How to decarbonise sports events? The case of Paris Olympics Games 2024

Winning gold in sustainability: How to decarbonise sports events?

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The future of sports: How decarbonisation is changing the game.

The sports industry uniquely connects people worldwide, uniting them in support of their teams and athletes. However, with significant sporting events occurring regularly globally, ranging from marathpns to international tournaments like the World Cup or Super Bowl, it's crucial to question their carbon footprint and explore ways to decarbonise them. Sports can educate and inspire people, especially when sustainability is at the forefront.

As the world gears up for the Paris Olympics and Paralympics 2024 this summer, there's more at stake than gold medals and world records. This time, the real competition is against carbon emissions. The Paris Games are setting a new benchmark, aiming to halve the carbon footprint of previous Olympics and champion a more sustainable future for sports events. With a carbon budget set at 1.5 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent, the Paris 2024 team is not just playing the game but changing it. To put this into perspective, this carbon budget is equivalent to the annual emissions of a small country like Bhutan or Belize, the yearly energy use of a city like Glasgow,

The Olympics set the stage for more sustainable event management, demonstrating how large-scale events can significantly reduce environmental impact. This article dives into the strategic playbook Paris 2024 uses to tackle its environmental impact, offering valuable lessons on what to do and avoid in decarbonising sports events. Let’s explore how the decarbonisation of the Olympics can lead the way in transforming sports events into green powerhouses.

What is the carbon footprint of sports events?

The carbon footprint of sports events is a comprehensive measure of the total greenhouse gases (GHGs) emitted directly and indirectly due to the activities associated with organising and executing the event. These emissions are quantified in terms of equivalent tons of CO2 (CO2e), providing a unified metric for understanding their environmental impact. 

According to the Greenhouse Gas Protocol (GHGp), a sports event's carbon footprint includes three primary scopes: direct emissions from owned or controlled sources (Scope 1), indirect emissions from the consumption of purchased electricity, steam, heating, and cooling (Scope 2), and all other indirect emissions that occur in the value chain (Scope 3). This categorisation provides a comprehensive view of an entity’s carbon emissions, covering everything from the direct burning of fossil fuels to the indirect impact of transportation.

What are the primary sources of emissions in sports events?

Sports events significantly contribute to carbon emissions through several primary sources. You can find the main sources listed below:

  • Travel: The transportation of athletes, officials, staff, and spectators to and from the event venues is a significant source of emissions. This includes flights, local transit, and vehicle use.
  • Energy consumption: Energy used for lighting, heating, cooling, and powering various facilities and equipment during the event also contributes substantially to the carbon footprint. The source of this energy (renewable vs. non-renewable) plays a critical role in determining the overall impact.
  • Construction: Building new structures, refurbishing existing venues, and installing temporary facilities generate significant emissions. This includes the embodied carbon in construction materials and the energy used in construction activities.
  • Waste management: Disposal and treatment of waste generated during the event, including food waste, packaging, and promotional materials, add to the carbon footprint.

It is important to note that, as a general rule of thumb, the majority of emissions for most organisations, including sports events, are found in Scope 3, often accounting for nearly 90% of the total carbon footprint. Therefore, event organisers must focus on accurately calculating these emissions to develop effective reduction strategies.

Spotlight on the carbon footprint of the Paris 2024 Olympics

The Paris 2024 Olympics aims to set a new benchmark for sustainability by significantly reducing its carbon footprint. The carbon budget for the Paris 2024 Olympics is set at 1.5 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent, aiming to halve the emissions from the 2012 London Olympics (3.3 million tonnes) and the 2016 Rio Olympics (3.6 million tonnes). This is comparable to the annual emissions from approximately 320,000 passenger vehicles driven for one year.

The sustainability team for Paris 2024 has identified three primary categories of carbon impact:

  • Transportation: Approximately 34% of total emissions are focused on the movement of people between events.
  • Games operations: Another 33% of emissions come from catering, security, and venue maintenance activities.
  • Construction: The remaining 33% is attributed to building and infrastructure development.

This breakdown highlights the need for substantial emissions savings across all categories, not just operations. For instance, the Games will have to provide more than 85,000 screens, computers, telephones, and other technical equipment; procure over 1 million pieces of sports equipment; facilitate the sale of more than 13 million tickets; offer accommodation for 15,000 athletes and accredited guests; and provide more than 13 million meals and 18 million beverage servings. These elements directly impact emissions, emphasising the importance of sourcing decisions made well before the event.

