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Sport and the environment in Germany: a comment and critique

Sport and the environment in Germany: a comment and critique

By Christian Cannarella


Sport has been recognised by the United Nations’ (UN) 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development as a crucial tool to achieve the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including Goal 13 – to take urgent action on climate change. This recognition indicates that there is an international mandate for sport to become a climate leader, by reducing its environmental footprint, acting as a vehicle to raise climate change awareness and encourage climate action.

Existing research is critical of the impact of sport on the environment. The sports industry requires excessive travel, construction and consumption of natural resources, indicating that sport first needs to be greener itself in order to act as a transformative force.

Transport, in particular, has been recognised as the main source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions within sport. Sports organisations have been accused of using sustainability mainly at a discursive level, with little evidence of real climate action. Reducing the sports industry’s carbon footprint remains a challenge.

Climate change interventions has repercussions for different sports.

• Extreme temperatures, droughts and floods are damaging playing fields and disrupting sport events.
• Low levels of snowfall are threatening winter sports.
• Heatwaves increase health risks for athletes and spectators.
• Sea level rise is threatening sport facilities and organisations in coastal areas.
• Corporate Social Responsibility initiatives sometimes use sport to mask real organisational sustainable action around SDG 13.

Germany’s environmental agenda

As a leading global economy and country within the European Union (EU), Germany has a major role to play in achieving the 17 SDGs and the EU 2030 climate targets, which include reducing GHG emissions by 40%. The German Federal Ministry for the Environment (BMU) is responsible for shaping and implementing policies to achieve targets related to environmental sustainability. These involve ensuring sustainability within urban development, construction and transport infrastructure.

Sport is increasingly interrelated with the above sectors. The current model of sports mega-events (SMEs), such as the Olympic Games and the FIFA World Cup, involves the reinvention of urban landscapes and transport networks. Trends from recent SMEs evidence suggests that the staging of these events generates an increasing amount of GHG emissions.

The BMU policy direction indicates that urban development, construction and mobility play a key role in reducing GHG emissions and achieving environmental goals. Thus, the BMU legal framework has important repercussions on sport, which is required to play its part in reducing the above sectors’ emissions.

German football and sustainable mobility

Scotland and Germany stripsGerman football has long since been involved in evidencing reduced transport emissions. That is to say this is not new. Bundesliga clubs have offered free public transport on matchday to ticketholders since the 1980s, an initiative known as Combi-Ticket. The 2006 FIFA World Cup hosted by Germany acted as a catalyst to improve sustainable mobility. Germany 2006 was the first world cup with a clear environmental strategy – Green Goal – aimed at improving the sport sector’s sustainability during and after the event. By offering Combi-Tickets, 70% of spectators used public transport to reach the stadium. To meet the increasing demand of public transport during the event, significant investments in infrastructure were made.

With the infrastructure in place, more Bundesliga clubs were able to offer Combi-Tickets to their supporters. As of today, every Bundesliga club offers Combi-Tickets, with the exception of Bayern Munich. This initiative led to declining car traffic in neighbourhoods around stadiums and raised awareness on climate change amongst German football supporters. Yet, 70% of Bundesliga supporters still travel by car, suggesting that more initiatives are required.

UEFA Euro 2024

Euro 2024 will be hosted by Germany and offers an opportunity to establish environmental benchmarks for subsequent SMEs. Plans for this tournament are centred around environmental sustainability. Germany’s well-established stadium and transport infrastructure requires little investment. The event does not involve the construction of new stadiums, which are easily connected by existing rail networks. Along with classic Combi-Tickets, offering free inner-city transport, supporters will also be offered Combi-Tickets Plus, allowing them to cheaply use sustainable transport between host cities.

This mega-event will also feature dedicated learning programmes on environmental sustainability for fans and volunteers. Through its immense reach, Euro 2024 can act as a realistic and effective vehicle to advocate climate action, if the environmental standards are met.

Concluding comment

Golf courseWhile sport has been recognised as an important tool for climate action, it often engages in environmental sustainability only at a discursive level, while failing to validate claims. Sport has to play its role in lowering emissions related to transport, urban development and construction, in order to act as a truly effective vehicle for climate action.

Its well-established stadium and sustainable transport infrastructure enable Germany to host ‘greener’ SMEs. However, with sport being a global industry, solutions to make it more environmentally sustainable are required globally. That is to say that addressing sport and SDG 13 require multi-national not uni-national co-ordinated effort.


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