Lahti and Finland highlight the need to “Act Now” to create a “Sustainable Future for Winter Sports” but not everyone is on board

March 31 2023

Nordic sport, particularly cross-country skiing, is “in the heart of every Finn”, and Lahti, Finland, has been the home of Nordic Skiing for over 100 years. To mark the occasion of the centenary of the Lahti Ski Games, locally known the Salpausselkä Games, the city and local hosts organised a conference on 23rd March. Over the course of the day, discussions highlighted the need to ‘act now’ to create a sustainable suture for winter sports —and the world.

Lahti and Finland highlight the need to “Act Now” to create a “Sustainable Future for Winter Sports” but not everyone is on board

A long history of winter sport in Lahti

The region of Lahti benefits from a unique set of geological features, and Lahti’s sport stadium has been in the making for over 12,000 years. Pictures from the early 1920s and 1930s show thousands of people lining the course to cheer on their Finnish heroes as they take on the might of Norway and other winter countries.

Over the years Lahti has been host to the Nordic Ski World Championships seven times, most recently in 2017, and is bidding for a record eighth time in 2029. In the historic pictures of the Lahti Ski Games, thousands of spectators are wrapped up warmly against the snow-laden backdrop, and 2017 was no different, as 280,000 spectators braved snowy conditions.

The theme of this year’s conference was the “Sustainable Future of Winter Sports – The Next Hundred Years”. Given the noticeable lack of snow around Lahti during the event, as in so many of the winter sports countries, this proved to be a very urgent issue. In the city of Lahti and the surrounding areas the cross-country temperatures fluctuated above zero, melting any snow that had gathered in previous weeks.


Sport, Skiing and Sustainability – The three core pillars of Lahti sport

Opening the conference was the Mayor of Lahti, Pekka Timonen. The mayor emphasised that Lahti has three major focuses: Sport, Nordic Skiing, and Sustainability. The city has built its history around the Lahti Games and around winter sports, but it is also a city that embraces change and appreciates the need to think and act more sustainably. In 2021 Lahti was the European Green Capital and had already cut its carbon emissions by 72% with a target to become carbon neutral by 2025.

By 2022 Lahti had already removed any reliance on fossil fuels and had reduced landfill waste almost to zero. A 99% recycling rate puts Lahti in the top 100 European Cities for sustainability.

Lahti is also developing an academic hub focused on sustainability and has established one of the most recently formed universities, the university of LUT, which has won awards for its work in sustainability. The local ice hockey team, the Lahti Pelicans, is one of the first teams to become climate neutral in Finland, possibly even in Europe.

The mayor was keen to emphasise that, while there was no time to waste, it would be important to take one idea at a time and create a more sustainable future for winter sports and for Lahti and Finland.


The Lahti Ski Games – “Act now” means now


The Lahti Ski Games has witnessed a lot of changes in winter sports over the last 100 years, and Jaana Helminen had one clear message for the delegates at the conference: “Act Now” before it is too late.

Helminen emphasised the need to make actions visible and to take bold steps. For her, sustainability is about the well-being of people and society and respecting and protecting the environment with associated actions.

For the Lahti Ski Games this means engaging the community, supporting initiatives, and communicating those actions. The Ski Games provides over 20,000 free tickets to school children to get them engaged in the Games and to encourage them to take up sport.

On the environmental side, the focus is on reducing emissions and investing in carbon sinks. The Games promotes environmentally friendly transport with free bus travel included with every ticket and teams transported by eco-friendly bus.

The Lahti Games is the eco-lighthouse for Finland, promoting sustainability in all aspects of its operations and activities. Judging by the lack of snow in Lahti during the conference, the need to “act now” really does mean now.


Finland – The happiest country in the world, and aiming to be the most sustainable as well


Finland has been voted the happiest country on the planet for five straight years by the World Happiness Report—but, as State Secretary for the Ministry of Education and Culture Tuomo Puumala points out, you might not quite believe that if you went down to some of the markets in Helsinki. In fact, for many years Lahti had the reputation for being one of the grumpiest cities in Finland—but no more.

