IBU embarks on a mission to become climate neutral to protect winter snow for generations to come

January 19 2023

According to analysis by Global Sustainable Sport, there are less than ten international sports federations that are truly driving the sustainability agenda with a clearly defined sustainability strategy. One of those that is leading the way is a winter Olympic federation, the International Biathlon Union (IBU).

IBU embarks on a mission to become climate neutral to protect winter snow for generations to come

The IBU’s sustainability journey officially began in October 2019 with the launch of the international federation’s seven-year strategic plan, Target 26, at the Extraordinary Congress. In September 2021, the federation approved its long-term strategic framework.

Sustainability is an underlying principle of the strategy. One of the three overall objectives for 2030 is to reduce the sport’s carbon footprint by 50% and to become climate neutral. Of the five main strategic areas, one of them, ‘Innovating our Future’, has set the vision of becoming the leader in sustainability in sport.

“We’re heavily dependent on snow for the long-term development and success of our sport. Taking the purely limited perspective of Biathlon, it’s an absolute business imperative for us to address the climate emergency,” Olle Dahlin, IBU President

Developing a sustainability strategy

With sustainability becoming enshrined in the organisation-wide strategy, in March 2020 the IBU brought on board one of the most experienced and well-respected practitioners in the international sports federations space, Riikka Rakic.

Prior to joining the IBU, she led the ISO 20121 certified sustainability program at the 2019 FIS Alpine World Ski Championships and advised candidates for the 2022 and 2024 Games on topics related to sustainability and legacy. From 2017- 2020, Riikka led a FIS project known as “Get into Snow Sports” designed to promote snow sports in China.

From the outset Rakic set out to develop a specific sustainability policy and strategy, in close cooperation with the senior management team, with responsibilities shared across the organisation.

“We were starting from scratch with a mandate from the entire membership, which is a great position to be in as a new hire – starting with a clean slate – but it also highlighted the challenge that lay ahead. The management were, and continue to be, very supportive, but a great deal must be done in a relatively short space of time. Climate change will not wait for the Biathlon family!” Riikka Rakic, IBU Head of Sustainability

The IBU’s Sustainability Strategy 2020-2030 contains 57 targets across five focus areas, namely Climate, Sport, People, Venue & Event, and Awareness & Communication as a cross-cutting theme. The purpose of this document, together with the policy, is to act as a driving force for sustainability until 2030, within the IBU itself, at its events, and across the global Biathlon family. Since its adoption in September 2020, it has guided several key initiatives, impressively ticking each of the seven GSS Sustainable Pillars of Sport.

IBU and its partnership programme

The IBU itself has nearly 30 staff members. Even if all the international technical delegates, referees and various contractors are included, its negative environmental impact as an organisation is relatively small. In 2022, the emissions calculation for the organisation was 804 tCO2e, with most of the emissions occurring from official travel to events. As a very early signatory of the United Nations Sport for Climate Action framework, the IBU has taken Principle 5 – Advocate for climate action through communication – to heart.

“It’s important that we have our own house in order, but what’s far more important, or impactful, is that we use our unique platform as an international governing body to act as an agent for change through partnerships with our various stakeholders. As the saying goes, no one can whistle a symphony, it takes an orchestra to play it,” Riikka Rakic, IBU Head of Sustainability

The IBU is one of a relatively small number of sport organisations that is also a signatory of the UN’s Race to Zero. It is also one of eleven founding organisations that makes up the Mountain Summit, a group of sports organisations led by the IOC and UNEP that are concerned with the current state of the world’s mountains and committed to protecting them. In addition, the IBU boasts sustainability collaborations with other international federations on the Carbon Fibre Circular Alliance, and the EU Erasmus+ supported ‘GAMES’ and ‘‘Sustainable Snow Management’ projects.

An area that the IBU has significant influence over is its major events. The IBU has worked together with its organising committees (OCs) that are on the competition schedule over the next four years, offering initiatives including workshops, checklists, and good practice case studies. It promotes and recognises exemplary work through an annual sustainability award. It also formed the IBU Snow Network Project with leading OCs to focus on one of the sport’s most material issues: snow management.

Development programme and participation

Development of the sport is one of the five overarching targets that the IBU has in its sights, as part of its main strategy. Biathlon is a sport that can be practiced across the globe, even in snow-free countries. As such, the IBU takes responsibility for developing the sport internationally and ensuring that the sport does not become over-dependent on its core markets for revenues.

To support this notion the IBU’s Development department is developing Biathlon for All, a grassroots participation programme, akin to a ‘give-it-a-go’ initiative. It provides its participants with the opportunity to enjoy the sport without the added ‘bang of a bullet-loaded rifle – the activity combines laser rifle shooting with various endurance sport activities.

