How green is the Commonwealth Games?
Image credit: Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games
The organisers of this year’s Commonwealth Games say they are delivering real reform when it comes to sustainability and promise a carbon-neutral legacy. But can any large-scale sporting event really be considered sustainable?
The organisers of this year’s Commonwealth Games, taking place in Birmingham from 28 July, say they are meeting a bold ambition: to create the most sustainable Commonwealth Games yet.
“Sustainability was set out as an important strategic priority right from the beginning,” explains Jess Fidler, head of sustainability at Birmingham 2022. “Our sustainability pledge sets out the aims and ambitions of the Games across seven pillars, covering social and environmental aspects of sustainability.”
The plans detailing how they will achieve this are comprehensive and include several firsts. “We will be the first Commonwealth Games to create a carbon-neutral legacy,” says Fidler. “We will also be the first to measure our social value, and the first to have a dedicated ethical trading manager.”
The approach, which is certified to the ISO 20121 sustainable events management standard, will include a commitment to minimising the creation of waste plastic. By working with packaging subcontractors and suppliers, single-use plastics will be reduced across the complete Games footprint, and organisers are installing free drinking water refill points wherever possible.
Organisers are also pledging to reuse and repurpose all the Games’ acquired assets – an approach praised by Sarah Zipp, deputy programme director for sports studies at the University of Stirling. “Balancing expectations of a mega-event like the Commonwealth Games with the goals and ambitions around sustainability is a mammoth challenge,” she says. “In action, that is about delivering first-class sporting facilities people expect, but without building new ones. In that regard, I think they’ve done a good job. I think they are signalling real change.”
The event’s sustainability endeavours do not end here. “Spectator travel contributes over 50 per cent of the Games’ forecasted carbon footprint. Therefore, we are actively encouraging spectators to use public transport by ensuring Games tickets include access to public transport in the West Midlands on the day of a valid ticket,” explains Fidler. “We are also encouraging active travel – promoting cycling and walking routes to venues.”
The Games’ dedicated journey planner informs spectators of the carbon impact of different transport modes with the hope that spectators will consider carbon in their decision-making. “Meanwhile, the Games’ fleet – which will move employees and the Games family around – will include electric and hydrogen vehicles, and, as a minimum, all vehicles will be Euro 5/6 Birmingham Clean Air Zone compliant,” Fidler explains.
In many instances, flying to the Games is the most viable travel option for athletes, but Fidler believes this is accounted for. “All direct travel associated with the Games, including athlete travel, is included within our carbon calculations and overall strategy to create a carbon-neutral legacy,” she says.
Regional water company Severn Trent, an official supporter of Birmingham 2022, will help with what it describes as “a significant and credible local offsetting programme” to manage the Games’ carbon footprint.
Two standout initiatives it will deliver include the creation of 2,022 acres (818 ha) of forest and 72 tennis-court-sized tiny forests to be built in urban areas across the West Midlands. Each forest will be linked to one of the competing nations and territories. “This will be a true legacy in the region for years to come,” says Fidler.
The newly planted forest will feature native species, encouraging local people to reconnect with nature and will help to offset the carbon generated by the Games.
“What’s good for nature is great for our water and, as a company that takes care of one of life’s essentials, we’re passionate about making a positive impact on the communities and the environment where we live and operate,” says Richard Eadie, head of sustainability at Severn Trent. “We’ve been working hard on the creation of the 72 tiny forests and 2,022 acres of Commonwealth forests across the region which promise to deliver huge benefits for both nature and communities.”
Meanwhile, Aggreko, a mobile and modular energy solutions manufacturer, will power all 14 of the competition venues for Birmingham 2022 with reliable, efficient, and renewable energy via 117 generators running on hydrotreated vegetable oil (HVO).
If organisers deliver on their promises, the results will be impressive. However, this is not the first Commonwealth Games to have lofty ambitions. The 2014 event in Glasgow made a raft of commitments, many of which came under scrutiny. For example, it broke its promise to deliver low-emission zones, and failed to accurately offset its carbon impact – a move which Friends of the Earth Scotland heavily criticised.