According to the World Happiness Report, ‘the true measure of progress is the happiness of the people’. When it comes to Finland, the report argues that:

“Finland, as well as the other Nordic countries, has worked to create a society that possesses an infrastructure of happiness. Social systems in Finland and the rest of the Nordics support democratic governance and human rights, not to mention education and healthcare that are free or charge only very nominal fees.

People in Finland and elsewhere understand that contentment and satisfaction don’t just occur. You have to construct and maintain the culture and the social institutions that form the basis and framework for individuals and communities to build their happiness. While Finland has a multiparty system with room for numerous different platforms, you can still describe happiness as one of the overall policy goals.”

The Minister of Education and Culture noted that the hosting of major sporting events was a key focus for Finland. The country has recently developed a 10-year strategy, planned to 2033, to attract major sporting events to the country to support diversification and generate growth.

By 2019 it was estimated that Finland had benefitted to the tune of €2.35 billion from the hosting of major sporting events. Alongside the significant economic benefits were some tangible social benefits: sport has helped to bring communities together and improve social cohesion, and events have played a valuable role in growing skill sets and driving education, training, and investment in infrastructure.

Statista estimates that sport tourism will be worth an estimated €30billion globally by 2030. The minister was keen to emphasise that sport would be measured across three core pillars – social, economic and civil – with a core focus on exercise, health, well-being, and equality and accessibility for all.

In 2017 the Finnish government, along with the City of Lahti, engaged an English media company to undertake a broad and in-depth impact study on the Nordic Ski World Championships, hosted in Lahti. The report, which showed the broader benefits of hosting the world championships, provided a template for the Finnish government which now engages the School of Business at Jamk University of Applied Sciences to conduct broad impact assessments for all major sporting events hosted in Finland. All events in Finland will now have to meet a certain level of sustainability criteria and this will be closely monitored by the Finnish Government.


The Future of the Winter Olympics is threatened if we continue with current GHG emissions



The last Winter Olympics in Beijing highlighted the challenges facing the future of winter sports. Ville Uusitalo, Associate Professor from LUT University in Lahti, highlighted the fact that if the planet continues with the current level of GHG emissions, only one past winter Olympic venue out of twenty-one would be able to host a winter Olympics reliably by 2080.

Uusitalo also highlighted how 73% of GHG emissions come from energy, predominantly from fossil fuels. Sport contributes through use of fossil fuels and through spectators’ mobility. The UN has encouraged sports organisations to reduce their climate impacts by 50% by 2030 and be carbon neutral by 2040.

One of sports organisation that responded to that call from the UN was Lahti’s local ice hockey team, the Pelicans. In the 2018-2019 season their carbon footprint was calculated to be 6 500 tCO2e, 63% of which was spectators’ mobility.

By ending the usage of coal, avoiding flying and using renewable fuels in buses they were able to reduce their emissions by over 50% and developed a compensation programme to offset the rest. Uusitalo highlighted that, whilst the compensation scheme helped to offset emissions, there were many uncertainties linked to these compensation programmes.

Throughout his presentation Uusitalo highlighted the need for better data on environmental impacts. Crucially, better reporting and communication are needed, and sports and athletes must act as role models and lead by example.


Sports needs to know where it is going, how to get there and when it has arrived: the urgent need for a meaningful sports framework


This lead nicely to a presentation by Mike Laflin from Global Sustainable Sport (GSS), whose presentation focused on the seven “Sustainable Pillars of Sport”. The pillars provide a framework to help sports understand what they should be focusing on and providing them with a benchmark that they can report against, helping them show the true value of their sustainable activities.

Laflin showed the urgent need to address all aspects of sustainability. Sustainability is poorly defined, and sport has a unique ability to impact society in ways that other sectors can’t, particularly in the area of getting people active and promoting sustainability through media platforms, engaging fans and athletes to think more sustainably.