The material footprint for these purchase-related emissions was meticulously analysed, revealing significant areas for decarbonisation. It took over a year to calculate materials emissions, as it was very challenging to do. 

  • Materials used for the construction of facilities: 72%
  • Materials needed to furnish facilities: 12%
  • Materials purchased to feed and care for spectators: 9%
  • Materials for celebrations: 6%
  • Sporting equipment for athletes and similar equipment for media and other support functions: 1%

Understanding sports events' carbon footprints is essential for developing effective strategies to mitigate their environmental impact. By breaking down the sources of emissions and setting ambitious targets, events like the Paris 2024 Olympics can promote sustainability.

How to calculate the carbon footprint of a sports event

Calculating the carbon footprint of a sports event involves a systematic approach to identify and quantify greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. This process typically includes several key steps:

1. Define boundaries: Establish the scope of the event’s emissions by identifying all relevant activities and sources.

2. Collect data on each activity:

  • Gather data on fuel consumption, electricity use, material quantities, and transportation distances.
  • Use reliable sources and tools for data collection, such as ticket sales to estimate spectator travel or utility bills to measure energy consumption.
  • Favour the use of primary data to be comprehensive and accurate to ensure reliable results.

3. Apply emission factors: To convert activity data into CO2e emissions, use emission factors from recognised sources, such as the GHG Protocol. Ensure the emission factors are up-to-date and relevant to the activities and regions involved.

4. Calculate emissions: Multiply the collected activity data using relevant emission factors to estimate total emissions. The formula to apply is the following:

{Emission} = {Activity Data} X {Emission Factor}

5. Use carbon accounting software: Employ carbon footprint calculators, which store operational data to calculate emissions based on predefined emission factors. Tools like Plan A Sustainability Platform or GHG Protocol's Emission Calculation Tool, are recognised for accuracy and compliance with international standards.

6. Categorise per scope: Classify the emissions according to the GHG Protocol’s Scope 1, Scope 2, and Scope 3 categories.

7. Analyse and report on your footprint: Conduct a thorough analysis of the calculated emissions to identify hotspots and opportunities for reduction. Reporting should be transparent and adhere to recognised carbon accounting standards.

Decarbonising sports events: Lessons from the Paris 2024 Olympics

The decarbonisation of sports events, notably the Olympics, represents a monumental challenge and an unparalleled opportunity to set new standards for sustainability. The Paris 2024 Olympics, with its ambitious commitment to halve its carbon emissions compared to previous Games, provides a masterclass on how event organisers can navigate this complex terrain. Let's dive into the key lessons other organisations can draw from the Paris 2024 experience to green their events.

Lesson 1: Do the work well in advance to set realistic and accurate goals

In 2017, Paris won the bid to host the 2024 Summer Olympics and Paralympics in a close race with Los Angeles. A decisive factor in the International Olympic Committee’s selection was the Paris 2024 committee’s commitment to reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by half compared with the average amounts emitted during the London 2012 and Rio 2016 Games. This ambitious goal set the stage for a comprehensive, seven-year decarbonisation process, highlighting the need for a long-term vision to reap the benefits later in time.

Georgina Grenon, the director of sustainability for the Paris Games, and her team started by creating a baseline carbon budget. They segmented the activities necessary to prepare for, operate, and close the Olympics into three main categories: transportation, construction, and Games operations. By meticulously estimating the carbon emissions associated with each category, the team gained a comprehensive understanding of where emissions would be predominantly generated. This approach enabled them to set realistic yet ambitious reduction targets.

Transparency in methodology and calculations is crucial for credibility and effectiveness. While the Paris 2024 committee has shared some estimates, such as 34% of emissions from transportation, 33% from construction, and 33% from operations, the specifics of their carbon budget are not fully public. Experts like Martin Müller from the University of Lausanne have pointed out the importance of clarity in these figures. Müller appreciates the commitment but emphasizes the need for transparent methodologies to understand the basis of the 1.5 million tonnes CO2e target. Paris 2024 has promised continuous evaluation and adjustment of their plans to maintain precision and transparency.

Lesson 2: Innovate and prioritise material efficiency

The Paris 2024 team realised that to achieve substantial emissions reductions, particularly related to materials for temporary infrastructures, they needed to rethink the design and delivery of these infrastructures. This approach involved using materials that could be easily repurposed or recycled after the event. For example, suppliers or sponsors own 90% of the facilities responsible for managing the materials' second life.

