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Does sport need to find alternatives to offsetting?

March 28 2024

In recent years, an increasing number of sporting organisations – from major tournament organisers to grassroots clubs – have turned to carbon offsetting as they attempt to reduce their carbon footprints.

Does sport need to find alternatives to offsetting?

But many scientists, journalists and activists are increasingly raising the alarm that the practice of offsetting is beset with problems – and can even cause more harm than good.

As the deadline for targets set by the Paris Agreement grow closer, the need to reduce emissions grows ever more urgent – and there’s less and less room for inefficient or damaging practices.

So how is sport addressing the problems with offsetting, and has the industry found any alternatives?

Problems with offsetting

Broadly defined, ‘carbon offsetting’ means compensating for your own emissions by paying for carbon emissions to be reduced or removed elsewhere.

This is usually done by purchasing ‘carbon credits’, each of which represents a tonne of CO2e. Purchasing the same amount of ‘carbon credits’ as the amount of CO2e emitted can be seen as having ‘cancelled out’ emissions – meaning that individuals, businesses and even governments can then claim to be ‘carbon neutral’ or ‘net zero’.

‘Carbon credits’ can go towards projects that reduce emissions, such as renewable energy projects, or those that capture emissions, like planting trees or direct air capture technologies.

As the practice of offsetting has grown – including within sport – there have been attempts to regulate and set standards on the practice. In particular, bodies have encouraged organisations to reduce their own emissions first, and not to simply buy carbon offsets as an excuse to continue ‘business as usual’.

The Science Based Targets Initiative (SBTi), for example, says that companies should set targets based on their own reductions, and not include carbon credits as part of their emissions reductions.

But, especially in recent years, there has been a growing awareness of problems associated with offsetting projects.

Research has found that many offsetting projects often overstate their impact.

A major Guardian investigation published last year found that more than 90% of rainforest offsets provided by Verra were ‘useless’, and didn’t lead to emissions reductions at all. Meanwhile, EU research has found that 85% of offset projects falling under the UN’s Clean Development Mechanism ‘failed’ to reduce emissions.

But, even when projects are impactful, the time it takes for emissions reductions to be effective can also render offsetting promises meaningless.

As a Greenpeace report pointed out, a newly-planted tree can take up to twenty years to capture the amount of CO2 promised – but international climate targets mean that we need reductions much faster than this.

Other criticisms point out that the existence of offsetting projects can delay or even deter genuine climate action. This could have catastrophic effects – Friends of the Earth has argued that the promise of offsetting schemes could even lead to an additional 1.4°C of warming.

Despite this growing awareness of these huge issues, major companies, organisations and businesses still rely on the practice.

The Net Zero stocktake, which assesses ‘net zero’ target setting across countries, governments, and businesses across the world, found last year that only 13% of companies said that they will use offset schemes with conditions on how to use them, while 29% used them with no conditions. Only 3% ruled out their use entirely.

Many major companies have been accused of misusing offsetting in order to greenwash or make ‘net zero’ claims. The airline KLM, for example, was recently found to have misled customers with its claims that planting trees could offset the emissions from a flight.

Offsetting in sport

Despite this growing concern, carbon offsetting is still a common practice in sport – particularly for major international tournaments.

Tournaments such as the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, the 2018 World Cup in Russia, the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing and last year’s Rugby World Cup in France all included offsetting in their environmental policies. This summer’s Paris Olympics also included offsetting as part of its ambition to ‘offset more emissions than it creates’.

In the US, NASCAR, the US Tennis Association, and Major League Soccer (MLS) are among those to have purchased carbon offsets from cookstove projects in order to meet their sustainability goals.

But there are many ongoing questions about how effective many of these schemes have been.

A recent study found, for example, that cookstove carbon offsets can overestimate their positive impact on the climate by up to 1,000%.

Meanwhile, recent reports note that the Paris Olympics have now revised their target to offset more than it generates.

A lack of transparency or access to information is a common problem. Several major tournaments, such as the 2023 Rugby World Cup, which claims to have adopted carbon offset or absorption programmes, has not yet published details of the offset projects supported.

The 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar is perhaps the most infamous example of the misleading use of offsetting.

Organisers of the event – which claimed to be ‘the first carbon-neutral World Cup’ – claimed that emissions would be offset through a carbon market initiative, the Global Carbon Council, set up specifically for the tournament.

