Julia Palle, Formula E | COP26 is mobilising the sports sector

Ahead of COP26, Formula E’s sustainability director, Julia Palle, calls on international sports events to make proactive, tangible sustainability commitments immediately, or face being left behind

Julia Palle, sustainability director, Formula E. (Photo, Formula E).

COP26 [the 26th UN Climate Change Conference] is such an important rendezvous with the world at a point when the climate is close to dangerous and irreversible tipping points. Fittingly, this is the first COP where we’re seeing an international and real mobilisation of the sports sector.

We are at a moment of reckoning right now and sports rights-holders have an important role to play, both as significant hosts of events around the world, and in providing the leadership to reach fans with important messages. Sports leaders need to act now, or risk being subjected to rules and regulations they aren’t ready for. Sport isn’t immune from the requirement to cut emissions by 50 per cent by 2030 and there are benefits to being proactive.

International sports rights-holders find themselves under pressure from two key stakeholder groups, which they need satisfy to stay relevant. Everyone has the opportunity and ability to make real meaningful change. One group is the Gen Z audience they want to appeal to, who have high expectations from the brands they engage with, and who would prefer to enjoy sustainable entertainment. The other group is investors and sponsors who are increasingly only partnering with sports organisations who have credible ESG [environment, social and corporate governance] scores. These types of organisations want to place their money into purpose-driven sports that generate sustainable growth, as well as those which engage and show the potential to deliver long-term value from that youth audience.

At Formula E we became the first sport in the world to achieve net zero carbon since inception by having a robust measurement system and roadmap for emissions reductions in line with science-based targets, which has established us as best-in-class. This is without doubt a critical driver of sponsor interest.

I think this is an untapped opportunity for most sports rights-holders. We are part of the UN Sport for Climate Action Framework notably to measure, reduce and offset our carbon footprint, but there is still a low adoption level of these best practices by sports globally. There is so much conversation about what rights-holders are going to do – it’s time to stop the talk and for sports to proactively deliver against science-based targets and CO2 measurements that are centralised and internationally recognised.

Rights-holders need to think about the ways their staff and fans travel to events. Are they offering vegetarian or vegan food options? Are they supporting the locations they travel to by investing in those communities? The biggest step for us to make as an industry is from perceived impact to real impact.

Sport can lead the way and create new industry standard solutions applicable beyond the sector. With the help of CSM Live, we developed non-PVC vinyl branding and trackside signage which will go on to help other travelling circus-style events to reduce plastic production and waste. We have shared these best practices with organisations like the International Olympic Committee.

Of course, sponsors want to be involved with sustainable brands, but you can also work with sponsors towards the common goal of greater sustainability. For example, a few years ago we moved away from single-use plastic on-site by partnering with Allianz in implementing ‘Hydration Stations’ and reusable water pouches to ensure plastic bottled water was no longer needed.

We need more brands and sports focusing on making real impact. While it is still hugely important, things like merchandise are a drop in the ocean compared to the biggest challenge for any international sports operator: the impact of travel.

Our biggest challenge was to become net zero carbon while freight made up 70-75 per cent of our emissions. Working with our sponsor DHL we developed a measurable roadmap for travel from each location in the most sustainable way.

How fans travel is a key challenge for us collectively as an industry, so we need to change our thinking. Even something as simple as not offering parking encourages people to use public transport. I’m optimistic about Paris 2024 as the event is using existing venues in the heart of the city – in keeping with the IOC’s Agenda 2020 reforms – making it straightforward for fans to use public transport. I hope the rest of the industry follows suit.

The more rights-holders invest resources to work with innovative brands, the more sustainable solutions will be offered and scaled up. One solution that stands out as a potential game-changer for international travelling events is Bertrand Piccard’s work developing solar powered planes.

And we must not forget the role the social pillar in ESG plays. Giving equal access and opportunities in our workplaces to all parts of society makes organisations stronger. It improves decision making that addresses the requirements of the communities in which we operate and the consumers we serve. This is an increasingly big focus for key stakeholder groups including fans, partners and investors.

In the long run, a lack of corporate responsibility will have an impact on any rights-holder. Those that talk the talk but then fail to back up their claims could suffer reputational harm.

Overall, I’m an eternal optimist who sees the glass half full. Culture is changing – albeit slowly. We are indeed seeing more sports standing up and taking action. Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea have delivered the first net zero Premier League game, Forest Green Rovers have developed a strong food strategy in the shape of their vegetarian-only offering and the Ocean Race is supporting scientific development, using its platform for research.

Now is the time for the sports industry as a whole to use its power and resources for good and, in the spirit of the world coming together for COP26, focus on playing our part in combatting climate change.