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Sport Positive Summit 2023: The industry reaches a tipping point

October 12 2023

The global sport sustainability community gathered in London last week for the fourth edition of the Sport Positive Summit, held in collaboration with UNFCCC and the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

As a record number of attendees came together and the urgency of the climate crisis grows, what were some key takeaways for the industry?

Image credit: Sport Positive Summit 2023/Capturise

Image credit: Sport Positive Summit 2023/Capturise

Sport Positive

 The Sport Positive Summit is a two-day event that brings people from across the global sport industry together to discuss progress towards climate action. The Summit focuses on supporting the sports community as it acts on the climate, providing talks, discussions, and opportunities to network.

Now in its fourth year, this year’s Summit featured over 75 speakers from over 30 countries and saw 520 participants attend in-person at London’s Kia Oval, along with over 100 participants joining online.

The Summit emerged after the launch of the UNFCCC’s Sport for Climate Action Framework in 2018, and is run as a collaboration between Sport Positive, the UNFCCC, and the IOC.

When Claire Poole, CEO and Founder of Sport Positive, began working in the sport sustainability field a decade ago, she saw the need for an international summit to bring stakeholders together and support them to find solutions to the common issues they were facing.

‘The mission of Sport Positive is to increase action and ambition on climate change through sport,’ says Poole. ‘I quickly found out there was great stuff happening, and had been happening for a long time, but what was missing was the cross-pollination.’

The 2023 edition

This year’s event continued the Summit’s focus on connecting, collaborating, and sharing ideas.

Panels and discussions on day one covered topics including circular economy, environmental justice, biodiversity, sustainable operations, and getting clarity on scope 3 emissions. Day two featured talks on commercialising impact, influencing fans, sustainable procurement, systems change, and education.

Keynote speeches included a talk from Ed Hawkins MBE, Professor of Climate Science at University of Reading, who focused on starting climate conversations through sport, and presentations on Paris 2024 and sustainability at this summer’s FIFA Women’s World Cup.

The Summit also included time for special sessions that open debate to the floor and encourage the all-important ‘cross-pollination’. On the morning of the second day, a session of discussion roundtables let participants connect more informally, on topics including how to get started, athlete engagement, innovation, sponsorship, transport, operations, and collecting data.

This open approach is key to the ethos of the Sport Positive summits.

‘We have a special industry and community where people are very collaborative,’ says Poole. ‘We want to bring in different perspectives and open up discussions to show that, actually, everyone has not that dissimilar challenges.’

Another fundamental element of the Summit is connecting people from a wide range of roles and backgrounds.

‘We bring together rightsholders, NGOs, academics, scientists, athletes, UN bodies, governments, and journalists,’ says Poole. ‘It’s not an echo chamber—we try and make it as constructive as possible.’

Image credit: Sport Positive Summit 2023/Capturise

Image credit: Sport Positive Summit 2023/Capturise

Tipping points, talking points and getting down to detail

So what were some of the big issues on the table this year?

‘Every year we sort of reach a different tipping point,’ says Poole. ‘I think the tipping point this year is that we’ve reached a point where the sponsorship conversation, the role sport can play, and transparency around it is much more open.’

This emphasis on sponsorship as a pressing issue was reflected in the Summit’s annual debate, when over 80% of audience members agreed that sport should disengage from fossil fuel sponsorship.

Reflecting on the Summit, other attendees agreed, arguing that fossil fuel sponsorship in the industry is ‘quickly becoming taboo’, and that we need to end the ‘whataboutism’ that allows sports organisations to continue to accept funding from fossil fuel extractors.

Another topic on the table was the need to translate ambitions into action, particularly when it comes to reducing emissions.

Reflecting on the summit, Diana Dehm, Americas Business Development Director at BSI, argued that ‘we need to make carbon reduction the number one priority.’

Others argued that, while beginning conversations is positive, we need to make sure that we’re translating it into measuring and reporting on emissions.

‘I think we all recognise there is a long way to go and there are some difficult questions starting to arise,’ said Joanna Czutkowna, CEO at 5THREAD and doctoral researcher in circular economy. ‘Sponsorship partners, scope 3 measurements, how to measure growth, commercial revenue vs sustainability… but I’m glad these are being discussed and debated head on.’