Traditionally sport has focused on economic impact and media coverage, but increasingly sport organisations are looking at their social and environmental impacts, both positive and negative. Some organisations, including UEFA, International Biathlon Union and Borussia Dortmund, are producing their own sustainability reports, but as there is no defined standard for sports sustainability these reports are all different and cannot be compared. It is like having a basket of apples, oranges, pears and coconuts!

GSS has developed a framework which is used to assess the sustainability activities of a sports organisation, allowing each organisation to be compared. This framework is called the “Sustainable Pillars of Sport” and currently focuses on seven pillars:

  • Partnerships
  • Participation
  • People
  • Planet
  • Power
  • Profile
  • Prosperity

GSS have identified over 900 companies who are actively pursuing some form of sustainability programme in one of the Sustainable Pillars.

GSS aims to provide a framework to help organisations understand where they are on their sustainability journey and to give them a reference point so that they can map their steps towards a more sustainable future.


We need 1.7 Planets to sustain our current living style


According to Sebastian Lancestremere, Sports Managing Director of the Global Sports Innovation Centre, 1.7 planet earths are required to maintain existing rates of consumption and pollution, a clear indication that the world is living well beyond its means and destroying the natural world that with live in.

Microsoft itself has targeted to be carbon negative by 2030 and sees technology and innovation as a key tool in helping the world to embrace change and to reduce emissions and focus on a more circular economy.


“The power of sports could and should be used to solve the sustainability challenges of our time!”


As Global Sustainable Sport’s Stakeholder Pyramid shows, there are over 200,000 business that supply services to sports organisations and events globally, and it is just as important for them to have a focus on sustainability as the sports organisations themselves.

FIBS, the largest CR network in the Nordic Countries and the leading promoter of sustainability in Finland, has over 417 members, 78% of which are companies. Kimmo J. Lipponen, CEO of FIBS, presented some stark warnings to sport.

He argued that, whilst we thought that the Covid-19 crisis was bad, economic recession, climate change, the collapse of biodiversity and the escalating war in Ukraine is creating larger and larger tidal waves of impact on society and our planet.

According to Lipponen, the priorities of businesses are changing and focusing more on environmental and social issues. According to a study by the Nordic Board in 2021, ‘sustainablity will be the number one strategic focus area for Nordic Boards in 2021-2022.’

There is a move within Finnish organisations to move from “minimizing harm to maximising impact”, driven by legal requirements, stakeholders’ demands, and the need to want to better. There is an increasing amount of legislation that requires companies to be more sustainable, and a strong move away from EBITDA and ROI and more towards impact and materiality.

Lipponen emphasised the importance of ‘measurement’, supporting Laflin’s previous presentation that sport needs its own framework, and that measuring impact was essential for organisations to move forward. Lipponen identified that too many companies were focused on their old ways, and the ‘old days’ and were faced with complex and confusing demands that held them back, as if by gravity. To move forward, he emphasised to “defying gravity” and a focus on purpose, impact and acting responsibly. He finished with a focus back on sport:

“The power of sports could and should be used to solve the sustainability challenges of our time!”


The Lake Placid example: Sustainability is as much about economics as it is about society and environment


Lake Placid last hosted the Winter Olympics in 2002 and is planning a future bid. In the last twenty years it has hosted over 1,000 major sporting events and generated over $3 billion in economic impact and $2.5 billion in global media value.

Jeff Robbins, who heads up the Utah Sports Commission, says this a great testimony to the sustainability plan that was put into place in 2000. The plan  enabled Utah not only to broaden its sporting footprint but to generate a lasting legacy for the region.

Alongside the economic and media legacy of the 2002 Games there was a 38.7% increase in youth and amateur sport and 30.7% growth in the national governing bodies in the region.

