carbon or sustainable development projects (commonly in developing countries) put together by a certified third-party project developer.
While it would be premature to call carbon offsetting regular practice in the sports industry, it is gaining recognition due to initial work being done by high-profile organisations like FIFA, which also offset 331,000 tones of CO2 to balance the impacts of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Carbon offsetting is expected to play a significant role as the world football governing body attempts to become totally climate neutral by 2050.
" It's clear that carbon emissions produced by large professional sports teams are massive. They're flying, building stadiums, and there's a global consciousness that because sports teams have a huge following and marketing potential, having a low carbon footprint is just part and parcel of what they should be achieving," says John Davis of South Pole Group, the sustainability solutions provider with an offsetting portfolio of around 700 projects.
Davis reckons that it's "reasonably clear" that the big sports organisations will be the leading the pack when it comes to initiatives around balancing carbon, but he expects that to "trickle down" over time.
" We have a lot of small corporate clients who do not have anywhere near the budget of a professional sports team, and they are carbon neutral," he explains. "I would imagine that we would see a filtering down through the ranks."
But for sports organisations thinking that achieving sustainability is as easy as buying carbon credits, Davis has a stark caveat.
" Buying your way out of carbon emissions is not something we want to be expressing," he tells SSJ. "We work with companies to lower their footprint as much as they can, and then we offer a portfolio of projects. We make sure there's a positive contribution, particularly in developing countries."
Alexis Leroy, the chief executive of greenhouse gas emissions management organisation Allcot, agrees with Davis' sentiments. He highlights three steps a sports club (or any organisation) needs to go through to meaningfully balance its carbon footprint: measure, reduce, and then ultimately offset any unavoidable emissions.
While many carbon offset projects are focused on reforestation, Leroy expects the system to evolve with the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) acting as the catalysts for change. He explains that while carbon reduction will remain the driving force behind most projects, they will inevitably have to demonstrate other benefits related to social and economic sustainability.
Leroy's point is reinforced by the large carbon offsetting project Major League Soccer (MLS) revealed ahead of its All-Star Game earlier this month to signal its intention to expand its Green Goals sustainability programme. Working with South Pole, the league decided to offset emissions generated by fan and player travel to the game (as well as the energy used during the match in Atlanta's Mercedes-Benz Stadium), by funding an emission-reducing cookstove project in Kenya.
The cookstoves donated as part of the project replaced pollution-emitting firewood and inefficient cookware, which is obviously good for the environment. The impact, however, goes well beyond reducing greenhouse gases. In fact, it achieves five of the 17 SDGs, including no poverty, good health and wellbeing, gender equality (as women were disproportionately affected), climate action, and life on land.
" We've seen over the past year that sports is really stepping it up," says South Pole's Davis. "We're now making more of a concerted effort to speak with more sports organisations around the world. We're working with around 10 sports organisations in Europe and America, and we're actually seeing more and more demand and having conversations with quite a few more."