Patrick Burke

"I've been around the world with insidethegames, and the hottest place has been Birmingham."

I paraphrase my colleague Geoff Berkeley on the day we made the short trip to England's second city before the start of the Commonwealth Games in July. It was not said in jest.

Record-breaking temperatures hit the United Kingdom on back-to-back days, with the 40 degrees Celsius mark broken for the first time. Transport ground to a halt and fires struck parts of the country, with the London Fire Brigade reporting its busiest day since the Second World War.

Not normal. Certainly not in the UK. Although it was convenient for some to draw parallels with a heatwave in 1976, the scientific consensus was that climate change was the cause.

The extreme heat came too early to affect competition at Birmingham 2022. Had it arrived 10 days later, an impact on the Games would have been unavoidable and laid bare the threat that the rise in global temperatures poses to all sectors of society, sport included.

Next week, delegates from most of the world's countries will travel to Sharm El Sheikh in Egypt for the 27th United Nations Climate Change Conference, better known as COP27.

Last year in Glasgow, delegates at COP26 agreed to secure global net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 and limit the rise in global temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius. 

A Sports for Climate Action - On the Race to Net-Zero session was held in the Scottish city, with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and a host of other organisations joining the United Nations' Race to Zero.

That activists are planning a march in Glasgow on the one-year anniversary to mark the "failure" of COP26 shows that action since that summit has been at best unconvincing.

With every passing day, the need to find a radical solution to lessen the impact of the crisis and avoid a catastrophe years down the line becomes more urgent. Such is the severity of the situation, no goal can be considered too ambitious.

Numerous sports organisations have laid out their own ambitions and strategies when it comes to measures aimed at tackling climate change, or promoting "sustainability" as the buzz word seems to be. 

The IOC's Olympic Agenda 2020+5 includes some welcome aims including stressing the need for Olympic Games to be "climate-positive" by 2030, and has been lauded by Thomas Bach for helping to "significantly" reduce the organisation's carbon footprint.

Sport has shown some signs of taking steps in the right direction, but there is a lot more that can and must be done, and the speed of implementation has to be accelerated. 

Since COP26, progress has - and this is generalising across sport rather than focusing on a specific organisation - been underwhelming. Climate change is not a can that can be kicked down the road, and the impact of activities on the environment has to become a top priority to be considered by event organisers with immediate effect.

Record temperatures were recorded in the UK this summer, leading to transport grinding to a halt and fires ©Getty Images
Record temperatures were recorded in the UK this summer, leading to transport grinding to a halt and fires ©Getty Images

"Sportswashing" has ascended into popular discourse - and as a quick sidenote, kudos to the Australian men's national football team for their video released this week raising concerns about the treatment of migrant workers and LGBTQ+ people in FIFA World Cup host nation Qatar, and the fans of Public Investment Fund-owned Newcastle United who are planning a protest next month against Saudi Arabia's use of the death penalty.

Similarly, the term "greenwashing" has risen in prominence in recent months, and sports organisations have to be held accountable for their pledges on the environmental impact of their decisions.

This is not to dig out an International Federation or governing body because ultimately all can do more and undoubtedly each of the ones I'm about to reference would point to their sustainability policies, but practices that are unacceptable in 2022 seemingly remain anchored within sport.

Firstly, I dread to think of the amount of single-use plastic that ended up in the seas after the International Swimming Federation's (FINA) World Championships in June and July. The only drinking water available in the media facilities at the Duna Arena came in the form of small bottles provided by Chinese supplier and FINA partner Nongfu Spring. 

Facilities to fill up reusable bottles were unavailable. Various other Congresses and General Assemblies continue to show scant regard for the usage of single-use plastic through their offerings to delegates.

Options to refill bottles should be a requirement for all event organisers.

There continues to be a heavy reliance on car transport by event organisers too when viable public transport alternatives are available, cheap and easy to use.

The Association of National Olympic Committees (ANOC) General Assembly in Seoul featured a regular shuttle bus between the two main hotels, even though they were easily within walking distance and connected via the Coex Convention and Exhibition Center. 

Airports around the world often offer seamless public transport links into the cities that they serve, yet private transfers to hotels seem to be the preference of organisers.

Birmingham 2022's reliance on public transport, which was free for accredited personnel for the duration of the Commonwealth Games, offers an example of how things can be done differently, although a fleet of private cars were still used to move VIPs around the city.

