2014 saw a glorious summer of sport, with the FIFA World Cup in Brazil, the annual Wimbledon championship, the Tour de France descending on Yorkshire, and the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.

Government departments, health gurus and educationalists seemed to be constantly blowing their vuvuzelas in praise of the many and various benefits of sport, in terms of health and wellbeing. This prompted a renewed interest in the question as to whether sporting superstars – and especially sporting super-venues – can inspire us to improve other aspects of sustainability too?

Whatever happens on the pitch or in the stadium, a major source of football-related emissions is transport

Wembley hat-trick

The Carbon Trust thinks so. In May 2014, amid the growing furore over FIFA’s choice of Qatar as host for the World Cup 2022, the Carbon Trust quietly awarded a hat-trick of sustainability prizes to England’s national stadium, Wembley. This was the first time the Trust had awarded “the treble” – its Water, Waste and Carbon standards – to a sports organisation, and the Football Association (FA) which manages Wembley is now one of only ten organisations to have achieved this accolade (alongside the likes of Marks & Spencer and accountancy giant PwC).

Back in 2012, piggy-backing on the success of the London 2012 Olympic Games, the Trust set the nation’s football clubs the goal of “kicking carbon into touch” through year-on-year reductions in each club’s greenhouse gas emissions. The prize for their efforts would be the coveted Carbon Trust Standard – at the time held by some 650 organisations, only four of which were football clubs.

The Trust’s plan was to score a one–two: cut emissions (and costs) for clubs, and also raise awareness of sustainability and energy-saving among footy fans and club suppliers. As Darran Messem, MD of Certification at the Carbon Trust put it back in 2012:

“Football clubs have relatively small carbon footprints compared with other industries, but they exert a huge level of influence. By demonstrating their own action on sustainability they can show leadership and encourage others, whether businesses or fans, to see the benefits of taking action.”

Between them, the four clubs certified in 2012 (Bradford City, Bolton Wanderers, Manchester United, and Newcastle United) had saved nearly 8,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2), equivalent to approximately £1.2 million in energy savings at the time.

The Wembley triple achievement goes considerably further. Since the new Wembley stadium opened in 2007 a management-led Green Team has saved almost £4 million, with electricity consumption cut by 32% between 2007 and 2012. Now, 100% of the Stadium’s electricity is purchased via a renewable energy tariff, and recycling rates on event days can reach up to 86%. Considering that Wembley Stadium can host up to 90,000 people on a major event day – including catering for up to 10,500 seated meals – the savings in energy, waste and water are well worth shouting about, and they do! The Green Team gives more details of its work, including its zero waste to landfill approach, in its Going Green report.

Whatever happens on the pitch or in the stadium, a major source of football-related emissions is transport. At Wembley, the use of public transport is actively encouraged through the Green Travel Plan (“nudged”, some might say, through very high car-parking charges). Around 40,000 people use Wembley Park station on an event day, and 100 trains an hour go through the three stations that serve the Stadium. Acknowledging that there is more to do, the Green Team began collating staff and visitor travel information in 2011, and will use this to develop future travel plans.

A home win for sustainability?

But the carbon emissions of home fans at Wembley are massively out-flanked by those generated by the many thousands of travellers to World Cup 2014 in Brazil. The Brazilian government – which hosted the inaugural match in the global sustainability stakes (Rio Earth Summit, 1992) – has a plan.

On 10 June 2014 Brazil’s Ministry of the Environment announced that it hopes to offset the 1.4 million tonnes of CO2 that it estimates will be generated during the tournament month. This will be achieved through the Clean Development Mechanism established under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), whereby companies “donate” carbon credits from projects that reduce emissions, as a form of exchange against those that don’t. Meanwhile FIFA will offset all its tournament-related emissions through a deal with BP Target Neutral.

The Brazilian government has also pledged that all the stadiums used during the tournament will achieve accreditation under the US Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) scheme.