A standout example of this innovation is Lyreco, which supplies furniture for the Games. Lyreco plans to create a secondhand market for items used during the event, promoting reuse and reducing waste. Moreover, by focusing on local sourcing, they ensured that 80% of food procured had a certificate of origin, with 25% sourced within a 250-kilometer radius of competition sites.

Lesson 3: Forge creative partnerships

Partnerships played a critical role in reducing the Paris Olympics' carbon footprint. For instance, the energy strategy developed with EDF and Enedis included a three-layer energy sourcing model to ensure reliability while minimising emissions. This model utilised the French electric grid, which is 95% emissions-free, with backup biodiesel or hydrogen generators only as a tertiary layer.

Such partnerships extended to waste management as well. Coca-Cola collaborated with the Games to use soda, water fountains, and glass bottles, significantly reducing single-use plastics. Food waste management strategies included donating unsold food and converting food waste into animal feed, compost, or energy.

Lesson 4: Think locally and adapt

Despite the significant contribution of air travel to the Games’ carbon footprint, the Paris 2024 team focused on reducing road transportation and enhancing local accessibility. By situating 85% of athletes within 30 minutes of event venues and promoting bicycle and public transport use, they significantly reduce emissions from local travel.

Moreover, the national rail network, SNCF, facilitated efficient travel for athletes and spectators. This strategic focus on local solutions demonstrates how incremental changes can contribute to significant overall emissions reductions, even when more extensive systemic changes are challenging.

Winning gold in sustainability: Practical applications for event organisers

Companies can draw several practical lessons to lead the decarbonisation of their events effectively:

  1. Comprehensive planning: Start with a detailed carbon budget that encompasses all aspects of the event, including travel, energy use, construction, and waste management. Use this budget to identify significant emission sources and set targeted reduction goals. Ensure transparency in your methodology—make sure your calculations and data collection processes are clear and available for scrutiny to build trust and accuracy in your sustainability efforts.
  2. Innovative solutions: Rethink traditional practices and adopt innovative materials and methods that reduce the carbon footprint. This could involve using low-carbon construction materials, implementing renewable energy sources, and designing infrastructures for repurposing post-event. Focus on temporary, reusable structures and local sourcing of materials to demonstrate the impact of innovative planning.
  3. Partnerships and collaboration: Collaborate with suppliers, sponsors, and other stakeholders to develop sustainable solutions. Form partnerships for renewable energy and work with suppliers to ensure that materials can be reused or recycled. Effective partnerships can drive innovation and shared responsibility in achieving sustainability goals.
  4. Local focus: Prioritise local sourcing and sustainable transport options to minimise emissions and support the local community. By sourcing materials and food locally, you reduce the carbon footprint associated with transportation. Additionally, promoting public transportation, cycling, and walking for event attendees can significantly cut down on local emissions.
  5. Transparent reporting and continuous improvement: Ensure transparency in your sustainability reporting. Share detailed methodologies, baselines, and progress openly to build trust and enable continuous improvement. Regularly update your carbon budget and reduction strategies based on the latest data and feedback.

By setting well-defined goals, prioritising material efficiency, forging creative partnerships, and focusing on local solutions, event organisers can significantly reduce the carbon footprint of their events. Embrace these strategies to set a gold standard in sustainability that others can follow.

Challenges of decarbonisation in sports events: Criticisms and insights from the Olympics

The ambition to decarbonise sports events is commendable, yet the path is fraught with substantial challenges. The sheer scale of these events, the variety of stakeholders involved, and the global nature of participation create a complex landscape for achieving meaningful emissions reduction. As the pinnacle of international sports events, the Olympics highlights these challenges and has faced its share of criticisms on its decarbonisation strategy.

Challenges in reducing the carbon footprint 

  1. Scale and scope of the event: The magnitude of the Olympics, involving thousands of athletes, officials, and millions of spectators, inherently leads to substantial carbon emissions. The need for large-scale infrastructure, extensive travel, and comprehensive logistics operations makes it difficult to achieve significant emission reductions.
  2. Transportation emissions: Transportation remains the most significant single contributor to the carbon footprint of sports events. The global nature of the Olympics means that a substantial portion of emissions comes from international flights, which are difficult to mitigate in the short term. Even with efforts to promote local transport options and reduce the number of vehicles, the overall impact of air travel remains substantial.
  3. Construction and infrastructure: Building new venues and refurbishing existing ones contribute heavily to emissions. The use of construction materials and the energy consumed during the building process add to the carbon footprint. While initiatives like using low-carbon materials and repurposing structures are beneficial, the fundamental need for large venues and associated infrastructure poses a continuous challenge.
  4. Operational demands: The day-to-day operations of a large-scale event require significant energy and resources. These operational aspects contribute to emissions from lighting and air conditioning to catering and waste management. Transitioning to renewable energy sources and implementing efficient waste management practices are steps in the right direction, but they require substantial investment and coordination.

