Roger, meet Greta | Sport needs to address its sustainability problem

In the wake of climate activists asking if tennis star Roger Federer actively supports the destruction of the planet, Ben Cronin asks what sport can do to minimise its environmental footprint and mollify its critics.

For most of his career, Roger Federer has sailed serenely clear of controversy. A lengthy list of personal endorsement deals and an estimated net worth of $900m attest to his easy charm and a seeming inability to cause offense. So it must have come as a jolt when climate activists recently asked if he supported the destruction of the planet.

In a cleverly orchestrated stunt, student protestors played tennis at the headquarters of Credit Suisse to criticise Federer’s partnership with the bank and the estimated $57bn it is alleged to have invested in fossil fuel enterprises. Headline writers depicted the story as a clash of icons – Roger versus Greta Thunberg – even though the Swedish activist’s only involvement was to like a social media post about the demonstration.

Thunberg may not have conceived of the protest, but her acolytes in the climate youth movement have struck upon a powerful new way to influence public opinion. When the World Wildlife Fund subsequently wrote a letter to the IOC questioning Tokyo 2020’s sustainability credentials, sports climate shaming became a trend. The ingenuity of both campaigns was to use the global profile of Federer and the Olympics to amplify otherwise dry messages about procurement policies and investment portfolios. And if climate activists can make an example of the saintly Swiss, imagine what they might do for event organisers with bigger carbon problems to hide.

There is an inherent paradox in the fact that major sports events both contribute to climate change and suffer from its effects. The convergence of the Credit Suisse story with the ongoing wildfires in Australia – and the disruption they caused to qualifiers for the Australian Open – only served to highlight the industry’s complicated relationship with global warming. The tennis grand slam has already had to review its extreme heat policy in recent years after mounting temperatures have caused players, ball boys and attendants to suffer from heat-related illnesses.

In Northern Europe events have to contend with extreme weather of a different kind. A 2018 report by the Climate Coalition said six of the seven wettest winters in recorded UK history have occurred since 2000.

It won’t be lost on protestors that increasingly globalised sports events are intrinsically carbon-intensive and effectively encourage harmful behaviours. In an interview with SportBusiness Review last year, the Australian Open’s chief revenue officer, Richard Heaselgrave, described how “internationalisation” was key to the tournament’s growth. If the event was to only target an Australian audience, he said it would need one fifth of country’s population to buy tickets year after year. But the tripling of visitors from India, the US, China and Japan that has resulted from this policy has presumably had a corresponding impact on the natural world.

So what can sport do to minimise its environmental footprint and placate its young critics? Even the more extreme activist would probably acknowledge it is unrealistic to recommend cancelling events. Russell Seymour, chief executive of the British Association for Sustainable Sport, prefers a more measured response in which sports organisations accurately appraise themselves of their carbon impact and take reasonable measures to mitigate it.

“You’ve got to identify ways to manage waste, you’ve got to look at renewable energy sources, you’ve got to encourage people to come by public transport where possible,” he says. And in those cases where air travel is inevitable, he points to the way itinerant events like Formula E have reorganised their schedules to minimise the distance between races.

A welcome by-product of most carbon reduction measures is they happen to save money. The success of Formula E in attracting sponsors also proves the value in promoting a green agenda.

As Federer has found out, rights-holders also need to be wary of the messages sent out by their less purpose-driven sponsors. While Seymour praises Premier League clubs like Manchester City and Arsenal for their sustainable water and waste policies he finds it somewhat ironic that both sell their shirt fronts to an airline.

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