Sport and climate change - what is the guidance?

Posted by Edward Hawkins on 2 November 2022

By Ed Hawkins, I Trust Sport, Sports Governance and Sustainability Consultant


As the world’s temperature rises, so does the pressure on governments to reduce carbon emissions. To achieve long-term temperature goals, countries aim to reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions within a few years, followed by rapid decline to achieve a climate neutral world by mid-century. Sports and the organisations which administer them are increasingly expected to follow suit.

“It is absolutely essential that the world reduces its emissions,” Roger Pielke Jr, author and climate policy expert at the University of Colorado, told Play the Game 2022. “And it’s no surprise that sport has joined in. That is to be welcomed.”

But what do these efforts look like? What are their goals and how will they be achieved and assessed?

There are now a raft of projects and initiatives for sports to sign up to in an effort to be carbon neutral by 2050. This article makes the point that in the absence of a single, dominant standard for the sport sector, sports bodies are faced with potentially confusing advice. There is agreement on at least one shared goal, however, for sport: assist in raising awareness of climate change risks and the need for carbon neutrality.

Beyond that, though, what do the various schemes offer? Choosing three frameworks – the United Nations’ (UN) Sports for Climate Action group, the UN’s Race to Zero campaign and sustainable event management tool ISO 20121 – this paper aims to consider whether there is a broad consensus or contradictions.

By mapping those projects under the following headers, a picture may emerge of what international federations, leagues and teams could consider for their own strategies and which framework suits them:

  • What does the framework look like?
  • What are the principles/themes?
  • What are the criteria to join/sign-up?
  • Do they relate to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs)?
  • Are goals related to offsetting or reducing?
  • Are guides for organisations produced?
  • What is the common ground surrounding fan travel/ spectator emissions?
  • What is the common ground regarding sponsorships?
  • Are there assessments (action/measuring impact?)
  • What accountability?

In addition, the research paper includes case studies of three sporting organisations, two of which are linked to the frameworks and one which appears to be developing a strategy independently. These are the Lawn Tennis Association in the UK, World Athletics and the Bundesliga in Germany.

From combining the above data and information it should be possible to highlight some themes which appear to be particularly crucial to sports and environmental sustainability policy.

The three frameworks

United Nations Sports for Climate Action

The UN Sports for Climate Action (SfCA) movement, which has several hundred signatories, provides a community for sports to work towards climate goals. It also aims to use sport as a tool to raise awareness and create solidarity among people for climate change. Any organisation can join so long as it commits to the framework’s principles. They are ‘invited’ to commit to targets. If they do so, they will be able to join the Race to Zero campaign.

Race to Zero

Race to Zero is a global UN-backed campaign to achieve net zero carbon emissions ‘by 2050 at the latest’. Its signatories include businesses, cities and regions. There are strict criteria to join and a review group for applications. It is part of the Climate Ambition Alliance. It is perhaps the framework that comes closest to providing a consistent global approach. Considering this status and the fact it is more demanding and specific in its requirements than the SfCA, some organisations may conclude that it is for the big corporate machines. Signatories like IOC and FIFA back up this view. However, it is for small organisations, too as shown by the table below with revenues as a filter.

Selected Race to Zero signatories sorted by annual revenues

>$1 billion USD



Premier League



Liverpool FC


Formula E




World Rugby


Athletics Kenya

World Sailing


International Canoe Federation

International Floorball Federation

Tour de Suisse


Ju-Jitsu International Federation

International Rafting Federation

ISO 20121

ISO 20121 is a voluntary and rigorous international standard for events, venues or providers. It was developed by an international panel for the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, in order to ‘standardise a management system approach to sustainability’. It provides a framework for understanding social, economic and environmental impacts. It can be used for commercial growth insofar that organisations can claim ‘sustainability’ to boost economic returns and win new business. It is very much minded towards assisting commercial success. The IOC considers it as the preferred certification scheme.

Mapping the frameworks

Within any organisation a coherent strategy, with all members and departments, ‘pulling in the same direction’ and understanding the mission and goals is, obviously, important. Yet for sport to make a genuine impact on climate change, how much do competitors (international federations, teams, events) need to work together?