Fidler, however, is confident the 2022 Games’ approach will be different. “We have reviewed sustainability records of the last two Commonwealth Games in Glasgow and the Gold Coast and have conducted analysis across a number of key environmental sustainability metrics,” she explains. “From this analysis, which covers topics including carbon and air quality, the circular economy and conservation, we are confident our approach builds upon, and pushes forward, sustainability efforts of previous Games.”
Zipp has faith that these efforts are genuine. “I don’t think organisers here can be accused of greenwashing,” she says. “I think they are making legitimate, important, and substantial efforts. Take the partnership with Aggreko as an example. Previous mega sporting events have prided themselves on all-electric vehicle fleets, which were then found to be powered overnight by diesel generators. I think it’s reassuring to see the Commonwealth Games’ organisers have paid close attention to this detail and are driving change by adopting clean energy processes throughout.”
Doug Parr, a chief scientist for Greenpeace UK, agrees that much of what the Birmingham Commonwealth Games are doing is positive. “We welcome them recognising that the transport choices of spectators are an issue that can’t just be shrugged away by event organisers,” he said. “It’s positive that they are repurposing existing venues and arenas rather than risking more expensive white elephants that litter former Olympic sites.”
However, Parr believes there is one key area where the Games’ organisers are falling short. “The focus on reducing direct carbon emissions before resorting to offsetting is a positive, but it’s a halfway step,” he says. “With decarbonisation, as with contraception, partial success looks a lot like complete failure. The trees they’re planting will hopefully become a beautiful forest, and that is a wonderful thing. Still, history suggests they may not and, in any case, they will not compensate for emissions from the Games because slow, uncertain, temporary storage does not balance massive, instantaneous, permanent release.”
Pointing towards the 6,500 athletes and team officials travelling from 72 different nations and territories across the Commonwealth to take part in the event, Hans Hognestad, who works as a professor in the department of sports, physical education, and outdoor studies at the University of South-Eastern Norway, is also sceptical of the Games’ carbon offsetting. “It’s difficult to call any mega-event carbon neutral simply because of the amount of travelling involved, both for athletes and spectators,” he says.
However, Hognestad also acknowledges that alternative approaches aren’t exactly feasible. “Sport is a huge part of society. With mega events like these, it is necessary for people from all over the world to travel to compete and spectate. The only way around this would be to regress to the early 19th century when these types of events were local – but, of course, that isn’t realistic. One approach that might work would be to have a limited number of host cities, rather than establishing new infrastructures for each Games, which fail to have any real legacy. However, that brings its own set of challenges. Ultimately, we must do our best to deliver world-leading competitions as sustainably as possible, and I think the Commonwealth Games are achieving that.”
The seven pillars of sustainability
The Commonwealth Games’ approach to sustainability has seven areas of focus:
ACCESSIBILITY – This means delivering accessible venues, facilities, and barrier-free environments so that the Games for Birmingham can be an exciting experience for everyone.
EQUALITY, DIVERSITY, AND INCLUSION (EDI) – Organisers are engaging with as many groups as possible to ensure this is an event for everyone, working hard to connect local communities to the Games.
JOB CREATION AND SOCIAL VALUE – Through the benefits and opportunities that the Games provides, organisers aim to reduce unemployment and upskill the workforce in the West Midlands.
HUMAN RIGHTS – Organisers are ensuring the protection of human rights is not just written in policy, but supported by comprehensive training in areas such as ethical trading, safeguarding and freedom of speech.
CARBON AND AIR QUALITY – The Games’ ambitions are aligned to the commitments of the UK, regional and local government ambitions on moving to net-zero and delivering cleaner air.
CIRCULAR ECONOMY PRINCIPLES TO MINIMISE WASTE – By reusing and recycling products, the organisers aim to achieve zero waste to landfills and conserve resources for future generations.
CONSERVATION – The Games organisers are committed to doing what they can to conserve and enhance the natural environment for future generations. This includes clearing 22 miles of canals through the ‘United by 2022’ partnership with the Canals & Rivers Trust.
Adam Alexander, director of environmental and sustainability at Paragon, a UK-based building consultancy, believes event organisers’ carbon offset efforts are, in fact, commendable. “The carbon-neutral goal is fantastic and in line with the recent COP26 meeting and Paris Agreements,” he says.