Given the claim by Ville Uusitalo that Utah would be one of twenty past Olympic hosts that would struggle to host a Winter Olympics by 2080, it is surprising that Robbins’ presentation didn’t address the climate issue. As most of Europe face the impacts of climate change, and given that there are very few bids for 2030, climate is becoming a big issue for the Winter Olympics.


Winter sports need clear leaders in the fight against climate change


Niklas Kaskeala, Founder & Ambassador for Protect Our Winters Finland, further highlighted the coming challenges for winter sports. Kaskeala presented a slide that showed that most of southern and middle Finland was seeing significantly less snow cover in the 2020s, and by the 2050s would see almost no snow cover. By the 2080s, only a small area of the north of Finland would see any snow at all.

Protect our Winters is very much about engaging the global snowsports community. While in the past the main activists were in the snowboarding community, this has now spread to include the elite alpine athletes who are seeing the impact that climate change is having on their sport, particularly in early and late season.

A recent letter to FIS, signed by over 500 athletes with the support of their sponsors, requested that the federation commit to net-zero for all FIS operations by 2035. FIS currently has no visible sustainability strategy and the athletes want to see how it is going to reduce its emissions by 2030, as committed to by its membership of the UN Sports for Climate Action framework. The athletes also want to see a sustainability department established along with a published strategy by 2024 with certification by an independent external organisation.

Winter sports need clear leaders in the fight against climate change and POW is certainly one of those


European Football “Driving Change together”


Moving away from winter sports, Michele Uva, the Head of Sustainability for UEFA, explained how football is embracing the urgent need for a more sustainable future and presented their sustainability strategy to 2030, with the strapline “We Care about Football”.

Sustainability is clearly at the core of everything that UEFA is now doing and focuses on key elements like risk, efficiencies, differentiation, innovation, growth, valuation, talent, compliance and resilience.

According to UEFA’s research, over 70% of European football fans think UEFA has an important role to play in sustainability and clearly this view will spread to its commercial partners as well.

UEFA now requires its 55 members and 519 clubs to have a sustainability manager in place by the end of the current football season and a sustainability policy in place by the end of the 2023/24 season. Some of the issues raised recently, such as English clubs taking 81 domestic flights to travel to 100 games, demonstrate some of the challenges UEFA faces in getting all of its members to drive the climate change agenda together.


IBU a true “leader in promoting sustainability in sport”


The International Biathlon Union has been one of the real leaders in the sporting sustainability space, driven by their Head of Sustainability, Riikka Rakic, who comes from Lahti and co-hosted the conference with Mikko Saarinen, her business partner.

Rakic presented her Target 26 plan which focuses on the IBU family “moving together” under five core headings:

  • Empowering our federations
  • Enhancing our events
  • Extending our reach
  • Upgrading our governance
  • Innovating our future

Embedded within this strategy is IBU’s aim to be “a leader in promoting sustainability in sport”, with a target of reducing the sport’s carbon footprint by 50% and becoming climate neutral by 2030. This is built on three core principles of integrity, governance and sustainability.

IBU is possibly one of the most transparent federations when it comes to sustainability. All their reports and strategies are published on their website, including their UN Sports for Climate Action report.

Rakic highlighted a whole range of activities and outcomes they have achieved in the last few years, with athlete-led teams of fans planting 150,000 trees through exercise earned by 13,000 fans. As well as a being a signatory to the UNFCCC and the Race to Zero IBU have entered into a number of strategic collaborations, one focused on energy efficiency and decarbonization and another on sustainable mobility.

IBU have teamed up with other federations like ITF (Tennis), World Sailing and UCI (Cycling) to form the Circular Carbon Alliance and with World Athletics and IFF (Floorball) to form Games – Decarbonization. Recently the IBU joined three national federations, two snow specialists and the Sustainable Mountain Alliance to form Sieppur Sustainable Snow Management, focusing on improving the way snow is maintained in the mountains.

IBU has certainly established itself as one of the leading federations in sustainability and its engagement with its fellow IFs is showing the way that sport needs to come together to really make a difference in sustainability.