To promote biathlon among children and youth, the IBU Regional Events Concept was launched in 2020, aiming to support National Federations to implement good quality international competitions for young athletes based on international cooperation. The programme strives to increase the activity and efficiency of NFs and clubs in promoting biathlon among this key target audience.

Given the health and environmental concerns connected to fluorine waxes – traditionally used by athletes to prepare their skis for competition – the IBU committed itself to a full fluor ban at all IBU events and to developing testing methods to ensure fluor-free competitions in the future. The ban, which partially came into force in 2021, requires written pledges by the NFs and their service partners and is controlled by spot checks on site.

Gender equality, education programme and ambassadors

Away from climate action, Biathlon is also a sport with very high standards when it comes to gender equality, especially at competition level. The IBU ensures equal quota places for men and women at major events and an equal amount of medal events for women and men throughout the World Cup and at major events like the World Championships and Olympic Games. Further to that, the IF is one of the few sport governing bodies that provides equal prize money to both genders.

Reflecting these competition commitments, in February 2021 the IBU Executive Board approved the IBU Gender Equality Policy and published  the IBU Gender Equality Strategy 2021-2026 the following month. Both documents look to bolster gender equality at all levels of the sport. In 2022, noteworthy initiatives representing an expression of these documents included a Mentorship programme and Gender Equality Forum.

Education is an equally important area for the IBU. The IBU Academy is developing a high-quality educational offer for coaches, athletes and NF and OC leadership, with reported growing uptake. A pilot coach education programme and e-learning platform, the IBU LearningSuite, was launched in 2022. In addition, several seminars and webinars on relevant topics, from nutrition to female specificity in training and youth and junior athlete preparation, have been conducted with many more on the horizon.

In June 2021, the IBU launched its new Athlete Ambassador programme. Some 18 biathletes from fifteen different countries have signed up to the programme to help raise awareness, educate, and support the aims of Biathlon in three key areas: Sustainability, Gender Equality, and Integrity. Partnering with Protect Our Winters (POW) Europe, the IBU organised virtual training sessions in 2021, which leveraged POW’s experience in equipping athletes to speak out on things that matter and involved intense facts and figures-based carbon literacy training. The Ambassadors have also been trained in effective communications and brand development.

“The IBU Academy’s vison is to provide internationally recognised opportunities for learning, discovery, and engagement to a diverse population of athletes, coaches, delegates, referees, and managers in a real-world setting. We’re focussed on serving this audience with education to join theory and practice, and research to develop ideas and projects. We also have a focus on developing dual careers to build job paths for our talented, professional, and elite athletes,” Dr. Dagmara Gerasimuk, IBU Development Director.

Environmental programme and Race to Zero

The IBU has embraced the ambitious targets of the UN’s Race to Zero campaign, committing to reduce the carbon footprint of the IBU as an organisation and its events by 50% from a 2019 baseline, and become climate neutral by 2030, climate positive by 2034, and achieve net zero by 2040. All targets are inclusive of scopes 1, 2 and 3.

An internal footprint calculation was done after the 2019/2020 season followed by the implementation of initial reduction measures, which led to the reduction in overall emissions by 25% in 2021, however noting the impact of Covid-19 related travel measures. Emissions from IBU events were then measured for the first time during the 2021/22 season, with the full results expected to be published in the forthcoming annual IBU sustainability report.

In 2020, for the first time, the candidates bidding to host the IBU World Championships 2024 and 2025 were required to outline their sustainability philosophy and plans for reducing the climate impact as part of their event concepts. Awarded in November 2020, Nove Mesto na Morave will host the 2024 event, and Lenzerheide the 2025 edition.

In recognition of its overall attempts to accelerate effective climate action in sport, the IBU were among a group of IFs to be awarded the IOC DOW Carbon Action Award in 2020. On receiving the award, Riikka Rakic explained,

“It was the perfect culmination to the intense effort we’d put in to collecting the necessary data to calculate our emissions. Not only that but, as a recipient of the award, the IBU’s reported emissions for 2021 were offset by Dow through projects that comply with the standards approved by the International Carbon Reduction and Offset Alliance.” Riikka Rakic, IBU Head of Sustainability

Sustainable governance

Sustainability at the IBU, as it relates to governance, is a fairly straightforward concept: The IBU Head of Sustainability, Riikka Rakic, reports directly to the General Secretary, Max Cobb. Rakic is a member of the Management Team, alongside the other heads of department, which supports Cobb in the strategic and administrative decision-making across the organisation.

“Sustainability is an issue that cuts across all areas of the IBU, as it should be for any organisation,” Max Cobb, IBU General Secretary
“For a truly meaningful impact to be delivered, it’s important that the sustainability strategy, and related initiatives, can be shared across the organisation with responsibilities taken on by staff in various departments. Structurally, we’re set-up in this way at the IBU to ensure this concept is a reality.”

