Sport, and in particular football, can be used to promote health and development in many countries. However, large-scale sporting events like the football World Cup can have a detrimental effect on the environment and sustainable development. Can FIFA and other governing bodies use their immense influence and budgets to establish environmentally friendly practices?
“Sport is a powerful symbol which eliminates barriers and provides opportunities for rapprochement. It does not have the power to stop tanks, but is capable of bringing people together and can be an excellent platform to open up dialogue, unite people and build trust. Sport is a bond to make a positive change in the world.” - Wilfried Lemke, UN Special Adviser on Sport for Development and Peace
An ever-increasing number of leaders in sports as well as politics, business, education and even religion are starting to pay closer attention to how sports can be a tool to benefit humanity. UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon emphasized the commitment of the UN System to promote sport as a tool for development – including using it to achieve the United Nations Millennium Development Goals.
The game of football is a sport embedded in the lives of many people, communities, and economies. Often called “The Beautiful Game,” it is accessible to all. An estimated 265 million male and female players in addition to five million referees and officials make a grand total of 270 million people - or four percent of the world's population - that are actively involved in the game of football.
Football supports development in various ways as it generates income from sports-related sales and services that boost international trade. It also creates jobs, supports local economic development, enhances a country’s reputation, transcends national differences, improves health and social well-being, encourages teamwork, and most importantly it serves as a global communicator while speaking a world language for the sake of social good.
Moreover, consider the latest account of FIFA's Sustainability Report and its decade long commitment and concern for sustainable development and environmental impact for a cleaner planet Earth. This informative report is divided into five sections that demonstrate the depth of FIFA’s commitment. The sections include:
- sustainability strategy;
- staging a more sustainable FIFA World Cup;
- protecting the environment;
- social development through sport;
- making a lasting impact.
In addition, FIFA invited over 400,000 World Cup ticket holders to consider the environmental impact of their trips. Nevertheless, FIFA is still fully aware that organizing a mega-event in a sustainable manner is a big challenge, and that there will always be areas for improvement.
The 2006 FIFA World Cup in Germany was a game changer in FIFA’s approach to the sustainability of its tournaments. FIFA is fully aware that organizing an international sporting event of such scale can have a detrimental impact on society and the environment (locally and globally). In 2006, FIFA and the 2006 FIFA World Cup LOC jointly established official social and environmental campaigns. The environmental campaign was called “Green Goal”, a first-of-its-kind carbon reduction-and-offsetting program in which FIFA invested 400,000 EUR.
The FIFA report sends a strong and positive message to the world with positive steps in the right direction aimed at the long-term environmental impact; however, there is another formidable foe for football: climate change. Like many other areas of global life, football is starting to feel the impacts of climate change. This is leading to some adaptations and mitigations as officials question whether other solutions are possible. Heat waves, changing rain patterns, floods, and drought are deteriorating football fields, stadiums, and facilities around the world. Continued global warming is and will have direct impacts on all sports and will not be limited to football. Heat directly affects football performance and the welfare of the athletes. Drought and changed rainfall patterns affect playing surfaces and increase costs. These range from increased water and energy use to higher insurance premiums needed to cover the increased incidence of risk and injury on harder ground. Extreme rainfall threatens short-term ground washouts, and more extensive damage to playing surfaces which also impacts maintenance and insurance costs. From amateur to professional sports, athletes, spectators, officials, and volunteers are feeling the effects of unpredictable weather patterns and the very real consequences of climate change. To manage the risks, all of us, including political and business leaders, need to get up off the bench. We can’t watch from the sidelines -- we need to be present on the field with our “A+” game.
In recent years the world of outdoor sports thought that they could outsmart the foe of climate change by installing artificial grass/turf, instead of natural grass. However, that has not worked without problems. Many artificial turfs, especially older models, are made with a rubber base from recycled tires. These materials contain lead, heavy metals, and carcinogens which environmentalist claim can leech into the water table or pose health risks for young children. Newer artificial fields are made from polyethylene and polypropylene plastics that require large inputs of energy to produce and that need to be replaced every five to ten years. Other issues include the impact artificial turfs have on the natural systems that surround them. Organic debris needs to be regularly removed and natural decomposition is hindered. Wildlife habitat is also destroyed, as artificial turf does not support birds, animals, or insects. It’s no wonder that many sports stadiums are making the transition back to natural grass.
The impact of climate change on football is far-reaching. Let’s take a closer look at the most recent 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil. In 1950, Brazil hosted the World Cup for the first time. Since then not only has the equipment on and off the field changed, but the average temperature for June-July has changed as well. Average temperatures in June-July have risen at a rate of 0.3°F per decade in Brazil since 1950. Elite football clubs and federations may be able to adapt, but the ability to respond to climate change at local levels or in developing nations is more problematic.
For malcontents, the 2014 FIFA World Cup was an environmental nightmare, and it wasn’t copa verde as advertised. It had one of the highest carbon footprints of any tournament because the matches were geographically dispersed across Brazil and the construction of several new stadia was required. FIFA's emissions offset plan and green design features, however, were legitimate accomplishments. The problem was that FIFA laid out a green agenda that was largely restricted to the 12 stadiums across the country where the games were to be played. Although complaints were made, many in the science community still believe that the green sports concept has the potential to be one of the most influential in the history of environmentalism. The good news is that FIFA recognizes the challenge and is willing to confront it. Since 2012, FIFA has offset 75 % of its total carbon footprint, including all flight emissions. FIFA’s annual investment to offset flight emissions amounts to approximately USD 500,000, and covers all air travel of referees, officials and guests, as well as the FIFA World Cup related air travel of participating teams and the Local Organizing Committee.
It shines as a ray of hope to see FIFA paying attention to environmental details, but the sustainability match is not over yet, and the earth may not give us an overtime period to finish it! Let’s hope that the FIFA squad will continue kicking green on the green only and not just for the green. My hope is that those who govern the ‘beautiful game’ will use their immense influence and budget to establish practices that will help to maintain a ‘beautiful Earth’ for generations to come. We have to clean up our planet now, within the restricted time limit, and not take chances.
Follow PublicSphereWB on Twitter!
Photograph by Dylan Thomas / UKaid / Department for International Development via Flickr