A universal framework for sport to act on climate change in unison would be desirable. Yet those who have ever attended a conference on the challenges facing sport will know that a ‘one size fits all’ approach for the issue of the day (whether that be anti-corruption, safeguarding, human rights) is rarely deemed feasible.

There are various schemes open to sports organisations to address the issue. Domestically, there are a growing number of initiatives to adopt often at the behest of the government sports agency or department. There are private companies which offer similar services. Three frameworks which appear to cross borders, however, are the UN’s twin programmes (Sports for Climate Action and Race to Zero) and the ISO 20121.

By mapping the approaches of these frameworks it is possible to assess commonalities.

All three schemes share broad themes around environmental sustainability as one would expect. Each of three prioritise the reduction of environmental footprint in their list of principles. It is noted that SfCA and Race to Zero share the same five principles. With a nod to its commercial role, ISO 20121 includes ‘continue to be financially successful’ as a building block.

Race to Zero incorporates stringent criteria and ISO 20121 requires an organisation to undergo a transparent process to evaluate operations. Any organisation can sign up to SfCA. Race to Zero has a four-point minimum criteria checklist, including two related to reporting. Race to Zero also has strict rules on carbon offsetting and provides a set of conditions, including that they must be ‘like for like’ and are not over-estimated.

ISO 20121, SfCA and Race to Zero look to provide thorough and varied implementation support.

None of the three frameworks appear to prescribe a particular approach to travel for spectators, athletes or officials. The London Organising Committee for the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LOCOG) was ISO 20121 certified and in its pre-games sustainability report it included sustainable transport as a priority. There is limited reference to the high carbon footprints of spectators and athletes in SfCA and Race to Zero literature.

Download mapping of sports climate frameworks here

Sponsorship contradictions

The suggestion by ISO 20121 that organisations and sponsors/corporate partners should be aligned by certification is an interesting one. In terms of sports organisations (or events) the partners they choose remains a rich source for journalists to call out double standards.

Some climate activists would no doubt argue for a purge of airline, petrochemical and other ‘non-green’ industries from sport. It would seem unrealistic, however, because the partnership pool for organisations or events to draw sustenance from would become increasingly shallow. As has been noted with the recent clamour for football clubs to be banned from making deals with gambling firms, it is often argued that, rightly or wrongly, such a sanction could cause financial difficulties.

A small study of airline involvement in sport found that in 2021 there were 273 partnership agreements in sport. Fly Emirates, which is a partner of Arsenal, the Premier League team, are believed to provide $218m of sponsorship in sport.

A more nuanced approach would make sense in line with ISO 20121’s recommendation, namely if sport and sponsor were not only partners in branding but in climate as well. It is perhaps time for an arrangement to be agreed only if both parties agree to sign up to a Race to Zero, or similar. In most cases the onus would probably fall on the sporting organisation to make such a demand.

However, there is evidence from the 2022 Autumn Sport Positive summit, which brought together a number of international federations, of demands first coming from the corporate world. A number of organisations revealed that potential partners wanted to know what their sustainability policies were, had they measured their carbon footprint and what they were doing to reduce emissions. The suggestion was that initiatives needed to be in place if they were going to align their brand.

The tables below show how many partners of the IOC, FIFA and UEFA are Race to Zero signatories. Nine of 15 partner sponsors of the IOC are in Race to Zero, FIFA have three out of seven and UEFA five out of 12. It should be noted that these companies may have signed up to other appropriate environmental initiatives or designed their own programmes. Samsung, for example, have extensive climate action projects and policies.

IOC partner sponsors who are Race to Zero signatories


Race to Zero signatory












(China, Swiss, European Partners)



















FIFA partner sponsors who are Race to Zero signatories


Race to Zero signatory




(China, Swiss, European Partners)





Qatar Airways


Qatar Energy




UEFA partner sponsors who are Race to Zero signatories


Race to Zero signatory




Yes (via parent company)


Yes (via parent company)





Just Eat














*Data up-to-date as of September 2022

Case studies

The LTA, German Bundesliga and World Athletics sustainability strategies are interesting case studies because they have been inspired by three different frameworks. The LTA are a Race to Zero signatory so appear to have used it as their framework. The Bundesliga, which is not a SfCA signatory, has chosen its own path and leant on government strategies, a sustainability working group involving the German football federation and a club responsibility group. In short, it is largely a football-led project. And, finally, World Athletics which has highlighted the importance of ISO 20121 throughout its strategy.