To help the development of its sustainability strategy, a Sustainability Expert Reference Group (ERG) was set up, comprising external professionals and thought leaders from various fields and areas of expertise. This group has helped ensure that the IBU’s sustainability strategy is complemented – and challenged – by diverse perspectives through external consultation.

One of the areas that the ERG provides input on is the IBU’s annual report. The IBU published its first sustainability report in 2022, highlighting activities and describing progress on targets during the 2021/22 season. It opted to use, and reference, the Global Reporting Initiative Standards as a reporting framework, and mapped each target against the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

As yet another indication of how fast things have been moving at the IBU, a new IBU Sustainability Commission was approved for establishment by the IBU Executive Board in November 2022. In terms of climate targets, the NFs are viewed as independent entities, separate from the IBU. However, the establishment of this Commission aims to ensure that the NFs can identify and work together on a common framework – including defining regulations and recommendations – that supports everyone towards reaching the IBU’s and NFs’ joint sustainability objectives.

Promoting sustainability through IBU programmes

In 2020 and 2021, the IBU fronted a campaign to plant 150,000 trees on behalf of the sport. The inaugural ‘Biathlon Climate Challenge’ was launched on Earth Day 2021 and reached its goal of 100,000 trees to be planted after 25 days. The second Challenge ran in August 2022, co-sponsored by the IBU’s Climate Partner Viessmann. More than 14,000 fans joined one of the different teams – all led by biathlon stars – as they turned their physical activity into an opportunity to give back to the environment. The trees in 2021 were planted in Madagascar by charity partner Eden Reforestation Projects and in 2022, in Uganda by TIST.

In late 2021, reaching out once again to an important stakeholder group, the IBU ran an Athlete Sustainability Survey to better understand its athletes’ attitudes and expectations towards climate change, and receive suggestions to further the sustainability work of the IBU and IBU event organisers. As a sure indication of their feelings towards the issue, 94% of athletes expressed their concern about climate change and a large majority (81%) have already made changes to their lifestyle.

To amplify the chances to make a difference within and through the Nordic snow sports industry, the IBU continually seeks to use its profile to identify cooperation opportunities with its industry stakeholders, from suppliers to sponsors and marketing and media partners. As an initial step, the IBU introduced a code of conduct for its suppliers and included a sustainability appendix in all equipment partner contracts for the 2022-2026 Olympic term, outlining areas for mutual efforts.

Commenting on this dialogue with partners, Rakic explained,

“Global problems require global solutions, and the climate crisis is a prime example of such a challenge. We have engaged with our industry stakeholders, through such initiatives as a round table discussion with the equipment partners, to find areas of cooperation to make biathlon more sustainable. I am hopeful that 2023 will bear the fruit of these labours, and we will be able to report on some really inspiring developments in the not too distant future.” Riikka Rakic, IBU Head of Sustainability

The IBU is one of the few international federations that has a dedicated sustainability section on its website, which is accessible through its “Inside IBU” section. It regularly publishes sustainability articles through the ‘Press Release’ section of its news service. and it actively promotes sustainability to its athletes and its fans.

Funding and financial support

Objective 2 of the IBU’s overarching strategy, Target 26, is to “Establish a more effective system of financial support for all member associations.” As such, the IBU has introduced a revamped financial support system starting with the current financial year. The new system also includes specific allocation for funding projects that are focused on developing and promoting sustainability and gender equality. As reported on the IBU’s website, the total amount of NF financial support has been increased by 27% for the financial year 2022/2023, compared with the previous year.

The IBU looks to incentivise sustainability among its Organising Committees by providing a financial reward to OCs that have implemented impactful and replicable sustainability and climate actions during the previous season. It’s Award for Excellence in Sustainability provides cheques amounting to €10,000 and €5,000, to two OCs each year, depending on the size of the event.

A great start but much more to do and it needs to be done now

All evidence suggests that winters like the one that Europe is currently experiencing in 2023 are likely to become the norm.

The IBU has made a significant commitment to sustainability since the arrival of Rakic in 2020, and its progress has been nothing short of impressive.

The IBU’s commitment to sustainability not only helps protect the environment, but also serves as a role model for other sports organisations. Yet Rakic and her colleagues at the IBU – all of whom are currently seeing more brown than white on the slopes – will almost certainly not be hanging around to admire their exceptional efforts. The current state of Europe tells them there is a lot more work to be done and it needs to be done now.

To keep up to date with the IBU’s most recent activities and progress, look out for the second annual sustainability report, which is due to be published in mid-February.

Read moreAuthor: Daniel Cade, Responsible Sport

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