Sport, Climate and Environmental Sustainability – a Systems View

Clearly we are living in unprecedented times. Every day, our TV sets show us our challenges: flash floods in London, Germany and Holland, forest fires in California, Turkey and Greece, melting polar ice caps, life-threatening heat waves, loss of natural habitats, plastic pollution inside the fish we eat, global energy price increases and the movement of water away from certain parts of the world. David Attenborough's hard hitting Netflix documentary – 'Breaking Boundaries' – along with the recent publication of the IPCC's (Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change) latest report give us all a wake-up call.

We are living in a world where the impacts of global warming and ecological degradation are all around us on a scale never seen before. These are no longer problems to be tackled in the future – they need urgent action now.

What is Boris doing?

The UK Government claims to have an ambitious ten-point plan for tackling the climate emergency with the overarching goal of delivering a net zero economy by 2050, and more recently Boris Johnson has been encouraging other leaders of developed countries to raise their respective games on this issue. However, the response to the plan has been mixed: some have welcomed it, others claim the plan is big on rhetoric but light on specific policies and targets.

All of this as the Government prepares to host COP26 in Glasgow in November – an event widely recognised as being pivotal for agreeing an ambitious programme of global policies and actions to tackle the climate emergency.

What about the sport sector?

We believe there are grounds for optimism.

In 2016 The United Nations launched its Sports for Climate Action Framework which recognises the impacts of climate change for sport and the need for sector organisations and events to take responsibility for their climate footprint. The Framework invitessports organisations to engage together in the climate neutrality journey by 2050. By employing solutions to global warming the UN claims the sport sector will be contributing to public health, promoting social justice, preserving natural resources, creating reliable sources of energy and contributing to the economy and society. The UN highlights the global significance of sport as a cultural practice and pastime and its potential to play an exemplary role in meeting the challenge of climate change and inspire and engage large audiences to do the same.

A similar initiative by the European Union – the first Sport Positives Summit in 2020 – has now become an annual event which aims to develop a climate action agenda for sport aligned to the UN Sports for Climate Action Framework, by exchanging good practices and sharing solutions and innovations. The next summit is due to take place on 28/29 September 2021.

There are pockets of good practice in the sport sector to be recognised and celebrated. In 2019 World Athletics unveiled its environmental strategy – the first serious attempt by sports federations to become carbon neutral. In 2020 UEFA decided to absorb the entire costs of offsetting the aviation emissions for EURO 2020. World Sailing's Sustainability Report 2030 is one of the few initiatives from Olympic sports federations which commits to a carbon reduction target, with a plan to cut emissions at events by 50 per cent by 2024. Finally, and closer to home, Forest Green Rovers are the first UN certified carbon zero football club in the world.

Stubborn optimism

Given the scale and complexity of the multiple challenges we face, there may be a tendency for us to feel powerless, even cynical and therefore reluctant to meaningful action. Our view is that this needs to be replace this with a mind-set of stubborn optimism, which understands the science of the current reality, simultaneously pursuing a vision for a better world; a mindset that recognises we are lucky to be alive at this pivotal moment in human history when we have the opportunity deliver transformative change to the future of all life on the planet.

And we can do it! The evidence tells us that if we all act together, we can make a difference to our environment. But we have a small window of time: we must act now!

We all have degrees of power and influence within our lives, and we can certainly make changes in our own lives. Furthermore, engaging with the environmental sustainability emergencies has the potential to add meaning and purpose to our lives.

"We have a separate strand in our strategy for environmental sustainability and dealing with climate change"

This is commendable, but rather misses a key point, which adversely affects the impact of strategy and often leads to unintended consequences.

Environmental sustainability and climate change are not separate from the main outcomes of sport services; they are part of the same system, along with other global wicked issues, such as equality, social justice, economic development and food sustainability and, yes, even pandemics. Seeing photographs of Yorkshire community club cricket grounds looking like outdoor swimming pools a few years ago was a stark reminder of this! Being part of the same system means they are all inter-connected through complex cause and effect loops. Actions relating to one issue will affect another, which will in turn affect another, and another, which will loop back to the original issue. We need to work on all these issues simultaneously if we are to achieve a genuine impact.

Unintended consequences

We need to recognise the long-term unintended consequences of our collective actions, such as building sport centres with big car parks in out-of-town locations, selling burgers with unknown provenance at our events, heating our swimming pools with fossil fuels, cutting back the maintenance of our country parks and green space, interrupting our cycle lanes with busy main roads and giving customers plastic-based wipes to sanitise gym equipment.

The trouble is this: cause and effect is hard to determine because there is always an inconvenient space/time gap between the two. Like a leaking roof, the impact of what we do tends to reveal itself later, in a different part of the system. Unless we understand and work on people, community, society, the economy and the environment as parts of the same system our well-intended actions tend to come back to bite us at a later stage!


But we can't work on everything can we?

In Japan, manufacturing facilities use 'green curtains' — living panels of climbing plants — to clean the air, provide vegetables for company cafeterias and reduce energy use for cooling.

A food-gleaning programme in Spain staffed by young volunteers and families facing food insecurity addresses food waste, hunger and a desire for sustainability whilst providing opportunities for personal and community development.

And closer to home, our walk-to-school programmes fight a decline in childhood physical activity while reducing traffic congestion and greenhouse gas emissions from transportation.

Each of these are real-life example of the systems thinking technique known as multisolving. Developed by Dr Elizabeth Sawin of Climate Interactive (,

multisolving is where people pool expertise, funding, and political will to solve multiple complex problems with a single investment of time and money. This approach helps to overcome the barriers to cross-sectoral collaboration, develops people's insight to the interrelationship between different outcomes, reduces duplication, increases coherence between initiatives and gives us more chance of understanding the leverage which will have the required impact.

Source: Climate Interactive

The starting point is to build multisolving into strategy. We often struggle to integrate environmental sustainability into our carefully structured pyramid-like strategy – "what single lens should we use?" – or we set up a separate strand. The point about multisolving is that we don't need a single lens, or a separate strand, and strategy doesn't need to look like a pyramid! In a multisolving approach, we pursue several outcomes/impacts simultaneously with a collection of initiatives.

Many people instinctively multisolve and will have done so for a long time, perhaps calling it something else. However there are a number of techniques which can help us to facilitate a multisolving approach. Click on these links; they will definitely help:

Having a positive impact on the climate, environmental sustainability and other global wicked issues at the same time as our core outcomes is entirely possible if we view these as part of the same system, lead cross-sector collaborations and set fire to as many multisolving initiatives as we can!

Let's get to work!

Steve Wood & Chris Cutforth