Criticisms of the Olympics' sustainability strategy

Despite the strides made towards sustainability, the Olympics has faced criticisms on several fronts:

  1. Buying a “good conscience” through offsetting: A significant criticism is that many sports events, including the Olympics, focus too much on carbon offsetting rather than reducing emissions at the source. Carbon offsetting, while beneficial, should not be the primary strategy. Instead, the focus should be on tangible reductions in carbon emissions through innovative practices and sustainable planning. Prioritising reductions minimise the reliance on offsets, which is sometimes seen as an easy way out.
  2. Greenwashing concerns: Accusations of greenwashing, where efforts to appear environmentally friendly are overstated or misleading, have been prevalent. FIFA, for example, has been criticised for labelling its World Cup events as 'carbon neutral' without transparent or verifiable measures to back such claims. This misuse of 'carbon neutrality' undermines genuine efforts to reduce emissions and can mislead the public about the true environmental impact. 
  3. Lack of transparency: Transparency in how carbon footprints are calculated and reported is another primary concern. Critics argue that with transparent methodologies and detailed disclosures, it is easier to assess the true environmental impact of the Games. For example, while the Paris 2024 Olympics has set ambitious targets, the details and methodologies behind these calculations have yet to be fully disclosed, leading to scepticism about their feasibility and accuracy.
  4. Inherent contradictions: The fundamental model of the Olympics, which involves bringing together participants and spectators worldwide in a single location, is inherently at odds with sustainability goals. Critics argue that meaningful emissions reductions can only be achieved by rethinking this model. Suggestions include decentralising the Games across multiple locations to reduce travel emissions significantly.
  5. Short-term infrastructure: The construction of temporary venues and facilities for a short-term event leads to waste and underutilisation. Despite efforts to repurpose and recycle materials, the temporary nature of many Olympic structures raises questions about the long-term sustainability of such an approach.

Insights for future sporting events

Turning challenges into opportunities, here are key actionable insights for decarbonising future sports events, inspired by the lessons from the Olympics:

  1. Enhanced transparency: Future events should prioritise transparency in their sustainability reporting. Detailed methodologies, clear baselines, and open data sharing can build trust and enable more accurate environmental impact assessments.
  2. Focus on emissions reduction: Before considering carbon offsets, event organisers should focus on reducing emissions through practical measures. This includes using renewable energy, promoting sustainable transportation, and employing low-carbon construction materials. Reducing emissions at the source is more impactful and avoids the pitfalls of greenwashing.
  3. Innovative models: Rethinking the model of global sports events can lead to more sustainable practices. Decentralised hosting, leveraging virtual participation, and localising events can significantly reduce the carbon footprint associated with travel and infrastructure.
  4. Long-term planning: Emphasising long-term utility and sustainability in infrastructure planning can mitigate the issues associated with temporary constructions. Building with a vision for future use, repurposing existing structures, and integrating sustainable materials can create a lasting positive impact.
  5. Stakeholder collaboration: Effective decarbonisation requires collaboration among all stakeholders, including governments, sponsors, local communities, and international bodies. Joint efforts can lead to innovative solutions and shared responsibilities in reducing the carbon footprint.

Reducing the carbon footprint of sports events, particularly mega-events like the Olympics, is complex but necessary. The challenges are substantial, and the criticisms highlight areas needing improvement. However, future sports events can move closer to achieving true sustainability by learning from these experiences and embracing innovative, transparent, and collaborative approaches. 

The journey towards a greener future in sports is ongoing, and with continued effort and commitment, the vision of environmentally responsible events can become a reality. Prioritising emissions reduction over offsetting and avoiding the pitfalls of greenwashing are crucial steps in this journey. The Paris 2024 Olympics have set the stage, but the race towards sustainable sports events continues.

Ready to lead the decarbonisation of your sports events? Book a demo with Plan A today and discover how our innovative solutions can make you achieve true sustainability.

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