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How the Carbon Literacy Project’s new Toolkit is driving decarbonisation in sport

August 10 2023

Like every major industry, sport leaves an impact on the environment: every year, the global sports sector is responsible for an estimated total emissions of around 50 billion tonnes of CO2e. As more and more sports organisations wake up to the importance of sustainability, how can the industry tackle its own carbon footprint?

The Carbon Literacy Project, which was launched in Manchester in 2012, is an organisation that makes education on climate science and carbon reduction accessible to everyone.

In April of this year, in collaboration with the Birmingham Commonwealth Games 2022, the project launched its first ever toolkit designed specifically for the sports sector.

Four months on, how is the sports toolkit serving the sport industry? And how can the sport industry lead the way in reducing carbon emissions across the world?

The Carbon Literacy Project

The Carbon Literacy Project (CLP) helps organisations to deliver training on climate science, carbon footprints, and how individuals can take action. The CLP accredits courses, which are delivered by certified Carbon Literacy trainers. Once individuals have completed a Carbon Literacy course, they are certified as carbon literate.

To date, the CLP has accredited 561 courses, which have engaged 5,082 organisations and 67,295 individuals covering 13 sectors in 25 countries. At the end of each course, learners pledge to take two actions: since Carbon Literacy courses began, participants have made 134,590 pledges, leading to an estimated saving of 242,000 tonnes of CO2e.

An important feature of carbon literacy training is how courses are tailored: each course is designed to reflect the specific context of each sector, and the CLP has designed bespoke toolkits to meet the needs of some of the biggest public and private sector industries. These include healthcare, museums, universities, local authorities, and sport.

Addressing sport’s carbon footprint 

The Carbon Literacy Toolkit for Sport meets the needs of a sector that has both a large carbon footprint and a huge potential to influence society.

“Sport has a huge role to play,” says Steve Bullen, Sports Coordinator at the Carbon Literacy Project. “Sport’s carbon footprint is big, but sport also influences the rest of wider society. There’s a massive responsibility for sport to lead the way.”

The carbon footprint of elite sport is substantial. The football industry is estimated to produce more than 30 million tonnes of CO2 per year, which is equivalent to the total emissions of Denmark. A 2018 study estimated that the annual carbon footprint for each individual sport was around 1006kg of CO2e per year.

As GSS has highlighted, many teams, leagues, and organisations across the world have recognised their carbon emissions and are working to reduce them, including the Oslo Bislett Games, the 2024 Paris Olympics, and the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup, which is currently taking place in Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand. Many clubs at the grassroots level are also working to reduce their impacts.

Meanwhile, over 270 organisations have been signatories to the UNFCCC’s Sports for Climate Action framework, which commits participants to halving their emissions by 2030 and achieving ‘net zero’ emissions by 2040, in line with the 2015 Paris Agreement.

However, as GSS has recently reported, many organisations have also left the agreement, and the 270 signatories represent less than 0.1% of the global sports industry. At the same time, many major events, including the recent 2022 Qatar World Cup, have been criticised for misleading claims about their carbon emissions.

In 2019, a study found that 74% of football fans cared about the sustainable impact of their club. In this context, it’s clear that the global sports industry has a mandate to act on reducing its emissions, and some way to go before it reaches its goals.

Developing a toolkit for sport

The Carbon Literacy Project’s toolkit addresses this unique position of the sports industry.

The aim of the kit is to enable the sports industry to improve its understanding of climate change and its relevance to sport, and to ‘catalyse climate action at all levels’.

The kit contains everything needed to hold a carbon literacy course for the sports sector, including a slide deck, trainer manual, and interactive resources. Elements can be changed and modified depending on sport, location, or organisation, and the kit will be updated every year to make sure the science and policy is up to date.

The idea for a sports toolkit emerged as legacy of the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games. Joanna Leigh, Sustainability Coordinator for the Games, drafted an initial Carbon Literacy course tailored to the specific needs of the sports sector, which was then adapted into the Carbon Literacy Sports Toolkit.

The toolkit was piloted with UK Sport last autumn, before launching to the rest of the industry in April 2023.

When designing the toolkit, the team wanted to make sure it would reach all corners of the industry. “We wanted to make sure it reached every area of sports, from grassroots to professional,” says Bullen. “And the full breadth of sports as well—the event side, the business side, and also the parts that are specific to sport.”

Critically, the course focuses on action as well as the science.

“As with any kind of carbon literacy course, the unique thing is the action-driven elements,” says Bullen. “It’s all about how you take this knowledge and do something about it within the context of your role.”

So, for example, on a standard one-day course, staff at a football club could learn the science behind climate change in the morning, and then learn concrete actions they can take to reduce emissions in their own stadium operations in the afternoon.

Getting people to connect, discuss problems, and work together is also an important part of the training. “It’s getting people together to talk about how they can manage this within their roles,” says Bullen.

It’s this action-based, community-focused approach that leads to real change, including wider culture shifts and a reduction in overall emissions.

“You start to get all of these people engaged, and that’s when you start to see carbon numbers shift, because you’ve got a whole organisation now working together to carry out a sustainability strategy,” Bullen says. “Instead of having one head of sustainability rushing around trying to get everybody to do things, little by little we’re now shifting to a low-carbon culture.”

Responses from the sector

It’s now been four months since the sports toolkit was first launched, and the Carbon Literacy team have seen a positive response from across the industry. 51 clubs, organisations and governing bodies now have access to the toolkit, and open training is being run by BASIS and Teaching Live every month.

“Awareness of sustainability has massively grown in the past decade,” says Bullen. “And the reception to the toolkit has been tremendous.”

Participants in the course from across the sector have particularly appreciated the focus on action and the accessible approach to the science.

“People have liked how the toolkit is helping shift culture,” says Bullen. “They appreciate the action aspects of the course, and the way the climate science is put across.”

Bullen also believes that the focus on taking action chimes with wider values in sport, like achievement, responsibility, and performance. “The values that are imparted in carbon literacy training are reinforcing the exact culture that you want to create in a professional sporting environment,” he says. “The training looks at an issue and makes you empowered to take responsibility and deal with a challenge.”

For sports organisations, taking part in training can also help to reduce ‘eco-anxiety’ and empower people, which in turn can help people to perform better.

“It creates a positive, problem-solving culture, and gives people autonomy and independence to do something with their skills and knowledge,” Bullen says. “In the context of performance in sport, it’s one less thing that’s playing on your performer’s mind.”

Future plans

Now that the momentum behind the toolkit is growing, it’s receiving worldwide attention. The CLP team have had interest from sports organisations across Europe as well as further afield, including from Australia, Brazil, the Caribbean, and India.

In the coming months, the team hope to develop the toolkit into a resource that will serve the international sports community, working with partners across the world including organisations in the US and Canada.

The toolkit will be updated for the first time in October, and an e-learning version of the toolkit is also in development.

The team hope that the toolkit will be a key element of the sports industry’s journey towards becoming environmentally sustainable.

“We’re on the ticking clock of the warming planet,” says Bullen. “I think sport could be the catalyst that the sustainability movement has needed. Now awareness is taking hold, sport could really be the thing that drives sustainability to where it needs to be.”

Carbon reduction and environmental sustainability are vital parts of the GSS seven Sustainable Pillars of Sport. As sports organisations across the world develop their sustainability strategies, initiatives like the Carbon Literacy Project’s sports toolkit will play an important role in making sure that the sport industry can live up to its transformative potential.

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    Read moreBethany White