The National Football League held its second annual carbon-neutral Super Bowl in Detroit Sunday. As "Green Skeptic" Scott Edward Anderson reports, when NFL organizers tackle environmental responsibility, everybody wins.



The organizers of yesterday's Super Bowl XL had their work cut out for them: A range of on- and off-field activities, from travel to stadium lighting, was expected to generate more than 260 tons of carbon emissions. Jack Groh, the National Football League's environment program director, knew they'd better get planting.

"The NFL's objective is to mitigate carbon and offset the greenhouse gas emissions created by the event," says Groh. "Tree planting seemed an elegant and down-to-earth way of achieving that goal." The league is planting native trees throughout the Detroit area, which local groups, from scout troops to the nonprofit Greening of Detroit, will maintain.

This is the second year the NFL has made the Super Bowl a carbon-neutral event; carbon emissions from last year's game in Jacksonville, Fla., were offset with the planting of more than 1,000 trees. The NFL held its first carbon-neutral regular season football game last December between the Philadelphia Eagles and the St. Louis Rams.

For December's game in St. Louis, the NFL signed on with NativeEnergy to purchase units of alternative energy for the game, offsetting the 58 tons of CO2 being generated by the heat, power, and lights in the Edward Jones Dome. In addition, both teams became the first to join the "Virtual March" promoted by StopGlobalWarming.org.

But carbon offsets are really just a new chapter of an older story, says Groh. The NFL's focus on environment dates back to 1992, when a senior vice president in charge of the league's championship game shaped a pilot recycling program around his personal commitment to environmental responsibility. In addition to the relatively new carbon-neutral initiative, the NFL's environment program has four main components: recycling, prepared foods recovery, sports equipment and book drives, and materials donations. The league donates leftover materials from each Super Bowl event to local nonprofit groups. According to Groh, they have donated "everything from bricks and 2X4s to decorative fabric to 90 tons of beach sand." Current management continues to be supportive of the league's environment program and to encourage its expansion, Groh says.

Groh, who has worked with the NFL since its first environmental efforts 14 years ago, has found that incorporating environmental principles thoughtfully can be consistent with sound business practices. With environmental responsibility comes some tangible business value, whether it is cost-cutting or improved public relations. Of particular interest to event promoters now is mitigating the climate impacts of such events -- by planting trees, using carbon-reducing alternative energy sources, and investing in carbon-offset credits. In some cases, the benefits are tangible, like tradable carbon credits if such a market was robust, or reduced solid waste hauling fees. More often, they are intangible, as with heightened awareness of the issue of climate change and goodwill.

Recycling, chiefly of materials associated with concessions, is also an easy win for sports organizers. "The NFL looks for ways to incorporate its ideas into what stadium operators are already doing," says Groh. "We try to find ways to maximize recycling that, at the very least don't cost more, and at best have the potential to result in some cost-savings for the facilities." As with any business, however, there comes a point when decisions require that the benefits of taking environmental action outweigh the added costs. Groh cites as an example the experience at Ford Field for yesterday's Super Bowl. "They already had a terrific bottle and can recycling program, because of its redemption value in this particular market, but we had to pass on cardboard recycling -- even though there is quite a bit of it and it has a good market value. There wasn't the necessary infrastructure to make it cost effective for this event."

For the Super Bowl in Detroit, the NFL planted 2,400 trees to combat greenhouse gas emissions from over 100 events associated with the game.

"Such [smaller] projects are welcome," says Bill Stanley, currently acting-director for Global Climate Change with The Nature Conservancy. Stanley, who has been involved in a number of large carbon sequestration projects in South America, notes, "A regulatory market would require more stringent monitoring of the forest to insure the offset values. How is the forest doing in five, ten, or 30 years' time? And what is the plan for replacing trees that don’t survive to maturity?" Much depends upon the monitoring and maintenance regime applied to the trees, he says.

Still, in Stanley’s opinion, such projects will make a difference if communicated broadly. "The actual mitigation is a drop in the bucket," says Stanley. "However, they are showing how a big business like pro football cares about climate change and is willing to take action. Others may follow. The real power is in communicating about the problem and encouraging others to take action."

This is especially true of the NFL. The league’s reach is tremendous, especially when it comes to other events and their organizers. "The Super Bowl is the pinnacle of special events," Groh emphasizes. "And everyone, whether they produce concerts, sporting events or conventions is looking at the Super Bowl and what we’re doing. You look at any of the other events in this country and compare what they are doing with what we’ve initiated and you can see the impact."

In addition, the NFL has the power to reach deeper into communities than any environmental group. Pro football has natural links with youth groups, holding football and cheerleading clinics and hosting Boys & Girls Clubs. The league is also involved in hunger projects, such as the $400-600 per plate “Taste of the NFL” dinner. Billed as “The Super Bowl Party with a Purpose,” the events support local groups and Second Harvest.

The NFL’s environment program demonstrates that there is a market and business case for investing in greener sports events. Sports are a multi-billion dollar international enterprise that is beginning to take the climate crisis seriously and leading by example -- and everyone has a stake in the outcome of this game.

“If you do it right, recycle the right commodities based upon the local market, then operating costs are reduced,” Groh says. “Our attitude is, what’s good for the environment is good for the bottom line.”

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Scott Edward Anderson writes The Green Skeptic” Weblog and is a regular columnist for GreenBiz.com.