Each of the three approaches appear thorough and valid. Yet it is hard not to be impressed by the Bundesliga’s ‘revolutionary’ approach. By making a sustainability strategy for each club in the top two divisions a licensing requirement for 2023-24 this is one of the most notable examples of holding stakeholders to account.

There is evidence of unity among the Bundesliga administration and its clubs. In December 2021 the clubs voted to include sustainability criteria in the leagues statutes and for them to become part of the licensing process. If clubs fail to meet minimum criteria, sanctions can be imposed. Minimum criteria is likely to include:

  • Employing a sustainability officer
  • Annual measurement of water consumption
  • Measurement of wastewater production and energy consumption
  • A mobility and traffic analysis

A second set of criteria is expected to be introduced for the 2024-25 season. And each season more criteria will be added to ensure sustainability is enhanced.

The LTA strategy is rooted in Race to Zero rules and regulations. Yet it adds to this foundation with strong-looking plans for adoption across a plethora of members and events. Members must have a sustainability plan by 2026 and policies will be added into county governance frameworks.

World Athletics’ Sustainability Strategy recommends that ISO 20121 becomes the ‘operational framework’ for all events. Its best practice guidance advises that suppliers, products or services have a certified sustainable management system to ISO 20121.

There is also more of a hint of ISO 20121 influence in World Athletics’ decision to only partner with corporates who are engaged with sustainability. The LTA has gone further than Race to Zero and put a timeframe by 2026 for sustainability-focussed partners.

When it comes to sustainable travel, we can see also clear action. By contrast, the three frameworks are opaque on guidance. Notably World Athletics and the LTA recognise the impact of international travel. World Athletics’ carbon emission inventory will be broadened to include athlete travel to series events. It is here where we are getting to perhaps what is the nub of the issue.

Download case studies mapping here

The issue of spectator travel

Football has a particular problem with travel in the context of carbon footprint. Three-quarters of carbon emissions for the World Cups in 2010, 2014 and 2018 were attributable to spectator travel. A study found that international football is responsible for an average of 10 million tonnes of carbon per year (largely because of the four-year World Cup cycle). This is equivalent to the same emissions as Bolivia. Include club football and it is estimated to be responsible for carbon emissions on a par with another country with a fairly small population - Tunisia. The Bundesliga plan doesn’t appear to address travel for matches specifically. Not surprisingly, it doesn’t advocate playing fewer games.

The English Premier League is set to launch its sustainability framework in 2022. This was announced at the same time as their agreement to become an SfCA member. It will ‘engage with stakeholders to achieve the principles’. It would seem unlikely that the Premier League would produce as prescriptive a framework as the Bundesliga, pointing out that some clubs are acting independently on the issue.

BBC Sport, a Race to Zero signatory, and the UN-backed Sport Positive Summit ranked each Premier League team for sustainability in 2022. Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur and Southampton (all Race to Zero signatories) were in the top three and were awarded extra points for the official commitment. They were assessed on similar criteria to Bundesliga regulations.

Despite clubs doing their own work – and in some cases signing up to other projects – there is limited take up (as the table below shows) to Race to Zero among Europe’s five biggest leagues – Germany, England, France, Italy and Spain. Nine clubs from the top division of the five major European leagues are SfCA signatories. That’s out of 98 teams. They are: Arsenal, Liverpool, Southampton, Tottenham, Real Betis, FC Koln, Juventus, Udinese and PSG. UEFA and EPL are Race to Zero signatories. La Liga (Spain) and the German FA are SfCA signatories. La Liga has produced its own guide for clubs to draw up a sustainability framework with some advice on environmental policy.

‘Big Five’ European football league clubs Race to Zero signatories



St Etienne










The elephant in the room

All sports want to grow. They want more grassroots participants, more events, more resources and more revenues. As IS0 20121 itself says, it is about growing commercially, too.

Read the strategy of any international federation, organisation or league and it is a guarantee that it will include at least one of the above listed as an aim. World Athletics, for example, has its own strategy for growth. It is not alone.

