It’s healthy, entertaining, and even if you may not always want to do it, taking up sports and exercising is good for you. But like most human activities, just because it’s good for you, doesn’t mean it’s good for the planet. Couch potatoes, recurring gym membership owners, and those with running shoes collecting dust in the wardrobe, welcome to your most compelling excuse yet.
Whether player or spectator, athletic pursuits put a massive strain on the environment due to their massive resource and energy demands. Sensitive alpine ecosystems are deluged by avid skiers, boarders and skimobiles. Natural environments and habitats are ploughed down and intimately manicured after that for vast swathes of golfing resorts that consume extensive amounts of pesticides and water. And more land is stripped to make way for enormous stadiums and arenas that require environmentally detrimental concrete. Major sports events use energy, emit greenhouse gases, and produce voluminous amounts of waste, and even the daily exercise many of us partake in squander enough electricity to power entire towns. This year’s Football World Cup is estimated to have been responsible for almost 2.2 million tonnes of greenhouse gases, up to 60% of which came from international travel of players and fans. Two years ago the Rio Olympics ended with a 3.6 million tonnes carbon footprint, 17’000 tonnes of waste and 30’000 gigawatts of electricity and massive local ecological ruin.
Even innocuous zero emissions sports like cycling and running that are encouraged to dissuade transport emissions have a massive environmental impact at event level. Though it’s hard to imagine a mode of transport less environmentally taxing than running and cycling without emissions or electric charge necessary, races are responsible for massive amounts of waste and local environmental degradation. Across the world, races leave behind a trail of the route in discarded cups, bottles, gels, goos, and powder packets. Cheaply produced bottles, t-shirts, blankets and leaflets add up the environmental degradation count, even way-markers zoomed past in a moment from plastic arrows to plastic strips are destined to stay intact for 450 years after the event. After the yellow jersey was won and the after-party comedowns, the Tour de France left towns between Lille and Paris, Brest and Saint-Nazaire with the jettisoned refuse from athletes and onlookers alike. Though the organisations and riders rule books promise to leave no trace, the images and footage tell a different story to the masses of bottles and gel wrappers laid to waste in the countryside.
It’s not only the planet that’s hit each time a reusable water bottle is unloaded from the centre of the track into hoards of screaming fans, but also the sporting culture. The message beamed from that moment to the sidelines and onlookers from behind a screen is that fly-tipping doesn’t apply when you’re in the adrenaline zone. The result isn’t just major televised event routes deluged in half-used bidons and gel tubes, it’s amateur sportives that have training lay-men and women tossing gel wrappers into a fence during a local half marathon, emulating what they saw on the sports channel last Sunday.
The disposable attitude proliferates through to the equipment and clothing, with the latest and greatest material and component innovations being heavily marketed and pushed every season only destined to last a year at most. Encouraged by the competitive nature of sports, those seen with last years equipment are somehow seen as less competitive and less dedicated, making the planned obsolescence of sporting paraphernalia far more enticing than in any other sector, including digital technology. All these new innovative materials and components are almost exclusively some reiteration of a synthetic, laboratory-concocted polymer, designed to ‘wick sweat’ and ‘streamline’ performance. But these are incredibly dependent on oil dredged up from the core of Earth, ‘designed’ in sweatshops and shipped across the world with a 400% mark up from last years. Purpose-designed apparel using carcinogenic PVC, petroleum-laced solvents and sulphur hexafluoride in air bladders for cushioning impede the health benefits being gained from exercise. And once you’re done with the carbon-fibre and fibreglass racquets, sticks, skis and boards, the elaborate material make-up deems them inherently unrecyclable, leaving them to wither in the eaves or sell them at an eye-watering loss the next season.
All these applications are compounded at the gym, where massive amounts of energy statically run, peddled, rowed and pushed out, exude massive amounts of emissions into the environment, with just one hour on the treadmill uses 300 watts of electricity, enough for 3 spin cycles of a washing machine. Then there’s the climatically agonising resource use of swimming pools. With a planet set for widespread drought and not enough water to keep everyone on the earth from severe dehydration, massive indoor water tanks are more than symbolic of our flagrant use of scarce resources. Topped off with massive amounts of energy required for the heating and ventilation of the pool and gallons of non-biological chemicals flooded into the pool that inevitably end up in our bodies and risk entering the natural environment that cause detrimental harm to water and land-based organisms, such a low-intensive workout for humans turns into an extremely strenuous one for the planet.
There are some indirect positive environmental impacts of sports and exercise though. With all that effort gone to burn calories, the likelihood is that people will steer towards healthier diets and away from processed or fast foods that are more likely to be swathed in plastic and produced unsustainably. There is also a higher chance that those focusing in on their body’s performance and health are going to be more persuaded by organic foods, pushing people towards even healthier options like local farmers markets and grocers rather than pre-packaged and pesticide filled supermarket wares.
The planet is giving as much as it’s getting, with climate change already impacting the conditions required for certain sports. Golf courses along the coastlines across the world are being swept into the sea, with a governing body estimating 80 courses at risk from coastal erosion, including St Andrews. In cricket, up to 30% of England’s home matches have been rained off since the turn of the century due to changes in the climate. Football games are at increasing risk from unpredictable weather patterns. And with cold-climate sports are at risk of extinction with continuous decreases in snow cover, three of Scotland’s main resorts are spending over half of their operating budgets on artificial snow factories, and it’s predicted that by the next century only six of the previous 19 Winter Olympics locations will be cold enough to be hosts. With air pollution plaguing homes and cities around the world, the respiratory conditions caused by exhaust emissions and low air quality could bring an end outdoor sports and exercise. As more intense exertion implies deeper and faster breathing, outdoor sports could increase the level of toxins coursing around our bodies.
Like all industries and lifestyles that are having to adapt to the climatically challenged world, sport can be remodelled to work in conjunction with the planet rather than against. Quite simply, we’re missing a trick with exercise being the purest energy output from humans, such energy can be harnessed and ploughed into the grid. There are a growing number of gyms that are rigging up exercise equipment to electrical outputs to reduce energy usage and provide savings to gym goers. Outside, the viral craze of plogging in Sweden has picked up the pace around the world. Picking up litter while running has been estimated to burn an extra 50 calories in a half hour jog, and has since morphed into the brisk litter-pickup walk; plalking. Then there is the tiny caveat of global warming, dwarfed by the other catastrophic climate impacts, that warmer climates in the traditionally cold north in places like Scandinavia, the UK, and Canada will encourage more people to get outside to exercise. This will lower the pressure on gyms and the associated energy consumption, and encourage people to walk, cycle and use their own energy more, reducing reliance on consumptive vehicles, the most pushed climate mitigation measure.
The sporting sector isn’t an inherently unsustainable pursuit, unlike fossil fuel conglomerates or the transport and freight industries, and there have been industry-wide efforts to make a positive impact in the fight against climate change. This year, FIFA offered 150’000 carbon-offsets on air travel tickets to the World Cup in Russia. In sailing, Ben Ainslie’s team have teamed up with the Low Carbon investment group to build a facility that generates its own renewable electricity and engages with local sustainability projects.
Sports needn’t be an industry set to crumble under or exacerbate the weight of global warming, and there are massive changes in the industry that are getting going. But exercise shouldn’t be another aspect of lifestyles that is deemed an exception in our resource and energy-intensive lives. While sports may be considered a matter of life and death by hardcore fans, the detrimental impact of climate change really is.