Humanity must decarbonize by approximately 45 percent by 2030 if we are to have a decent chance to avoid the most calamitous impacts of the climate crisis. So said a chilling yet sober 2018 report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Three years later, aside from a slight COVID-19-related emissions reduction in 2020, humanity has not gone on a carbon diet. The end-of-decade target seems further away than ever.
With that as backdrop GreenSportsBlog chose Earth Day to launch an occasional series on how the sports world is dealing with carbon — or not.
We start by taking a look at Sidelining Carbon, an initiative that looks to help professional sports teams reduce and offset their carbon emissions and communicate those efforts to fans and other stakeholders.
The program’s goals for this year are of the “GO BIG OR GO HOME” variety: Its leaders expect to grow from the two professional teams with which it started the year to 50.
GreenSportsBlog readers know well that some sports teams began greening their operations about two decades ago. Since then, energy efficient lighting, composting, water conservation and more have become commonplace in venues around the world.
“What about tracking, offsetting and reducing carbon emissions?” you may ask.
Aside from exceptions like the NHL’s 2014 inaugural sustainability report, which reported on league-controlled emissions, carbon had a relatively low profile in sports until 2018. The welcome launch that December of the UN’s Sports for Climate Action Framework put a spotlight on the measurement of sports’ carbon emissions and how best to mitigate them.
Still, it says here that conversations about carbon measurement and management in pro sports front offices are still not happening at the speed and seriousness warranted by the climate crisis.
The Conservation Coalition (TCC), a youth movement that aims to “reform the culture of environmentalism by advocating for market-driven solutions that work”, created Sidelining Carbon last fall to help sports teams pick up the pace on carbon emissions measurement, offsetting and reduction. The Nature Conservancy and Milwaukee Brewers pitcher Brent Suter offered valuable assists during the initiative’s formative stages.
Brent Suter (Photo credit: The Athletic)
Suter, who became passionate about climate change and climate solutions after seeing “An Inconvenient Truth,” while in high school and who is a member of the EcoAthletes advisory board, stayed close to home when looking for a team to make a significant commitment to offset its air travel-related carbon.
“The Brewers and the Dallas Mavericks of the NBA are the first teams to commit to offsetting their travel [through Sidelining Carbon],” Suter shared in a 2020 interview with the Outrider Foundation. ““Offset funds go to forestry projects in Hawk Mountain, Pennsylvania and Chestnut Hill, Tennessee.”
To help Sidelining Carbon make a Beamonesque¹-like jump from two to 50 teams by the end of the year a reality, TCC brought on the Front Office Sustainability Agency, Recipric as its Sports Industry Partner. The latter will access its network of sports team executives who are already working on a variety of sustainability initiatives.
“Sidelining Carbon is bringing carbon emissions issues — and the benefits of taking them on — into the Front Offices of professional sports teams,” shared Recipric founder Kristen Fulmer². “We help teams account for and reduce their emissions. If they’re offsetting emissions, we identify the right projects to invest in to offset travel-related and/or operational carbon emissions. Then, we look to expand the conversation to help teams drive emissions reductions whenever possible. Finally, we help teams and leagues showcase their carbon-related and climate actions at Home or Away, including those actions they took before we began working with them.”
PORTLAND’S TIMBERS AND THORNS PARTNER LINK UP WITH FANS IN CARBON OFFSET EFFORTS
Even before connecting with the Sidelining Carbon squad, Blair Neelands, the head of sustainability and community impact for Portland’s two pro soccer teams — the NWSL’s Thorns and the Timbers of MLS — was working to, well, sideline carbon. And management bought in to her idea to offer fans the opportunity to offset the carbon emissions associated with the merchandise from the team stores and to have the team match that contribution.
“The carbon offset match program was first brought up to leadership in early November 2020 and top leadership and the club owner were immediately on board and gave me the thumbs up,” shared Neeland. “That support allowed us to get the offset offer up on our merchandise website by the end of the month.”
Blair Neelands (Photo credit: Blair Neelands)
Importantly the offsets include Scope 3 emissions³, which are the result of activities from a company’s supply chain. Currently, fans can opt in for a $1 “donation” only. For every dollar-for-dollar match by the Timbers or Thorns, 300 lbs. of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are reduced.
