Sport Killing The Planet

How sport is killing the planet

George Monbiot
Sunday October 29, 2006
Observer Sport Monthly

One of the reasons why so little has been done to stop climate change is that everyone makes an exception for themselves. We can all agree, for example, that there are too many cars on the roads, while insisting that we cannot possibly leave ours at home. The same problem applies to businesses: the people who run them might agree that collective action urgently needs to be taken, but unfortunately their sector is just too important and its requirements too demanding. This seems to be the prevailing ethos at the moment in sport.
I don’t want to be a killjoy and I recognise that many sports are considered a matter of life and death by their fans. But climate change really is a matter of life and death. However important the next fixture might seem, it doesn’t compare to the drying out of sub-Saharan Africa or the flooding of some of the world’s major cities. Almost all climate scientists now agree that two degrees of global warming would trigger off catastrophic climate change, with the potential to displace hundreds of millions of people. To avert it, the latest figures suggest, we need a 90 per cent cut in carbon emissions from every economic sector in the rich world by 2030. And that, I am sorry to say, includes sport.

Some sports are simply incompatible with any likely solution to the problem. The most obvious example is motor racing. There is a direct relationship between an engine’s performance and the amount of greenhouse gases it produces: the faster the car, the quicker it cooks the planet. At the moment, there is no foreseeable means by which a racing car’s emissions can be brought down by 90 per cent within the necessary time frame. Biodiesel currently causes more harm to people and the environment than good, as it pushes up food prices and encourages the felling of tropical forests. One day - perhaps in 20 or 30 years - racing cars might run on hydrogen or electricity. Unfortunately, that’s too late: the major cuts have to be made right now.

Even sports such as football and athletics that are inherently harmless cause major environmental effects, thanks to the transport of spectators. The organisers of the Sydney Olympics did more or less all they could to make the Games as green as possible: they ran the buildings in the Olympic Village on solar power, used recycled materials and cleaned up contaminated sites. Even Greenpeace gave them a score of six out of 10. But Sydney is on the other side of the world. Just one return journey from the UK to Australia uses twice a person’s sustainable emission of carbon dioxide for an entire year. Beijing is expecting

1.5 million visitors to the 2008 Games, a third of whom will come from overseas. Like most Olympic hosts, China hopes the new airport and tourist facilities it is building will attract custom for years. It is hard to think of a better formula than a global sporting event for causing maximum environmental damage.

Building these facilities also exerts a tremendous environmental cost. Because it has to be heated to 1,450°C, and because the chemical process itself releases carbon dioxide, every tonne of cement produces one tonne of climate-changing gas. Steel is even more polluting. Arsenal’s recent move to the Emirates Stadium produced tens of thousands of tonnes of greenhouse gases. The impacts are even greater when a sport has to create an artificial environment. The exemplar is SkiDubai, a huge man-made mountain, which remains below freezing just a steel skin away from desert temperatures.

In August, the Evening Standard reported that most of the eco-features that were supposed to have made the London Olympics the ‘greenest Games ever’ have been quietly dropped. Instead of using 100 per cent renewable energy to power the Olympic Village, the real figure will now be more like 10 per cent.

Perhaps it’s time to consider a fixed site for the Olympics and to encourage spectators to stay at home and watch international events on the telly. Perhaps we should recognise that some sports are simply too wasteful to be sustained. It is, after all, just entertainment. Can we really live with the idea that we might destroy the planet for fun?

Second thoughts

For years a group of us struggled to find a sport that everyone could play. The young men were happy with football, but women, children and older people got hurt in collisions. We tried hockey, with disastrous results. Cricket and rounders lacked excitement. Then someone suggested ultimate frisbee and we have never looked back.

It is - if you choose to play it that way - fast and demanding, but, because there’s no contact and a variety of useful tactics, almost anyone can join in. Our players so far have ranged from four to 79. Fifteen years on, most of us are in our forties and still executing some pretty spectacular dives. It’s a great sport - I don’t why it isn’t played more widely.

· George Monbiot’s latest book is Heat: How to Stop the Planet Burning (Penguin)