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Global Sport and Climate Change: is leadership the answer?

We look at the sustainability challenges of global sporting events and explain why leadership could be the solution.

Global sports events can stimulate local and national economies, generate employment, and promote growth for organizers and sponsors. Nevertheless, these events can have considerable environmental impacts that are frequently overlooked. However, it is possible to reconcile entertainment, business objectives, and sustainability: effective leadership often underscores this alignment and leads to commercially profitable and eco-friendly events.

Due to scope and size, the challenges for global sport are significant. Large, international events can release massive quantities of carbon dioxide (up to 3.6 million tons in some cases) and take a heavy ecological toll. The average attendee at some football events, for example, can generate an ecological footprint seven times greater than someone going about normal, daily activities.

What’s more, many global sporting events come with an emergency planning imperative, resulting in ‘pop-up’ constructions which are purpose-built at great cost, only to then be dismantled. This often leads to ecological destruction, huge amounts of waste, and disruption to local communities.  

This is not to say these challenges cannot be tackled. For the Qatar 2022 World Cup, one of the stadiums constructed for the event was built using 974 recycled shipping containers. After the tournament, many venue seats were removed and donated to developing nations.

The Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games took this a step further. 95% of the venues used for the games were reused rather than new builds. The organizers also considered other areas of sustainability; tickets for the games included public transport to encourage people not to use their cars and a partnership was formed with Severn Trent to plant 2,022 acres of trees, to offset carbon emissions.

How can leaders promote more sustainable practices?

Tackling sustainability in this way comes from the top and is driven by leaders whose values emphasize environmental stewardship and social responsibility alongside commercial success. Typically, they are individuals who possess a strong understanding of both the sporting industry and sustainable practices. They are committed to ensuring that events are designed and delivered in a way that minimizes environmental impact while maximizing social and economic benefits.

Depending on timescales and needs, sustainability leaders can take several forms; either as a dedicated chief sustainability officer or as a select group of sustainability-oriented executives. The former can be hired or internally appointed as a permanent position or for a fixed period of time.

A permanent CSO often means the organization is clear on its sustainability goals, wants to institutionalize sustainability, and views it as a long-term mission they want to work at.

However, for global sports events, particularly those working to shorter timescales, appointing a CSO for a fixed period may be more suitable. Employed for the duration of the event, their focus is solely on delivering the event’s sustainability strategy. What’s more, because they’re not dependent on a long-term working relationship with the organization they can afford to be less political in their recommendations.

The effectiveness of a chief sustainability officer is often determined by the broader leadership’s attitude to sustainability, the organization’s culture, and who the CSO reports in to. You can find out more in: How to get the most out of a Chief Sustainability Officer.

Other global sports events may need more than a single sustainability role.

Increasingly, organizations understand sustainability needs to be managed by a group of peers, often the senior management team who can drive sustainability throughout their functions, with the direction of a CSO.

This means building a leadership team of sustainability-competent executives who also view it as their responsibility. For sports events, sustainability then becomes baked into ‘the decision dashboard’ from site construction and working with local communities through to branding and driving commercial value.

You can find out how organizations are using sustainability leaders differently in: The evolving role of sustainability leaders.

Global sport is both a victim and a culprit of climate change. An increasing number of winter events are unable to take place due to warmer weather, water shortages are a key challenge for certain regions and athletes have faced health issues from rising temperatures. Driving sustainability in global sport is therefore not just a case of ‘doing the right thing’ but is essential if these events are to continue taking place long into the future.

To find out more about sport and sustainability, please contact our Global Sports, Gaming and Media Practice directly or get in touch with us here. You can also find your local Odgers Berndtson contact here.

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