Edited in Prisma app with Daryl Feril

How climate change is becoming sport’s biggest challenge

While global sporting bodies tout efforts to ‘offset’ emissions from events like world cups, Olympics etc. through tree-plantation drives, experts say this is not their remit.
Published December 10, 2023

In 2022, international cricket made its much-anticipated, full-fledged return to Pakistan. Australia arrived in March for their first tour since 1998, followed by England and New Zealand, close to the end of the year.

It was a bonanza for cricket fans in the country; but those in Lahore, the seasonal winter smog that continues to intensify each year, missed out on watching Ben Stokes’ England and Kane Williamson’s New Zealand in action.

Lahore has become a no-go area for cricket in winter due to its poor visibility and air quality. England and Pakistan, however, were still engulfed by smog in the second Test in Multan, a venue chosen over Lahore to escape the phenomenon.

Multan doesn’t see as much smog as Lahore, but last year there were other factors at play. The devastating floods that ravaged the country hadn’t dispersed from South Punjab. The standing floodwater evaporated in the mornings, contributing to the dense smog. It was also stubble-burning season, where large tracts of land are set on fire after harvest to clear fields for the next crop.

The blazing morning sun did burn down the haze before noon, but the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) was taking no chances and subsequently shifted the second Test between Pakistan and New Zealand from Multan to Karachi, where the sea breeze prevents smog from building up.

The previous year, at the pandemic-delayed Tokyo Olympics in 2021, the marathons were run in Sapporo, 1,000km north of the Japanese capital, due to heat concerns for athletes. A typhoon that made landfall during the Games also forced organisers to reschedule rowing and surfing events.

For the Winter Olympics in 2010, 2014 and 2022, artificial snow was needed on the tracks. Grand Slam tennis events are also seeing heat-induced retirements each year.

At the recent ICC One-day International World Cup in India, a match between Bangladesh and Sri Lanka was played amid hazardous smog in New Delhi; the same venue where in 2017, players of India and Sri Lanka vomited on the pitch during their Test match.

 Sri Lanka cricket players wear masks in an attempt to protect themselves from air pollution during the second day of the third Test cricket match between India and Sri Lanka at the Feroz Shah Kotla Cricket Stadium in New Delhi on December 3, 2017. — Photo via AFP/ File
Sri Lanka cricket players wear masks in an attempt to protect themselves from air pollution during the second day of the third Test cricket match between India and Sri Lanka at the Feroz Shah Kotla Cricket Stadium in New Delhi on December 3, 2017. — Photo via AFP/ File

Organisers deemed it necessary to have repeated breaks in play and to install oxygen cylinders in their dressing rooms. For the World Cup game, both teams were forced to cancel their pre-match practice sessions due to the air quality.

In late 2017, months after Pakistan cricket greats Younis Khan and Misbah-ul-Haq hung up their boots after an enthralling finish in the third Test against the West Indies, Dominica’s Windsor Park was devastated by Hurricane Maria.

Researchers studying the Category 5 hurricane said it was “due to anthropogenic climate change” that “we get these hurricanes that drop huge amounts of precipitation”.

Then, just this month, Dominica pulled out of hosting matches of next year’s T20 World Cup in the West Indies, failing to meet implementation timelines for upgradation.

‘Pressing need to adapt’

Looking at these examples, it is obvious to anyone that climate change, more than ever before, is impacting sport worldwide.

Peter Frankopan, a Professor of Global History at Oxford University and an ardent cricket fan, has been speaking for years about the challenges facing the game due to the climate crisis. For him, there is a pressing need to adapt.

“Cricket is the ball sport most affected by climate change — partly because of the countries it is played in, partly because of the length of games; even ODIs take the best part of eight hours,” Frankopan, the author of the book, ‘The Earth Transformed’, told Dawn.

“Players and spectators alike can be exposed to full blazing sun for hours, days even on end, with little or no shade. And then of course there is air quality too, which is not just a problem for cricket or sport, but for all of us everywhere on earth.

“Respiratory and other physical and mental health problems are closely linked to pollution, which we know correlates with lower life expectancies. So the question goes far beyond just cricket.

“The answer, though, is the same for cricket as it is for life as a whole: we need to re-think things, we need to change how we do things, and we need to adapt.”

Adaptation is key in times of such crisis. The International Olympic Committee and global football body FIFA have been leading the debate on the impact of climate change on sport.

The IOC and local organisers have been publishing environmental and carbon audits for all Games held in the last two decades, while FIFA has conducted carbon audits of the last four men’s World Cups.

“You should talk about the positives first,” seasoned British sports writer and broadcaster David Goldblatt, a leading voice on the relationship between sport and climate change, told Dawn. “The IOC has been a leader in getting the sporting world to talk about climate change, pressuring international federations into signing the United Nations Sports for Climate Action Framework.”

Goldblatt, the chairman of the Football for Future initiative, noted that FIFA was the first sports organisation to join the UN Climate Change secretariat’s Climate Neutral Now initiative.

“They’re founder members of UN Sports for Climate Action Framework, having a comprehensive environmental policy before many other sports federations,” he added. “It’s made it a part of bidding for tournaments like the World Cups and that’s worth noting.”