Food options for delegates at sports events' buffets are varied and plentiful. Which is great, but it has been gut-wrenching to see the amount that is wasted, particularly meat dishes given the well-documented environmental impact of their production.

Reducing waste needs to be a factor taken into greater consideration where food is provided.

Single-use plastic has a detrimental environmental impact ©Getty Images
Single-use plastic has a detrimental environmental impact ©Getty Images

These are just three of the points I have picked up from covering the Olympic Movement. Granted, these suggestions require a degree of cultural change, but sport - which talks up the role it can play as a force for good - should be leading the way when it comes to the environment.

And not entering long-term partnerships with fossil fuel giants like Shell as British Cycling ludicrously did earlier this month. That is indeed a governing body for the sport of cycling, which can have a greater impact than most in encouraging greener lifestyles and should be promoting the establishment of infrastructure in Britain that can get people out of their cars and onto their bikes as a mode of transport. As countries like The Netherlands and Denmark have already implemented so effectively.

A key area for concern remains the allocation of sports events, where environmental considerations are too often an afterthought in an award first, think about "sustainability" later approach.

Recent editions of the Winter Olympics and Paralympics have relied heavily on artificial snow, which requires intensive water and energy consumption and can cause ecological damage. The IOC has at least acknowledged the potential impact of its events on the environment, particularly winter sports, and the growing move away from so-called "white elephant" venues is a positive. It is imperative that the impact of upcoming Games environmentally is scrutinised heavily.

How the Olympic Council of Asia's (OCA) decision to award the 2029 Asian Winter Games - an event last held in 2017 and that has no scheduled forthcoming editions - to the planned Saudi resort of Trojena tallies with sustainability remains to be seen.

Organisers claim that Trojena will be powered by renewable energy, and sustainability received umpteen references at the presentation at the OCA General Assembly, but the concern for climate activists is that this represents mere lip service. 

The volume of water required to produce artificial snow and changes to the natural ecosystem are among the issues which mean the decision hardly sends out a convincing message when it comes to sport tackling climate change.

Trojena 2029 has already generated a series of negative headlines when it comes to the environment. Though not mentioned explicitly, Bach's remarks at the ANOC General Assembly were telling.

The awarding of the 2029 Asian Winter Games to the planned Saudi resort of Trojena has been criticised by environmental campaigners ©Getty Images
The awarding of the 2029 Asian Winter Games to the planned Saudi resort of Trojena has been criticised by environmental campaigners ©Getty Images

"Global warming is making it more and more difficult in many areas of the world to enjoy winter sports in a responsible and sustainable way," the IOC President said.

"This is why we have asked our Future Host Commission to look into the consequences of climate change for winter sport and what it means not only for hosting winter sport events but also for the legacy and sustainability of such events.

"We can only encourage all stakeholders to benefit from this expertise before they take far-reaching decisions on their winter sport competitions.

"We would have appreciated it, if such a consultation would have taken place with regard to one or the other recent decision in this respect."

That came a little more than two weeks after the OCA's awarding of the Asian Winter Games.

Significant work is required to manage the environmental impact of another major event in the FIFA World Cup. The expanded 2026 men's edition is set to be played across a huge footprint covering Canada, the United States and Mexico.

It will require meticulous planning to limit travel distances for teams, officials and fans. While something of an extreme example, Ireland's group stage matches being held in Sydney, Perth and Melbourne at next year's Women's World Cup is far from ideal.

At last year's delayed UEFA Euro 2020, Poland were required to travel from Saint-Petersburg to Seville and back to the Russian city to play their three matches. UEFA President Aleksander Čeferin admitted that he would not support a repeat of the pan-continental format, the brainchild of his disgraced predecessor Michel Platini and then-UEFA general secretary and current FIFA President Gianni Infantino.

Emissions from air travel are a significant contributor to climate change, and sports organisations have an obligation to limit their reliance on it as far as possible. Even if at the expense of comfort.

In an ideal world, the Olympic Movement could hold regular meetings to discuss all of its issues in person. But a world in which wildfires reach within touching distance of Ancient Olympia is not an ideal world. The move towards a "hybrid" system of working with an increased emphasis on virtual meetings since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic has to continue.

The time for presentations where, again I paraphrase, "engaging stakeholders" on sustainability is the main focus has passed. If sport does not get a grip of this and immediately move towards implementing radical cultural changes to tackle environmental issues, it may well be too late.