The EU supporting and driving the move to a more sustainable Europe


Heidi Pekkola, the Deputy Director of the EOC EU Office highlighted the need for sport to focus on its responsibilities, particularly in the areas of:

  • Governance
  • Integrity
  • Environmental Sustainability

Pekkola focused on the environmental sustainability aspect of the EOC’s work and presented the European Green Deal. The Green Deal has an important relevance for sport as it focuses on legislation and policies that may impact on the industry whilst at the same time offering funding, innovation and partnerships for sports organisations.

The European Green Deal also has wider implications for sport affecting areas like infrastructure, offices, events, transport, travel, suppliers and sponsors. The Deal focuses on areas like European climate law, EU biodiversity, circular economy, corporate sustainability and reporting, and its “Fit for 55 Package”, which is a package of climate related policies and legislation.

The EU provide a wide range of funding programmes to help organisations adopt these new frameworks and policies including its Erasmus+ Sport, Horizon Europe, Life and various other funding vehicles.

Sports organisations based in Europe will be faced with increasing legislation to ensure that they are compliant with the sustainability frameworks that the EU are adopting.


FIS and the need for a coherent policy



The final session of the “Sustainable Future of Winter Sports” conference was an interview with Johan Eliasch, president of the International Ski Federation (FIS), conducted by Riikka Rakic and Mikko Saarinen.

Given the recent athletes’ letter to FIS and Niklas Kaskeala’s earlier presentation, this was an excellent opportunity for Eliasch to address these concerns and to explain FIS’s sustainability strategy and plans for the future.

Eliasch clearly sees the need to protect the planet and to mitigate against climate change. He stated that ‘we all have a need to act responsibly’, and went on to explain that FIS had become the first climate positive federation through its offset programme and would adhere to the UNFCCC requirement for FIS to have reduced its carbon emissions by 50% by 2030. How this was going to be achieved by FIS was not made clear by Eliasch, despite enquiries from Rakic.

Eliasch went on to say that that there was an urgent need to do more, and that just trying to reduce emissions by 2030 was not enough. That is why FIS had taken the step to be climate positive now through its offset programme. Eliasch said that he was aware that in certain circles offsets were regarded as a ‘cop-out’ by the rich and that greenwashing had been poorly defined to date.

He went on to explain that the programme that he was developing at FIS would ensure the protection of vital forests, ensuring permanence and protection. While the meaning of his statement was initially unclear, he later explained, through questioning, that the FIS programme was not in fact a reforesting programme but a prevention of deforesting programme.

It is an interesting and different approach to that taken by many other organisations whose offset programmes focus on reforesting areas of land. To claim that by buying an area of land you are preventing de-forestation requires some proof that de-forestation was going to take place in the first place. Otherwise, you are simply not ‘offsetting’, just investing in land.

Eliasch talked at length about the need to review the FIS calendar and to focus on reducing travel, which creates the lion share of its emissions, and discussed investments in renewables, solar energy, fusion and hydrogen.

He also talked about the impact of global warming on the North Pole and the urgent need for good forms of snow farming and ‘green’ man-made snow. These discussions make it all the more curious why, with a president so clearly aware of the urgent need to address climate change, that FIS does not have a clear sustainability strategy, a dedicated sustainability team or a clear target for reducing their emissions by 2030.

Eliasch is clearly a very knowledgable president who has a clear understanding of the challenges facing winter sport but as a leader of sustainability he has some way to go.

Lessons for the future


The timing of the Lahti conference could not have been better. Lahti itself is facing significant climate issues, and the city, like the rest of Finland, is conscious of the urgent need to act now.

The conference shared some interesting learnings. Organisers and participants hope that it can act as a catalyst for change, and to encourage more sports organisations to think and act sustainably.

Let’s hope that, over next 100 years, the lessons learnt today can restore and repair the damage we have done to our planet and our society over the past century.

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