The IOC too has taken these steps. It has made it mandatory for all local organising committees for the Olympics from 2030 onwards to “minimise and compensate their direct, as well as indirect, carbon emissions; and implement lasting zero-carbon solutions for the Olympic Games and beyond”.

Offsetting vs preventing

But, this is not hardly enough. Both FIFA and the IOC are mainly offsetting their greenhouse gas emissions. The IOC in 2020 announced it would create an Olympic Forest as part of its contribution to the UN-backed Great Green Wall Project in the Sahara and Sahel.

“I don’t think that the IOC is the right organisation to be doing that,” notes Goldblatt.

The ICC, in contrast, is yet to become a signatory to the UN framework. Frankopan argues that not enough is being done at the moment to primarily safeguard player health. Other things, he believes, have to come later.

“Signing up to plans is all well and good,” he said. “But I’d rather ask what are the international and national policies around climate action environmental concerns.

“What are the standards for making cricket carbon neutral; what are the base-line targets for using renewable materials at cricket grounds for food, beverages and lighting; what are the standards for energy generation at international grounds — and at first class level; under what conditions should games not be allowed to take place?

“These are all serious and existential [questions]. The risk comes … when one picks individual matches or locations. I’ve been in the smog in Lahore, as well as in poor air in London; so this is not just about a single game or one tournament.

“I now know a lot about the damage to health from particulates — but it has taken me a lot of time and effort to educate myself. I think players should have the benefit of that education and be informed about the consequences and risks they face when they take the field. That is not currently happening.”

 A representative image of winter skiing and the challenge it faces due to rising temperatures. — Image via Shutterstock
A representative image of winter skiing and the challenge it faces due to rising temperatures. — Image via Shutterstock

Some sports, like tennis, have taken action, allowing for more breaks during matches at times of extreme heat. But the crowded calendar of sporting events and broadcasting commitments mean that this remains the only solution for now.

But as more and more sport takes place around the world, and tournaments are expanded to grow the game, the bigger question surrounds the impact of such spectacles on the world’s climate.

FIFA under fire

FIFA is especially under fire for expanding the World Cup to 48 teams from 32 for the 2026 edition. There has also been criticism over its decision to hold the 2030 edition in six countries — three nations in South America alongside Morocco, Portugal and Spain, halfway around the world.

With fans flying to 104 games, experts say it will increase the tournament’s carbon footprint. FIFA, which has committed to a 50pc reduction in carbon emissions by 2030 and achieving net zero by 2040, has said it will take measures to “mitigate the environmental impact”.

But in June, a Swiss regulator said FIFA made false and misleading statements about carbon neutrality and the reduced environmental impact of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

FIFA had promoted the 2022 tournament as the “first carbon neutral World Cup”, even though estimates pointed to the tournament generating more CO2 than any previous event. It claimed it would offset it by planting gardens around the stadiums. They were found to be unproven and unprovable by the Swiss regulators.

Climate activists have spoken about the fact that when big tournaments are held, people fly in from all over the world with most emissions coming from flights.

“FIFA isn’t thinking about the consequences of air travel,” said Goldblatt. “Despite dubious claims by airline companies, there is no sustainable air travel. The carbon footprint of the World Cup or Olympics is travel and mostly it’s the fans rather than teams.

“FIFA could’ve said ‘OK, we’re not going to have more games, more teams’. But it has done the opposite of it. There will be more emissions in the United States in 2026 due to air travel. Then you have the 2030 tournament with a game each in Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay before it heads to Spain, Portugal and Morocco.

“It sends all sorts of wrong messages by FIFA. The World Cup with 32 teams was great. A World Cup extended by another week is too long. It should be smaller and less frequent but there is this endless drive for growth and expansion. Everyone wants more money and sponsorship but it’s leading to an uninhabitable planet to play football.”

While football is played across the world and might still find a place, cricket is popular in only a handful of nations. All the major cricketing nations are facing the threat of climate change yet the sport goes on with bilateral series coming thick and fast as soon as the World Cup ended.

Hurting ‘cricket lovers’ the most

“As someone who really loves cricket, even I think there is just too much,” opined Frankopan. “I heard a commentator say during the World Cup that England bowler Mark Wood had spent a total of 14 days at home this year. That is not healthy or good for anyone, for their friends, families, relationships etc.

“There is a lot of money involved in cricket and it can be hard to turn things down. But it feels like a buffet on a cruise ship (or at least how I imagine it, having never been on one) — but everyone over-eats and puts too much on their plate. It can be tempting; but it ruins the enjoyment too. I’d rather have less, but more memorable and higher quality.”

The author also questions whether players continue to play amid rapidly deteriorating climatic conditions.

“My question is not just about viability; it’s about whether it is appropriate for international teams that provide thrills for commentators and spectators to come and entertain in the wake of disaster,” added Frankopan.

“My answer is not a simple no: look at the positive that was done by the England team’s visit to Pakistan last year in the wake of the floods — the three Tests and the manner in which they were played provided hope and escape for the millions who had been affected.