“Scope 3 emissions often get overlooked or set aside because they are a beast to calculate and it can feel daunting to even know where to begin,” Neelands admitted. “However, they also make up the majority of our carbon footprint. I saw the ‘offset merchandise’ program as a simple way for the Timber and Thorns to begin to address Scope 3 emissions while also engaging fans on carbon emissions and offsetting.”
Currently, the voluntary offset program is only available via online merchandise orders to negate the carbon impact of shipping the order. Later this season, the Timbers and Thorns, who clinched a spot in the NWSL Challenge Cup Final with a 2-0 win over the OL Reign Wednesday night, will implement something similar for ticket purchases via SeatGeek: Fans will be able to offset their travel-related emissions to and from games.
“We’ve really only spread the word via social media because the offset program was launched in the offseason,” Neelands offered.” As we welcome fans back into Providence Park, we plan to start talking about the importance of reducing and offsetting carbon emissions.”
GOING BEYOND OFFSETS
Of course, offsets are just one arrow in the carbon management quiver. If sports is really going to play a serious role in the climate world, teams and venues will have to work fast and smart on emissions reductions. The Timbers and Thorns get high grades on that score.
“One of the first steps we took several years ago was switching to purchasing renewable energy through Portland General Electric’s Clean Wind program,” related Neelands. “In 2019 alone, we avoided more than five million pounds, or 2,200 metric tons, of carbon emissions. Additionally, with the stadium renovation and expansion completed in 2019, the organization took this as an opportunity to focus on making Providence Park more environmentally sustainable. Upgrades were made to everything from the LED sports lighting on the pitch to low-flow fixtures in the restrooms. All of these changes earned Providence Park the LEED Gold Certification — not too shabby for a building constructed in 1926! Finally, as Portlanders, we are proud about our fans’ high usage rates of alternative forms of transit. More than 60 percent of fans traveling to Timbers and Thorns matches use bikes, scooters, public transit, or walk.”
The Timbers and Thorns are some of the most recent additions to the Sidelining Carbon home page, which showcases professional teams’ decarbonization efforts ‘at Home,’ to elevate the work being done in stadiums and with fans and also ‘Away,’ to augment the travel offsets already being made by the Brewers and Mavs.
GETTING FANS INTO THE OFFSETTING ACT
GreenSportsBlog has long believed that engaging fans on climate action is the biggest thing the Green-Sports movement can do.
Sidelining Carbon is leaping headlong into that space on Earth Day with today’s announcement of its easy-to-use “Nominate My Team to Take Climate Action” page on its website. It takes three simple steps:
- Choose your favorite sports team
- Choose the offset in which you’d like your team to invest
- Send a tweet to your favorite team, letting them know you’d like them to offset their carbon by investing in your project of choice.
GSB’s Take: I asked my New York J-E-T-S JETS! JETS! JETS! by tweet to offset their carbon via the Sidelining Carbon tool. It could not have been easier!
It will also be super-easy for Jets management to sideline their carbon — clearly much easier for them than winning a Super Bowl (which they haven’t done since 1969 and Super Bowl III) has been. Or getting to a Super Bowl (same year). Or making the playoffs (after the 2010 season, the longest current playoff drought in the NFL).
Not that I’m bitter or anything.
So, c’mon (team owner) Christopher Johnson; Sideline the Jets Carbon!
And GreenSportsBlog readers, please take two minutes this Earth Day to nominate your favorite team to Sideline its Carbon. You will be helping them get an easy and important win. As a Jets fan, I can tell you, easy wins are very hard to come by.
¹ Beamonesque refers to Olympic legend Bob Beamon and is shorthand for “big jumps” in sports records. At the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, the American long jumper astonished the world and won gold with a leap of 29 ft. 2.5 in., a mind-blowing 1 ft, 9 in. longer than the existing record. Long jump records are typically broken by an inch or two. It took 23 years for someone to top Beamon’s mark, when American Mike Powell did the trick at the 1991 World Championships. And Beamon’s jump still stands as the Olympic record some 53 years later.
² Fulmer also serves as EcoAthletes’ Strategic Advisor
³ Scope 1 emissions are from sources that are directly controlled by an organization. Scope 2 emissions are from sources that are indirectly controlled by an organization — think electricity, heat, etc.
Photo at top: Members of the Portland Thorns celebrate after Wednesday night’s 2-0 Challenge Cup win over the OL Reign (Photo credit: Thorns FC/Craig Mitchelldyer)