However, Alexander quickly recognises that achieving sustainability and climate change goals is never easy. “It can only be successful if someone is driving it forward,” he says. “As humans, we can often revert to habit, it is human nature. Good intentions like the annual diet or new year resolutions can wane by mid-February or sooner. Sustainable intentions and strategies need a strong team and system behind them to ensure delivery and successful legacy to hand over to the next generation.”
Alexander’s biggest concern, then, is ensuring accountability going forwards. “The industry is more focused now on making sure the performance gap is shortened, and the question of operational performance is foremost at the design and implementation stages. It is a long path to successfully delivering on these matters.”
Zipp agrees that this is often where event organisers fall short. “With any mega-event, organisers need to think carefully about the legacy. When they develop a facility or renovate a building, they need to plan how it will be used in ten or twenty years’ time. This hasn’t always been the case. Often stadiums are built and left empty or underused, but this isn’t acceptable today.”
Yet Fidler is confident the Games will leave a lasting legacy. “Each Commonwealth Games is different, but we feel we have focused on important topics for this Games within the region,” she continues. “We are committed to clear and transparent reporting and will measure our progress against various KPIs post-Games. Sustainability is also a key workstream feeding into the Games-wide evaluation, which will independently measure and assess whether we achieve our vision against the five Games mission pillars and capture the impact and legacy of hosting the Games.”
Fidler highlights the partnership with Severn Trent as an example. “Planting 2,022 acres of new forest across the Midlands is no small task, and it certainly hasn’t been without its challenges. Behind it, there is a robust governance process, which is essential – with each area of forest planted undergoing a detailed process of assessment and scrutiny.
“The forest will be such a great legacy for the region, well beyond the Games, with multiple benefits such as increasing access to green spaces, which, as we all know, has multiple physical and mental wellbeing benefits. The hundreds of volunteers who have already been involved in planting it is already having a positive impact on the region.”
In fact, great care is being taken to ensure the forests will be well looked after in the years to come. According to an official press release, Severn Trent is now on the lookout for tree keepers who will play an important role in caring for the sites and track the positive impact each forest has on the environment.
“With support of Severn Trent and Earthwatch Europe, a team of up to four tree keepers will be recruited to take care of each tiny forest site planted in the community, with the team being responsible for monitoring and maintaining their tiny forest,” said the press release. “Tree keepers will also be trained to collect data from the tiny forest to assess the ecosystem benefits of each site, such as noting the different kinds of wildlife it attracts.”
Despite all this, Fidler and her team acknowledge that there’s always more progress to be made. “Ultimately, we are putting on a global mega-event which is under the spotlight and will have an environmental impact. We must acknowledge that and then go about mitigating the impact through a transparent approach,” she says. “Having a strategic approach and getting the timing right is key. We know there is always more that can be done, but we hope that we can help share our learnings and continue to keep pushing the dial forwards.”
Fidler says that several challenges are already being tackled. “Not everyone’s understanding of sustainability is at the same point, so education and engagement are critical,” she says. “It’s also important to recognise that sustainability is a complex and evolving space, and this is exacerbated by supply chain challenges. The world of waste is multifaceted, and while we have made some great strides in some areas – such as providing water bars to reduce single-use plastic bottles, driving down the number of signs being created and improving recyclability – we know there is a long way to go.”
Ultimately, however, Fidler believes the advances made this year demonstrate real progress. What’s more, she believes steps are being put in place to make sure momentum is continued and built upon going forwards. “We are really keen to be transparent about our process and share the lessons we have learned,” she says. “We will create a post-Games sustainability report which will discuss our approach, achievements and lessons learned. One of the main objectives of this report is to be useful to future event organisers.”
Local partner Aggreko will also be running educational events on sustainability, enhancing understanding of sustainable technology and energy transition, as well as nurturing science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) skills in local schools and not-for-profit organisations.
“We are also working hard to educate stakeholders,” says Fidler. “For example, we are providing carbon literacy training for our volunteers and encouraging them to learn more about their own carbon footprint and actions they can take. We’ve also started working with some athletes in this space, who have such a powerful voice with great potential to promote positive change.”
Zipp praises this effort: “Sport and politics are deeply intertwined and always have been. There will be a lot of eyeballs on this Games, so using the platform to generate attention around sustainability is a positive. I think we have reached a real turning point for sustainable sport, and Birmingham 2022 is a part of that.”
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