Building this point, Poole reflected that more and more people in the industry are seeking out detailed, nuts-and-bolts discussions on topics like procurement and measuring scope 3 emissions.

‘For people, scope 3 and net zero is still not clear, and that’s why it’s still a popular topic,’ she says.

Procurement, the supply chain, and engaging with suppliers were also popular topics. During the procurement panel, the audience submitted over forty questions for discussion.

‘I think to me that’s indicative that some of the issues that you don’t think are the sexiest are actually where people really want the information,’ Poole says. ‘There are the bigger, macro topics, but as more and more organisations get around to this work, you need that more granular detail as well.’

Image credit: Sport Positive Summit 2023/Capturise

Image credit: Sport Positive Summit 2023/Capturise

Engaging more widely

These recurring themes point to the bigger conversation to emerge from this year’s Summit: whether the industry is too focused on celebrating its progress when it should be taking faster, firmer action.

Sèan McCabe, Head of Climate Justice and Sustainability at Bohemian FC, reflected after the conference that ‘the window of opportunity to realise sport’s enormous transformative potential is narrow, and I fear we’re about to miss it.’

In its reflections on the Summit, The Sustainability Report argued that ‘many are convinced that we’re already doing enough’, but that there is also a ‘palpable tension’ and ‘frustration’ that bolder change hasn’t happened yet.

The line between celebrating progress, but not becoming complacent, is a fine one, and Poole has thought carefully on how to strike the right balance.

‘Something we also need to get around is how we can continue to support and bring along sports organisations, and ensure that they still feel hope and that we can still make change, but also make sure that we have that urgency,’ she says. ‘The climate crisis is deepening, and we haven’t got time—we have to keep really pushing that urgency and doing more, without polarising people.’

The fact that this year’s Summit has prompted frank discussions on this is perhaps a good sign that the industry is ready to push back against greenwashing and take actions that have a hard impact—including rejecting sponsorship from fossil fuel companies and putting decarbonisation strategies into practice.

Other topics, like offsetting and how to square commercial and environmental sustainability, will also need to be addressed head-on.

The Summit’s partnership with the UNFCCC and its Sports for Climate Action framework is a helpful reference point for this, and a way for organisations to keep their work tied to clear targets.

‘We need to make sure that there is this general ethos and thinking and feeling of, we can’t just be pleased with that,’ Poole says.

One good sign is the growing reach of the Sport Positive Summit.

‘Three to five years ago, the thought of having this many sports stakeholders in a room together, talking about these issues, was unthinkable,’ says Poole.

There are signs that the conversation is spreading beyond the industry into more mainstream media discussions. This year’s summit was held the same week of the BBC Green Sport Awards, where Australian cricketer Pat Cummins was awarded Athlete of the Year for his leadership on climate issues.

Coverage of the awards, and issues such as flights in top-flight football and the controversies surrounding the 2022 FIFA Men’s World Cup, suggest more and more fans are engaging and caring about these issues.

Image credit: Sport Positive Summit 2023/Capturise

Image credit: Sport Positive Summit 2023/Capturise

The future of Sport Positive

 Building on this growing reach, keeping difficult conversations on the table, and continuing to help people connect and share advice will be important for future Sport Positive summits.

Poole and the team think carefully about how to continue the conversation.

‘‘We always try and take on as much feedback as possible and process that to improve year-on-year,’ she says.

As the industry looks to next year’s event, and the world inches closer to 2030, there will be new challenges to address.

One will be making sure that organisations at all stages of their sustainability work are supported.

‘Some people have been at this for a long time, but we also have sports organisations who are just starting to look at this,’ says Poole. ‘Going forward, a challenge will be how to bring together content and themes that serve everyone.’

Whichever challenges are on the horizon, Sport Positive is likely to continue to be one of the most important annual industry events for pushing forward on climate action.

‘We want to continue to bring the industry together, to help them collaborate and partner and drive progress, and do it in a really positive way,’ says Poole. ‘But we also need to need to keep instilling the urgency.’

Sport Positive has laid the foundations for the sports industry to understand more about the urgent need to address climate change and to act to reduce its carbon emissions. The sports industry now needs to act accordingly and to drive environmental sustainability across sport.


Image credit: Sport Positive Summit 2023/Capturise

Image credit: Sport Positive Summit 2023/Capturise

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    Read moreBethany White