In November 2013, the Castelao Arena in Fortaleza became the first to hit the back of the net. Others aiming to follow suit include:
  • the brand new solar-powered Arena Pernambuco in Recife, which was designed to achieve a LEED silver rating and incorporates an on-site sewage treatment plant, rainwater harvesting and natural ventilation; and
  • the Mineirão stadium, which hosted the match between Colombia and Greece on 14 June – the first World Cup game played in a stadium “powered by the sun” – although the 6000 solar panels on the stadium’s roof were hidden from the fans’ view because it is a listed building.
Despite the Brazilian government’s active promotion of the environmental initiatives, there are accusations of greenwash and lack of transparency. In an interview with the news agency Responding to Climate Change (RTCC), Luiz Prado (an economic consultant to the World Bank) handed the organizers a yellow card for the use of artificial lighting to grow the pitches and questionable calculations behind the event’s transport plans.

It is unfortunate, but probably inevitable, that this green-plated tournament would be tarnished, given the growing concern over FIFA’s decision to site the 2022 World Cup in the 40°C (104°F) summer heat of Qatar. But other global sporting events have more credible – and more sustainable – green credentials.

The Olympic Movement took up the sustainability baton not long after the global climate change whistle was blown at the Rio Earth Summit. By 1995 it had established a Sport and Environment Commission, and from 1999 all candidate cities have been required to provide information on “environmental conditions and impact.” (Olympics and sustainability, Dr Stephanos Anastasiadis, Royal Holloway University of London, p. 20)

Games of two halves

The London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic games set the bar high in terms of sustainability for the delivery of the event, but the true test has only just begun, with the official reopening of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in April 2014.

All eight of the original permanent sporting venues have secured ownership and funding for the foreseeable future:

  • By 2016 the Stadium will have been transformed so that it can double as the permanent home for West Ham United FC and the national athletics stadium
  • The Copper Box arena and London Aquatics Centre have already hosted several tournaments and exhibition matches
  • Planning permission has been granted for up to 10,000 new homes and other community facilities plus a major arts and cultural centre developed jointly by University College London and the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Post-Games analysis published by Bioregional concludes that “ … a mega event can support real progress towards sustainable development and act as an inspiring exemplar”; while the government’s own review (Report 5: Post-Games evaluation - Meta-evaluation of the impacts and legacy of the London 2012 Olympic Games and Paralympic Games - Summary Report) singled out the Velodrome as:

“…the most innovative in terms of sustainability. It is widely recognized that the design approach, particularly the cable net roof and extensive use of sustainable timber, has significant potential to inspire more sustainable solutions in comparable projects.”

But two years post-Games it is far too soon to draw conclusions about the legacy of the event, even though the London Legacy Development Corporation has set out its vision up to 2030. Lessons from recent history show that plans and ambitions may be thwarted by political and economic circumstances, which are beyond the control of such organisations.

They think it’s all over...

In 1986, Sheffield City Council successfully bid to host the Universiad (the World Student Games), with the aim of using the investment in new sporting venues and associated accommodation and facilities as a spring-board for wider regeneration in the city, which was struggling economically.

The 25,000-capacity Don Valley Stadium – built on the site of former steel works and related factories – was the centrepiece of the regeneration, alongside the brand new Ponds Forge Swimming Pool and Sheffield Arena and an ambitious refurbishment project to accommodate the 3000 visiting athletes at the Le Corbusier-inspired Hyde Park flats (neighbour to the 2013 RIBA Stirling Prize-nominated Park Hill estate).

Although these games were a sporting success, they struggled financially from the outset. Having failed to sell the rights to TV coverage or gain funding from national government, the City Council had to pick up the hefty tab – a debt which, it recently emerged, will not be fully repaid until 2024.

It may have been the first major outdoor sporting venue to be built since Wembley in the 1920s, but any ambitions for Don Valley to match Wembley’s sustainable sporting glory were cut short in November 2013 when demolition crews were ordered in. The City Council could no longer afford to maintain the facility which, for just 23 years, had hosted international athletics, local football and major-league rock bands.

