Is criticism of carbon offsetting in sport misplaced?

June 06 2024

Carbon offsetting schemes often come with a level of stigma attached to them. Some agree that offsetting unavoidable emissions is a key part of a sustainability strategy, while others feel it gives major organisations a free pass to pollute at will. However, with few alternatives for unavoidable emissions, is supporting such schemes the best option for sports organisations?

Is criticism of carbon offsetting in sport misplaced?

There is rightly a debate around the topic of carbon offsetting and whether the sports industry needs to find an alternative. This was highlighted during Global Sustainable Sport’s recent feature on sport’s reliance on the practice.

Carbon offsets fund specific projects that help to lower CO2 emissions, or sequester CO2, meaning that these projects take some of the CO2 out of the atmosphere and store it. 

The most common examples of carbon offsetting projects include reforestation, building renewable energy, carbon-storing agricultural practices, and waste and landfill management. However, the most popular are usually reforestation projects.

Companies in any industry, including sport, can then support these projects to help ‘reduce’ their own carbon footprint, by removing carbon from elsewhere.

While there is a stigma around carbon offsets and carbon credits, they can be useful when it is difficult to reduce in the first instance – for example, where fan travel is concerned. Many fans can, of course, arrive by low-carbon means like public transport, walking or cycling, but if the sporting event is an international competition, there will still be fans flying in from all over the world. 

An example of promoting carbon offsetting to fans is the New Zealand SailGP Team – also known as the Black Foils – which recently worked with CarbonClick, an Auckland-headquartered company that works with high-quality carbon offsetting projects.

While the two have worked together for a while, the most recent New Zealand Sail Grand Prix in Christchurch, in March, saw fans able to offset their travel to the event thanks to the partnership.

For this particular event, fans were able to offset their travel by supporting the Banks Peninsula Forest Forests projects, an area of land that has been retired from grazing and is currently being reverted back to native forest.

“Sometimes travel cannot be avoided in sport, with spectators and so on. Fan travel usually accounts for at least three-quarters of the emissions for an event, and the biggest issue is getting the data – who has offset, who arrived sustainably, who didn’t, who flew, who took a train,” explains Kat Peter, Head of Carbon at CarbonClick to Global Sustainable Sport.

CarbonClick was founded about six years ago, originally to support the aviation industry, and introduced tools such as the business calculator. The event calculator grew out of this and, with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, CarbonClick pivoted into other sectors. This included sports and events, but still with a focus on travel too.

“The business was trying to look at industries that had a potential high impact, in both ways. In sport, there is a lot of travel involved, as well as the set-up of the live events, but there is a big community attached to it that can help to generate a positive impact,” says Peter.

Selecting projects to support

CarbonClick thoroughly researches projects before choosing to support them, building on notable frameworks including the Carbon Offset Guide, Core Carbon Principles, Carbon Market Watch’s CORSIA carbon offset provider assessment report, ICROA best practice, and the Oxford Offsetting Principles. These sources are often considered as the industry benchmark for carbon offsetting methodologies.

All projects feature on the ICROA (International Carbon Reduction and Offset Alliance) registry. The industry trade group was established in 2008 and features best practices around carbon offsetting, with members having to produce an annual report demonstrating their adherence to this code.

CarbonClick has created its own seven point impact check, evaluating each project against seven key criteria: additionality, accuracy (over-crediting), permanence, perverse incentives, double counting, positive community impact, and monitoring and evaluation.

Additionally, Peter explains that sometimes a company may request a specific type of project to support as part of its carbon offset programme. This will see Peter and the team create a shortlist of options, testing them against certain criteria, conducting background checks on the developer and more.

Then, the additionality test will check to see if the project relies on carbon finance, or if it would be supported by other means. This is followed by a deep dive into the accuracy of carbon accounting: What do the project’s reports look like? Is it consistent? How are they addressed? The number of UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) the project supports is also assessed; CarbonClick requires a minimum of three, preferably more.

The right to pollute?

Last week, organisers of the 2023 Rugby World Cup in France revealed that the tournament had produced 830,000 tonnes of CO2e.

Some 86% of this footprint was attributed to international visitors’ travel from outside France.

The majority of the event’s environmental impact was mitigated by relying on existing facilities, and promoting the use of public transport and low-carbon mobility. Organisers then revealed that its carbon absorption programme would take a shared responsibility approach regarding scope 3 emissions.

Elsewhere, international football governing body FIFA reported that the 2022 World Cup in Qatar had a footprint of 3.6 million tonnes CO2e. Organisers originally said that this would be offset by several initiatives, including offsetting every ticket-holder’s flight emissions and more.

However, last year the Swiss Fairness Commission (SLK) upheld a complaint from the United Kingdom, Switzerland, France, Belgium and the Netherlands, which challenged FIFA’s claim of 2022 being the first ‘fully carbon-neutral World Cup’.

The complaint was upheld due to an underestimation of emissions and a lack of credibility in its offsets.

So, it is understandable that there can be some negativity associated with carbon offsetting.

“I agree that there is a stigma around [offsetting] and obviously we are aware of greenwashing for companies just buying carbon offsets, and giving them to the right to pollute,” says Peter.

“Our stance is that we say carbon offsetting is one tool in your toolbox that you have available, but the first and foremost action should be to reduce.

“You should look at all your scopes and reduce where you can, and then offset any residual emissions that you cannot reduce at the moment. And yes, we do believe that posting carbon offsets is the best available option for us at the moment, until for example, we have access to sustainable aviation fuel, or until your whole supply chain can be carbon neutral, which will take a lot time and a lot of work from all the stakeholders involved.”

Peter adds: “For the moment, we do think reduction first and then offset what you cannot reduce, but then keep working, keep striving to take that yearly offset, or whichever timeframe, to get that lower and lower over time.”

So, how can sport effectively utilise carbon offset at a time that it might not be possible to reduce impact in every area?

Peter explains that SailGP was treated almost like a “trial run”, engaging with guests at the event to offset their travel to the events. But perhaps, Peter ponders, should this offset token be included in the price of a ticket for a sporting event?

“When you purchase a ticket online, there’s a bit of customer hesitation to then take another step, and type in how they plan on getting to the event,” she says.

“My take on this, and this is just as an opinion, but I would include a small amount in the ticket price, nothing that world hurt anyone too much, for example £2 or $2. Collect this money and then contribute to the highest impact carbon offsets, with high quality removals.”

However, Peter maintains that there may still be inaccuracy in some data, as collecting information on travel from 60,000 fans going to a football match can be tricky. Ultimately, by including a donation within the ticket price this would also help to raise awareness, offer the chance to educate around sustainability, and support worthwhile causes and initiatives.

It is clear that while there are some negatives associated with carbon offsetting, particularly with transparency and its perception, the practice can be used positively as part of strategy that aims to reduce impact first.

Images: Pixabay

SailGP Image: Chloe Knott for SailGP

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