Is this the inherent conflict of sport and sustainability? Sports want to have more events, more athletes, more ‘eyeballs’ and more money. They also want to be more sustainable.

The brutal truth, climate activists will argue, that unless targets are met, none of these will matter because of the devastating effects of climate change. The simple fact is that if sports want to be sustainable and really help ‘save the planet’ they actually need to reduce activity. That is because the biggest carbon emitter group is spectators.

Let’s take football as an example.

According to the EU’s Life Tackle project, a fan generates 800 grammes of waste per visit to a stadium. Spread across European football, that accounts for 750,000 tons of waste per year, which is more than the country of Liechtenstein. An NGO estimated that the 2019 UEFA Europa League Cup Final in Baku, which hosted travelling fans from Arsenal and Chelsea, generated almost 6,000 tons of CO2.

Although the Bundesliga plans are commendable and other token efforts by individual clubs (Brentford changing their strip once every two years instead of one) are likewise, they are inconsequential in comparison to travel emissions produced by a major European league or even a European Championships or World Cup.

That is because there are different types of emissions, categorised as Scope 1, Scope 2 and Scope 3. Scope 1 and 2 are, respectively, classed as direct emissions and indirect emissions purchased from energy. They are relatively straightforward for an organisation to reduce and, as described above, are simple ways to make an immediate impact and help raise awareness.

However, another uncomfortable truth is that Scope 1 and 2 emissions may make up little more than ten per cent of a sport organisation’s emissions. The vast majority is from Scope 3, which is classed as indirect value chain emissions. This where fan travel and competition related travel sits. A FIFA World Cup, for example, is probably one of the biggest Scope 3 emissions in sport.

Julie Duffus, IOC Senior Sustainability Manager, told Sport Positive, that organisations need to map Scope 3 emissions. “Scope 3 is scary and every time we think we’ve sorted it we get another supplier and we have to start again.”

So sport has conflicting logics. And from this standpoint sports have been accused of greenwashing. There has been some criticism of sports which are ISO 20121 certified for example. Formula E, which it is claimed is the first sport to have a net zero carbon footprint, hosts races in at least 14 different cities in its Season 9 calendar.

Formula E has been called a ‘marketing exercise’ for the automotive industry. It is not alone in being criticised. In the certification space there are fears of transparency and approximation. Private companies and consultants can work with sports organisations to aid certification, and this is where the lines begin to blur.

In time one would expect Race to Zero signatories, SfCA members, the Bundesliga and organisations like World Athletics which are leaning on ISO 20121, to face scrutiny on the question of spectator travel. It seems highly unlikely that a sport will cancel events for sustainability issues or issue restrictions on spectators, whether that be issuing tickets to ‘locals’ only or introducing a ‘extra’ charge to ticket holders to offset the weight of their emissions. Many would see such moves as heresy. It is ‘easier’ to implement an exhaustive sustainability strategy instead of reducing events.

It was therefore noteworthy that Thomas Bach, the IOC President, urged National Olympic Committees in October 2022 to review events and consider whether some are “really necessary”.

From time to time it might be possible for organisations ‘share’ host venues. Could SailGP and Formula E, for example, stage their event in the same city on the same weekend and market races as one product, potentially reducing the amount of spectator travel? It reinforces the potential for organisations and host venues (cities, towns) to work together in the same way a corporate sponsor might.

Are carbon offsets and credit viable?

Back to Formula E which, as a trailblazer, attracts both praise and criticism. Others can learn much, not least in the way it deals with carbon offsets and credits which is possibly the most controversial topic of all when it comes to sustainability.

Buying carbon credits in green projects or, prosaically, planting a load of trees, is an easy win for organisations, not just those in sport. UEFA offset spectator emissions (about 405,000 tonnes) for the 2020 European Championships which was held in 12 countries.