But a Swiss regulator later ruled that FIFA had made ‘false and misleading’ statements about the environmental impact of the event.

It’s clear that there are still many ongoing problems when it comes to transparency around offsetting in the industry.

Some argue that sport needs to be far more careful about using these sorts of schemes.

In 2022, researchers at the New Weather Institute, KR Foundation, and Rapid Transition Alliance published a report on offsetting in sport, drawing attention to major problems and raising the alarm about its continued use.

The report flagged issues including the lack of evidence that offsets work; the risk of using offsets as an excuse to pollute as usual; and the risk of offsetting schemes causing real harm.

It pointed out that offsetting projects can often have damaging effects on local communities and the natural world – the opposite of the positive impacts that they claim.

Importantly, sport could play a critical role in changing the world’s reliance on this damaging practice.

The authors concluded that sports organisations “are well placed to catalyse a change in approach and provide real global leadership on climate”.

By continuing to pay into misleading, ineffective, or even damaging offset schemes, sport runs the risk of severely damaging the world’s climate efforts.

As a “highly visible role model”, the authors argued, “should sport adopt false solutions, the message sent can be hugely damaging.”

It’s clear, then, that offsetting is coming under growing scrutiny – and that sport has the opportunity to pave the way and lead by example.

The industry can do this both by making sure that offsetting practices are effective and transparent, and by finding alternative ways entirely to account for ‘unavoidable’ emissions.

Finding alternatives for the future

The most basic way to ensure that offsetting doesn’t distract from genuine climate action is to make sure that offset schemes are used only as a last resort – and are not factored into climate targets.

Many governing bodies, events, and clubs claim to do this already – Motorsport UK, for example, state that offsetting can be used as part of wider climate action plans, but ‘should not be used in place of avoidance or reduction’.

But, at such a critical moment, now could also be a huge opportunity for sport to shift the conversation away from ‘compensation’ and ‘net zero’ entirely, and move towards a focus on community and collective change.

As some have argued, one alternative approach to offsetting might be to move away from a focus on ‘cancelling out’ emissions and towards a ‘contribution model’, which focuses on contributing to climate projects that reduce emissions in the wider industry.

This means that clubs, organisations, and tournaments focus first and foremost on reducing emissions, and once they have, they can then fund on-the-ground climate projects – but without claiming that this makes them ‘carbon neutral’.

One key recent example of this approach is UEFA’s recently announced ‘climate fund’, which will run during this year’s EURO 2024 tournament in Germany.

The climate fund will calculate the CO2 emissions generated by the tournament, and then use this as a basis for donations to a climate fund for amateur German football clubs.

“For each tonne of CO2 emissions produced in connection with UEFA EURO 2024, €25 will be donated to the climate fund. Based on pre-tournament projections, around €7 million will thus be made available for climate protection projects,” a UEFA representative told Global Sustainable Sport.

Clubs will be able to choose from a list of projects covering energy, water, waste management and smart mobility.

“Those narrowing down of the focus is based on football infrastructure-related needs in the area of climate action,” the representative explains.

This month, UEFA announced the first 80 clubs who have been selected to receive funding. Over 2,300 clubs applied for funding in the first round.

Projects that have been supported to date include the installation of LED floodlights, solar panels, domestic batteries, smart irrigation systems, and heat pumps, among others.

The remaining funds will be allocated in April and June this year.

UEFA’s climate fund is a key example of how sports – particularly large tournaments, which generate huge levels of emissions – can finance meaningful emissions reduction schemes within the industry, rather than relying on offset schemes that may have little impact.

The climate fund is a way of using the model of offsetting as a basis, but not using it as a way to claim ‘carbon neutrality’. The emphasis has moved away from ‘compensation’ towards a focus on action and community engagement.

This is closer to what Carbon Market Watch calls a “contribution model”, where organisations “finance climate projects without claiming the associated emissions reductions as their own”.

Given the growing concerns around offsetting, UEFA’s climate fund could provide a timely and instructive example for the rest of the industry on how to shift away from a reliance on offsets.

As the authors of the Badvertising report argue, the sport industry is facing “a window of opportunity to consider more immediate, practical, and potentially transformative ways of reducing the environmental impact of sport”.

Finding effective alternatives to offsetting may play a big role in that transformation – and, as ever, sport has the opportunity to lead the way.

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