OP-ED: How sport can support the climate change movement

03 Nov 2021

By: Sport Industry Group

Radha Balani is Director of Design & Facilitation at sport and social impact strategic consultancy thinkBeyond. At COP26, thinkBeyond hosted a day of content curation as part of Day Three of the EXTREME Hangout.


When working in, living amongst, and breathing sport – we talk about its responsibility to not harm the planet. Sport is such a beautiful thing; it brings so much to lives and communities, at all levels, but it’s a major red flag in the current climate crisis.

We know that the basic understanding is there, but driving behavioural change remains the ongoing issue.

We are starting to see some examples of climate change action through sport. Take UN Patron of the Oceans, Lewis Pugh, taking on gruelling challenges as part of a call to decision makers to drive change, or British Sailing embarking on an epic beach clean-up as part of their wider approach to climate action.

Some recognise it, some know it’s a thing but don’t know what to do, and some are completely oblivious.

The question now is: How do we use sport to further support a climate change movement, to help debunk myths and challenge policy makers?

There's an imperative for sport's future that it needs to understand how it delivers what it does, without impacting the planet.

We are starting to get sports to think about it, but it’s a slow process. It’s about helping them realise where they need to change and why. This, not from a ‘doomsday perspective’, more from a positive value-based approach that covers the likes of fan engagement and growth, sponsor and partner development, and inclusion within sports’ existing (largely excellent) work in social impact. The two things are not mutually exclusive, so we try to be more intentional about bringing them together.

This month sees the global climate change conference, COP26, head to Glasgow. It’s refreshing to see sport command such a strong presence, with conversation and thought leadership shared across the conference and seeing some of the most influential names in sport advocating for sustainable change.

We’re seeing the passion and commitment of current and former athletes and leaders in the industry shine brightly around COP26. 150 athletes, sports teams as well as sports-adjacent organisations, and thought leaders have endorsed the COP 26 Sports Community Manifesto, developed by EcoAthletes. The global sports industry is getting behind the ‘#ClimateComeback’.

And today (3 November), I am delighted to be involved in thinkBeyond’s day of curating content at the EXTREME Hangout, featuring speakers such as Ledley King, Hannah Mills, Tom Gribbin, former athletes, sustainability advocates and many more.

Many are being forced to take note, as a result of these terrifying changes we see on a daily basis. Our ‘safe spaces’ and places of familiarity, comfort and wholesome fun are in danger. For example, the ICC is looking at how many spaces will be left for cricket in years to come at this rate of rising water levels across the globe.

The British Mountaineering Council is doing some great, but sadly essential, work around preserving the trails that people are using. After all, that's their playing surface.

The island nations of the Commonwealth are seeing the consequence of climate change daily in their lives. The time is yesterday to drive change.

Therefore, what impact does the sporting industry have on the planet and what does it need to do to lessen the damage being done? Secondly what positive impact can the sector have to influence others?

Whilst the prospect of sport being a leader in driving positive action around climate change is an exciting one, we can’t even begin to think about how it can influence, until it gets its own ducks in a row.

Organisations having a sustainability policy is not impressive - it's imperative. What’s impressive is how they make it real and bring it to life through their staff, partners, fans and more.

What I hope we will all learn from COP26 is that sport can directly influence climate action. Particularly so at the intersectionality of how those with the least are disproportionately hurt when disasters happen. This is why climate action also includes climate justice. Global Citizen captured this well when they said: “Black people, Indigenous people, and people of color (BIPOC) are disproportionately experiencing the impacts of climate change:  flooded homes, vanishing sources of drinking water, disrupted local economies, extreme heat waves.”

We already know mainstream sport and the infrastructure around it is disproportionately controlled by the white, global north and middle-class majority. Yet, sport’s role in climate action does not need to follow suit, it can be a catalyst for a more diverse movement, one that has decisions made with a cross section of society, reflecting every community that has been and will be impacted by this crisis.

The ways people do things need to change. Nobody should feel alone, however. Hopefully COP26 will help share the wealth of expertise that exists and help drive forward the action needed.