FIFA were criticised by Carbon Market Watch for its assertion that the World Cup in Qatar would be the first carbon-neutral tournament of its kind. Carbon Market Watch found ‘questionable’ claims when it came to carbon offsets/credits. Its report found:

Organisers have placed the emphasis on purchasing credits from projects in Qatar and the region. To find these credits, the tournament’s organisers have partnered with the Gulf Organisation for Research and Development (GORD) to set up a new carbon market standard, the Global Carbon Council (GCC). At least 1.8 million credits should be coming from this standard. This raises questions regarding the origin of the supply of the credits, and their quality. GCC currently (as of 10 May 2022) only has two registered projects, both of which are renewable energy projects in Turkey. Only one of these has issued credits according to the public registry, meaning the current total supply of GCC credits is 133,667, far below the 1.8 million that will need to be available to fulfil the purchase agreement that was apparently concluded, let alone the 3.6 million to cover the total (but probably underestimated) footprint of the 2022 World Cup

The report’s author, Gilles Dufrasne, spoke to I Trust Sport for this paper and suggested sports were focussing on ‘low quality’ offsets which are cheap and make ‘little difference’. There were danger organisations were doing this so they could make claims about being carbon neutral for positive public relations. Credits are bought for projects which would be happening anyway, often backed financially by governments (although the sports body may save the taxpayer some money) , and forestry projects (planting trees) take decades to realise benefits.

Instead of superficial public relations activity, or offsetting spectator emissions as UEFA did, Dufrasne suggested sports should target travel as the main source of output by investing in the green transport sector and air transport alternatives.

This is what Formula E has done. It claims ‘no sport has invested more’ to develop and promote CO2-reducing technology. This includes powertrain parts which can be used in cars and electric engines.

Frameworks such as ISO 20121 and Bundesliga strategy may benefit from greater transparency with regard to how offsets and credits can be used and highlighting the importance of investment in new technologies. Race to Zero does state in its rules that these must not be overestimated and must be valued be used in ‘rigorous’ conditions only.

Frameworks may have perceived bias to professional/high-performance sport

There is evidence that frameworks such as ISO 20121, SfCA and Race to Zero do not appeal to small sports organisations, for example at grassroots or community level. The size of the organisations involved in terms of revenue, staff and prominence and some of the convoluted criteria (carbon offsets/credits) are, rightly or wrongly, unlikely to encourage a widespread adoption even if there are examples of organisations with smaller turnovers as signatories (see table above). Many community groups are staffed by volunteers and the frameworks may be considered too specialist.

It may be incumbent, therefore, for national sports bodies to at least provide guidance to organisations which do not have the wealth or resources to seek certification from the three examples. Sport England, for example offer practical sustainability advice, including how to protect against drought and flood, saving energy, designing new facilities and incorporating practices into ‘live, work and play’.

Also in the UK a new alliance called the Sport Environment and Climate Coalition (SECC) was launched in March 2022 to provide guidance for the health, fitness and activity sectors. Members of the cross-sector collaboration include the Sport and Recreation Alliance, UK Active, the Association for Public Service Excellence (APSE), the British Association for Sustainable Sport (BASIS), Sport England, Sport Northern Ireland, sportscotland; Sport Wales and UK Sport.

At the time of writing in September 2022, the SECC is engaged in a period of consultation and mapping with organisations to build a picture of what is being done in the sector. The end result is unlikely to be a prescriptive framework. Instead the aim is to build consistent advice on topics related to the size and specialism of the sector. This might be reducing energy consumption or, for events, reducing environmental pollutants.


Beware Greenwashing

Sport cannot solve global heating on its own. Even seemingly eyewatering figures of CO2 emissions for mega events pale into insignificance when the world’s largest emitter, China, was estimated to have had emissions of 12billion tonnes in the year ending March 2021.

Roger Pielke Jr, author and climate policy expert at the University of Colorado, told Play the Game 2022: “About 0.3 per cent of all global carbon dioxide emissions come from sport, from park runs, my kids playing in the park to the World Cup and the Olympics. The entire historic emissions from the English Premier League amount to about nine seconds of Chinese emissions. In terms of reducing emissions, it doesn’t really matter what sport does.”

Arguments to reduce the volume of competition and corresponding travel to reduce carbon emissions look rather hollow in that context. Sports might argue it would be an act of self-harm. Of course, there are contradictions which will be picked up on by media and claims that the industry is ‘talking the talk but not walking the walk’ but the cold reality is that sport –like most of its corporate partners – can only truly hope to achieve awareness, not least because of the huge challenge from Scope 3 emissions . This in turn builds pressure and momentum on national governments to act.

