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What if sports reacted to climate change like it’s reacting to coronavirus?

GreenSportsBlog's Lew Blaustein lays out a future that imagines how American sports leagues could take climate action.

How do we assure that the climate crisis stays top of mind during the coronavirus pandemic? Or even back of mind?

Coronavirus has, by urgent necessity, dominated humanity’s attention in 2020 and will continue to do so for months to come at the very least. Yet the drip-drip of worrying climate news continues apace.

  • A new study published last week in Nature Communications suggested that several climate tipping points — irreversible changes that could reshape ecosystems such as forests and coral reefs — may happen sooner than previously thought.
  • The World Meteorological Organization warned that about 22 million people were displaced by extreme weather events in 2019, a whopping 28 percent increase from the 17.2 million the year before.

Several journalists have tried to keep climate change in the conversation recently by asking this question: What would the world look like if we attacked climate change with the same wartime-like, "all in" approach that has been/is finally being adopted by governments, business and individuals to fight coronavirus? Adele Peters, writing in the March 10 issue of Fast Company, is but one example.

After wildfires and extreme floods, relief packages would acknowledge the role of climate. In cities, development rules would change to require low-carbon construction.

"Governments would come up with the funds to build the infrastructure needed to fully roll out renewable energy," Peters asserted. "After wildfires and extreme floods, relief packages would acknowledge the role of climate. In cities, development rules would change to require low-carbon construction. Farms would shift to regenerative agriculture."

In a similar vein, GreenSportsBlog asked 10 leading lights from the Green Sports ecosystem to offer ideas for sports to go big on climate.

Their "climate change moonshot" ideas ranged from Meatless Monday Night Football (courtesy of Summer Minchew of EcoImpact Consulting) to the world’s largest carbon offset project (Neill Duffy of 17 Sport) to making taking mass transit to and from games fun (Monica Rowand of University of Louisiana, Lafayette).

Thing is, these ideas were offered up last April as part of GSB’s Earth Day series. The first case of coronavirus was seven months away at that point and we were 11 months away from a declaration of a global pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO).

What if we approached the sports-climate question now, through our new, urgent, socially distant, hunkered-down lens? What would that look like?

Sports in a climate-changed world

Imagine, perhaps in the not-too-distant future, an even warmer world in which extreme weather events — droughts, floods, hurricanes, etc. — have become so common that they no longer can be called extreme. They are just called weather.

Imagine that the increased frequency and also the intensity of these "new-normal" weather events, having caused so much human and financial damage, finally has caused humanity to begin act positively on climate in a serious way, at scale.

What if we approached the sports-climate question now, through our new, urgent, socially distant, hunkered-down lens? What would that look like?

Here is a GreenSportsBlog post from that imagined future that imagines how sports pitched in.

Leaders of the top pro men’s and women’s sports leagues from around the world, along with the NCAA, IOC and FIFA, as well as a variety of players’ associations, yesterday agreed to a stunning list of changes to the way games are played. The moves were made during an unprecedented conference call as the sports industry tries to deal with the decade-long climate emergency that has overheated the planet to dangerous levels. 

The centerpiece of the new regime is a strict season-long carbon emissions budget for each league, to be established and monitored by U.N. Climate Change, the organization that administers the Sport for Climate Action Framework. Each year, the budget will decrease by an agreed upon amount. Teams and venues can earn carbon budget credits by taking certain well-defined, positive climate actions.

Leagues that exceed their budgets will incur a significant fine, which will be funneled into a clean tech research fund to be managed by a consortium of clean energy investment funds, climate-related nonprofits, Columbia University’s Earth Institute and the U.N. If a league exceeds its budget two seasons in a row, it will be forced to alter its operations in ways that further reduce carbon emissions (fewer games, reduced travel miles, etc).

The North American pro leagues announced several changes to ensure they stay within their carbon budgets:

Length-of-season and travel

  • NFL
    • The regular season is reduced from 17 games to its pre-2021 16-game version. Only 12 teams from each conference will make the playoffs instead of the current 14.
    • Teams will play nine intra-divisional games instead of the current six to limit travel. 
    • All games in Europe are eliminated. 
    • The Super Bowl halftime extravaganza, which has a sizable carbon budget, is eliminated. 
    • The NFL Draft will be held by conference call, as it was in 2020 during the height of the coronavirus pandemic.
  • NBA
    • Regular season will be reduced from 82 to 50 games
    • A mid-season March Madness-style tournament, to be held in two cities each year (one city in the East and one in the West), will compensate for some lost games and will further limit travel miles.
    • Some post-season games will be played in outdoor venues to reduce A/C demand.
  • MLB
    • The regular season is reduced from 162 to 154 games.
    • Each team will play eight scheduled home doubleheaders, shaving fan travel by an expected 10 percent. Teams that play in air-conditioned, roofed stadiums will play more home doubleheaders.
    • Fans who take mass transit to games receive 20 percent off the price of their game ticket.
    • Inter-league play will be restricted to teams in the same geographical areas (American League East teams will play only against National League East teams, AL Central vs. NL Central only, etc.) 
    • Team travel of five hours or less will be by train, not plane
  • NHL
    • Each team will contribute $4,000,000 annually to a fund devoted to research on low carbon refrigeration technology

All participating leagues and teams also agreed to the following:

  • Food and beverage: Teams will offer vegan and vegetarian items at every concourse. Venues will earn credits towards their carbon budgets if more than 50 percent of the produce used is grown within 50 miles.
  • Electric vehicles: Venues will garner carbon budget credits for having more than 15 EV charging stations on site. Additional credits will go to those venues that power the stations with solar or wind.
  • Messaging: Teams will receive carbon budget credits every time they run ads in-stadium and on air that encourage fans to take positive climate actions. Broadcasters will be required to allot 10 percent of their advertising units to climate-related messaging.

What do you think? We would love to hear any ideas you have as to how sports should deal with the almost certain climate emergency to come.

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