“Sport can be a healer, after all. But it is absolutely correct that the countries where cricket is played are all at the sharp end of climate change — the four Test playing nations in South Asia and the West Indies too.

“But no one is safe: we have seen devastating droughts, floods and storms in Australia and New Zealand and even here in England, we’ve seen summer temperatures at 40C. “So one answer is whether cricket in the northern hemisphere becomes a spring and autumn sport, rather than a summer one; or whether it becomes a night game, whose viability has now been proved by the IPL and others.

“But cricket is not just at elite level: 99 per cent of cricket is played by youngsters, in villages and for pleasure. So it is vital that the authorities think about how to support grassroots cricket and what advice about climatic and environmental factors they give.”

In this day and age of Twenty20 cricket, with leagues flourishing in almost every country, bringing along more use of private and commercial jets to transport players from one venue to another, Frankopan argues that teams should do more.

“There are lots of things all teams should do to reduce their carbon footprints — all of us at every level should be thinking about how we do this; and we should be thinking about this in every aspect of our lives too,” he said.

“It can be tempting to cast stones at those with the highest profiles and the greatest resources: of course, we should expect players and teams in these positions to set the examples.

“You can see that the Australian team are the ones that take this most seriously at the moment, and I take my hat off to them for the leadership they are showing. I hope more will follow their lead. There is a balance to strike in all this. At the moment, it is not a happy balance.”

Corporates vs the public

Striking a balance — and the right one for that matter — is crucial. In Europe, the UEFA Champions League will swell from 32 teams to 36 next year. Matches in the first stage of the tournament for a single team will go up from six to eight. Europe, however, has rail networks in place which would help mitigate the effect of fans travelling for two extra matches. The same can’t be said about events like the World Cup.

“One wants to celebrate events of global cosmopolitan humanity like the World Cups or the Olympic Games,” says Goldblatt. “But can we have so many people coming, travelling internationally? The scale of the carbon model is so large, the time available is so short. We need to find ways to encourage non air-travel.”

For that, Goldblatt says one needs to look at the model Germany is using when it hosts the European Championships next year, where it’s asking fans and teams to travel through trains.

“But not every country has train networks like Germany,” he’s quick to add. “We need to imagine the Olympics and World Cups attended by locals.”

 A representative image of an athlete wearing a face mask at the race track. — Image via Shutterstock
A representative image of an athlete wearing a face mask at the race track. — Image via Shutterstock

That is something Dr Madeleine Orr, assistant professor at the University of Toronto, whose research examines the impacts of climate change on the sport sector, is also proposing.

“We can only hope they [FIFA] prioritise local fans in ticket sales,” she told Forbes in October, saying the hosting model of the 2026 World Cup “will produce enormous emissions from flights to and from the southern hemisphere”.

Experts, however, are also calling on international sports federations to send the right messaging. Saudi Arabia’s major forays into world sports recently has seen companies from the Kingdom sign up sponsorship deals with federations.

Saudi Arabia’s Aramco has already signed a major sponsorship deal with the ICC while Britain’s Times newspaper reported last month that the oil giant is in talks to become FIFA’s biggest-paying sponsor.

Environmental groups have for years called for a blanket ban on sponsorship from the fossil fuel industry in sport with Simon Bowen, a campaigner for Friends of the Earth, saying in 2019 that fossil fuel companies were “trying to distract from the awful damage their products cause” with those deals.

Goldblatt also sighed when FIFA’s potential deal with Aramco was mentioned. “FIFA’s relation with fossil fuel companies needs to end,” he said. “Only recently did it manage to get rid of [Russian energy company] Gazprom [as one of its sponsors] after the war in Ukraine, now there is Aramco. It doesn’t send out the right message.”

In a hard-hitting editorial in India’s The Hindu following the ICC’s deal with Aramco, author Suresh Menon threw up a pertinent question.

“The cynic might argue that the climate crisis is set to prematurely end the game anyway, perhaps the wisdom lies in making as much money as possible before that world ends. And who better to take that money than the company responsible for 4.38pc of all greenhouse gas emissions since 1965?” Menon, the former editor of the Wisden Almanac, wrote.

For Frankopan, the deal had to be balanced with player safety and moral responsibility.

“I don’t know what other sponsorship offers were on the table. But the ICC, like national bodies, need to balance attracting funding with player safety and moral responsibility on the other,” he said.

“Unless I am mistaken, the ICC and elite level cricket is now big, big business. And unless I am mistaken, the benefits of that business does not seem to trickle down very far.

“So my issue is as much about the structure of the game as it is about where sponsorship comes from. It seems completely extraordinary to me for top level cricket to be played in arenas and locations and in conditions that put player safety and long-term health at risk. That is either reckless, stupid or greedy. Or possibly all three.

“And whether it is the Quranic, Biblical or scientific tradition that speaks to you, it does not take a religious scholar or a Nobel laureate to know that this all ends in tears if we cannot make good decisions. Actions have consequences.”

Header image: Sri Lanka cricket players wear masks in an attempt to protect themselves from air pollution during the second day of the third Test cricket match between India and Sri Lanka at the Feroz Shah Kotla Cricket Stadium in New Delhi on December 3, 2017. Photo via AFP/ File