Global soccer stars being pictured working in a club’s own vegetable patch, a team retaining a strip for two seasons in a row or setting up a car-sharing scheme (Tottenham, Brentford and Manchester City respectively) are gestures which make an insignificant impact in practical terms but what they do achieve is raise awareness. Football in particular has a platform and influence to drive change.

Yet sport has a responsibility to raise awareness in a responsible way. And this is a critical point. Calculated decisions to claim climate neutrality for a corporate social responsibility ‘win’ should be avoided. It is a contradiction in itself and gives a false impression of the problem. As Carbon Market Watch has pointed out, it is far more beneficial to be honest about the scale of the issue and to invest in new technologies instead of carbon credits and offsetting with dubious returns. Sports organisations cannot offset forever.

Race to Zero appears to have strict regulations to ensure that organisations cannot make false claims when it comes to offsets. The project is in its infancy and it will be interesting to see in the future whether organisations are held to account. What form that will take is difficult to predict because Race to Zero is unlikely to have any enforcement powers, perhaps beyond naming organisations that do or do not live up to their commitments.


The Bundesliga may well set a headline-grabbing precedent for accountability. It has a stick and carrot approach for its clubs. Licensing will depend on targets being met. And rewards (or just recognition) will be given to those clubs who can achieve. It could well be that the Bundesliga is a model which other similar organisations can follow.

In that regard, the notion that sport requires a universal framework is questioned. A universal will, yes, but it could become incumbent on individual leagues, particularly wealthy ones in football like the Premier League, to do something similar. Jurisdiction is often the worry when it comes to a universal approach as discussed. If the Bundesliga can sanction, then others can follow.

The detail of such actions remains to be seen. As far as football is concerned there are only two currencies which the sport understands: points and money. The former threatens the sporting legitimacy of a competition, the latter is fraught as has been seen with UEFA’s Financial Fair Play regulations (revised and renamed in 2022 to Financial Sustainability Regulations). It is possible that individual leagues could link environmental sustainability performance with funding. A league table of sustainability may be an innovative approach. The higher up a team finishes in the league, the more money it gets. Sport Positive ranks clubs in England, Germany and France on sustainability.

This is what David Goldblatt, the author and chairman of the football sustainability organisation, Football for the Future, has argued for. It has been happening in other sports. SailGP tracks teams’ performance on reducing carbon footprints. This ‘leaderboard’ runs alongside the regular championship standings. The winner of the climate leaderboard is rewarded with funding for its ‘purpose partner’ and there are set criteria for teams to follow.

Corporate partners aligned to sustainability strategy

As the ISO 20121 framework discusses, organisations should be working with partners who share a view on environmental sustainability. This should not be confused with a call that petro-chemical, airlines or other industries with large carbon footprints are excluded from partnerships in sport. It is suggested that environmental sustainability is used as an incentive to partner and the two can work together to raise awareness and invest in projects.

For example, an organisation which is already a member of Race to Zero could insist that any commercial or marketing partner also sign up as part of the agreement. That commonality can prevent criticisms for both sectors of greenwashing which can have a negative impact on raising awareness. The LTA and World Athletics have included such plans in their frameworks to work only with like-minded commercial partners.

In addition, sports organisations may find that when they are in the marketplace for new partners, there will be an expectation from the corporate world to have effective sustainability strategies not only in place but being rigorously implemented.

The latter two do not make reference to potentially contradictory sponsorship or corporate partnerships. ISO 20121 states that ‘in time’ events should choose stakeholders which are also certified.

Accountability across the frameworks is good. ISO 20121, of course, is a certification so organisations either conform or not. SfCA members have progress tracked and Race to Zero members have to achieve benchmark standards and undergo an annual review by the Expert Peer Review Group.

As ‘sister’ frameworks one would expect SfCA and Race to Zero to share timeline goals. Both aim to reduce emissions by half by 2030. Yet SfCA aims for net zero by 2040 and Race to Zero ten years later. As ISO 20121 was constructed in time for the London Olympic Games it predates the Paris and Glasgow climate targets. There doesn’t appear to be a commitment to net zero with ISO 20121.

Sport and climate change - what is the guidance?

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