Ironically, only a few weeks later, the managers of another of the Universiad’s flagship venues, Ponds Forge, received the Carbon Trust Standard in recognition of efforts to cut carbon emissions across 17 of the City’s sports and leisure facilities. Meanwhile, moves are afoot to replace Don Valley with a £40-million “advanced park for sports and wellbeing”.
Glasgow’s games have benefitted from the 20-odd years of accumulated experience in sustainable construction that earlier games could not ...

Playing the long game

Let’s hope that the team behind the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow have learnt from the mistakes and misfortunes of their municipal colleagues. From the publicly available details on the venues and legacy plans, it sounds as if they have.

Glasgow’s games have benefitted from the 20-odd years of accumulated experience in sustainable construction that earlier games could not: the athletes’ village, for instance, which housed up to 6,500 competitors and officials, will be converted by the end of 2014 to form 700 new homes that meet today’s higher environmental standards.

And as with London 2012, the team behind Glasgow’s Games have planned numerous post-Games learning events, mainly through the Legacy 2014 Sustainability Hub which will be curated by Glasgow-based Architecture and Design Scotland (A+DS).

In stark contrast to FIFA’s Qatar adventure, truly sustainable sport relies on reuse and refurbishment – making the best of what’s already available and ensuring it has a viable future.
  • Glasgow, for instance, took the strategic decision to reuse as many existing sports venues as possible to avoid creating white elephant venues without a viable future. Almost two-thirds of venues already existed. Hampden Park football stadium, for instance, has been temporarily transformed into an elite athletics stadium for the duration of the event, using an innovative technical solution that involves raising the playing surface on steel stilts. Other refurbishments include Tollcross International Swimming Centre, Kelvingrove Lawn Bowls Centre and the Royal Commonwealth Pool in Edinburgh
  • Brazil’s flagship venue, the Estádio Maracanã in Rio de Janeiro, had a face-lift ahead of the World Cup final on 13 July. Built for the 1950 World Cup, the refurbished stadium now has a 78,838 capacity, with some 2,500m² of PV panels on the roof covering the terraces, plus water and waste-management strategies
  • And in a corner of south-west London, the HQ of the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club (aka Wimbledon) has unveiled a five-year plan to modernize its iconic venue by 2019 – just three years ahead of its 100th birthday. The masterplan, developed by Grimshaw architects, has the objectives of reducing carbon emissions, influencing transport choices and securing a sustainable future … oh, and adding a retractable roof to No. 1 Court. These radical changes follow on from a thorough emissions-reduction audit in 2009, which addressed a number of standard energy-saving measures.
Nevertheless, the Tour may well be one of the main sports that does change behaviour for the good ...

Winning matches and influencing people

So, does sporting sustainable construction have a lasting impact on the fans? Certainly, many will be unwittingly cutting their own emissions and reducing or recycling waste on match days, but do court-side water-recycling regimes and acres of PVs make people change their habits or invest in energy-efficiency measures at home?

According to Dr Andrea Collins of Cardiff University’s School of Planning and Geography, it is difficult to tell.

“Major sport events are often used to raise our awareness of particular issues ... However, their value as a vehicle for raising public awareness of environmental issues and encouraging spectators to take small but significant changes has yet to be realised.”

Collins and colleagues surveyed over 1400 spectators at the Tour de France Grand Depart in London and Kent in 2007 and found, unsurprisingly, that transport of fans contributed a large proportion to the event’s carbon footprint – not to mention the convoy of support vehicles for the competitors and their entourage.
Nevertheless, the Tour may well be one of the main sports that does change behaviour for the good. Cycle Yorkshire certainly hopes this year’s Grand Depart will have as much of a positive impact on sustainable transport and its related infrastructure as on local tourism.

If this sounds gloomily closer to a no-score-draw than a 6–0 away triumph, don’t throw in the towel just yet. At the end of the day, achieving sustainability is always going to be a marathon, rather than a sprint!