Why Environmental Sustainability is the Foundation for Future Sporting Success
Athletes from across the sporting landscape have come together to support UK Sport's sustainability strategy
We often hear about the steps that manufacturing, infrastructure, and transport are taking to respond to the challenge of climate change, but it is a growing issue for sport too. As UK Sport launches its new Environmental Sustainability Strategy, we sat down with Tom Baker, Head of Social Impact, to find out why the organisation is putting environmental sustainability at the centre of its work.
Sport is a core part of national life in the UK. From the millions who attend football and rugby fixtures every weekend to vast TV audiences for major events like the Women's Euros, sport has a unique ability to bring communities together to celebrate success.
But like many other sectors across society, climate change is a challenge that cannot be ignored.
“Climate change is an issue that impacts on a wide range of industries and sectors, and sport cuts across all of them,” Tom Baker, Head of Social Impact at UK Sport, explains. “Fans and athletes alike are increasingly concerned about this. At UK Sport we have the influence and ability to make an authentic impact to make sport more sustainable.”
It is sometimes tempting to see climate change as a distant problem that future generations will need to address. But Baker is absolutely clear that the actions we take today will impact the Team of Tomorrow. He told PoliticsHome that climate change is already having a very real impact on UK athletes and causing disruption to events from elite competitions to grassroots activities.
“Climate change is impacting on sport here and now,” he tells us. “We’ve already seen the cancellation of many winter sports events due to warmer weather and lower snowfall. And at a local level, people are feeling the impact too. We want to inspire future generations of athletes but if they can’t compete because of waterlogged pitches or playing fields hardened by drought, then that has a knock-on effect as well.”
Supporting the nation’s sports sector to respond to these challenges is the aim of UK Sport’s new Environmental Sustainability Strategy.
The key purpose of the new strategy is to provide support and guidance to the different individual federations that UK Sport works with. The strategy will provide a framework to help different sports respond to the precise challenges that they face as well as identifying cross-cutting issues where coordinated action is demanded.
Damian Green MP, acting Chair of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, believes that the strategy will make a difference that goes beyond sport itself.
“This is a very important initiative,” he tells PoliticsHome. “Harnessing the power of sport to encourage people to think hard about the future of the planet is a great way of moving forward. At the same time, it is necessary for sport itself to become more sustainable in its demands.”
Fellow member of the Committee, Julie Elliott MP, shares Green’s view that the new strategy will potentially be an important part of driving wider change.
“It is welcome that UK Sport has devised an Environmental Sustainability Strategy,” she tells us. “The importance of sport, both grassroots and competitive, cannot be understated, and therefore we cannot ignore how vital protecting the environment is to ensure that we can continue to access these sports safely.”
Tom Baker is clear that what will make the strategy a success is not simply a series of specific actions. He sees it as a mechanism to create wider awareness across the sector that can reach far beyond sport.
He cites the work that UK Sport is undertaking with athletes to help them drive positive social change and points to previous examples including Hannah Mills, who won Olympic gold and silver medals in sailing. Mills founded “The Big Plastic Pledge” in response to witnessing the devastating effects of plastic pollution in our oceans. She now works to inspire others as a sustainability ambassador for the International Olympic Committee (IOC).
That spirit of collaboration to drive change is one of the things that characterises the approach to environmental sustainability.
On a national level, UK Sport is a member of the Sport Environment and Climate Coalition, a collaborative effort between the sport, recreation and physical activity sector to lead and coordinate the sector on climate change and environmental sustainability.
On an international level, elite sport itself is often about competition between nations, however according to Baker, when it comes to sustainability everyone is pulling in the same direction.
“What has been fascinating is that the work on sustainability in sport has been incredibly collaborative,” he tells us. “This isn’t an issue that we should compete over. It is one we need to work together to do the best that we can.”
That collaborative spirit is already resulting in a wealth of sharing and learning between different national and international bodies.
“Elite sport is essentially global and so is climate change” he explains. “The IOC has been clear this is an important issue. They have worked with the UN to set up the Sports for Climate Action framework and identify some global goals. This strategy will make sure that the UK is at the very forefront of developing new approaches to meet those.”
In October 2022, UK Sport became a signatory of the UN Sports for Climate Action, in the process committing to halving carbon emissions by 2030 and achieving net-zero by 2040.
Julie Elliott MP is optimistic that the new strategy will deliver change that inspire individuals and communities to play their part in achieving a low-carbon future.
“From clean air in our streets and our parks to doing our best to reduce emissions and achieve net zero to protect the wider environment, it is our responsibility to change how we act,” she tells us. “This is a welcome start.”
For Baker, the new strategy is a clear example of how coordination and leadership can drive positive progress in environmental sustainability.
“UK Sport is already acknowledged as a leader in tackling difficult challenges that sports bodies face,” he tells us. “But to support the next generation of elite athletes and grassroots organisations, we need to be bold and ambitious to achieve more when it comes to climate change. This strategy will help us to do precisely that.”
To read UK Sport’s sustainability strategy, please click here. For more information, please contact Alex.Hancock@uksport.gov.uk
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