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Sport fans in Bristol should care about our changing climate, writes David Goldblatt
Illustration: Joe Watson-Price

Climate change and extreme weather events will profoundly affect every aspect of life, everywhere, and sport is no exception. In 2019, the Rugby World Cup was disrupted by unprecedented Pacific typhoons; in early 2020, the Australian Tennis Open was disrupted by the smoke blowing in from the country’s devastating bushfires. The Tokyo 2020 Olympics were forced to move long-distance running events north of the capital as the city’s sweltering summer weather now makes them impossible. 

Bristol might not host many mega sporting events, but it will certainly feel the impact of climate change. Sea level rises mean that, by 2050, a quarter of English league football grounds will be partly or totally flooded on an annual basis. Ashton Gate and the Memorial Ground are safe for now, but City and Rovers may be playing water polo when they visit Grimsby, Scunthorpe and Portsmouth. Heatwaves will make sport – professional, amateur and recreational – a medically dangerous activity. Extreme weather events will see more outdoor sport cancelled, and periods of drought will have serious consequences for the city’s tennis and golf clubs.

“Making carbon-zero activities the common sense of sporting life would help make them the common sense of political life.

Sport is not just a victim of these changes but an active contributor; spectator and athlete travel by car and plane, concrete stadiums and high energy-use streaming services all mean significant carbon emissions. At a conservative estimate, the global sports industry is worth £500 billion a year, and is responsible for the same emissions as a medium-sized nation-state like Poland or Spain.

Sport can do something about the problem. Obviously, it can reduce its own emissions, but it also has a social and cultural reach that is almost unparalleled in its size and diversity. Making carbon-zero activities the common sense of sporting life would help make them the common sense of political life, which seems a precondition of dealing with climate change.

The UN Climate Change Programme has recognised as much and, along with global sporting bodies FIFA and the IOC, created the UN Sports For Climate Action Framework to galvanise global change. So what contribution can Bristol and its sports clubs make to this? A casual glance at the websites of the city’s two football and one country cricket clubs would suggest almost nothing. However, a little probing reveals that a positive programme of change has already begun.

According to Chief Executive Will Brown, Gloucestershire County Cricket Club set itself the challenge of becoming “the greenest cricket club in the country,” and although the competition is not that stiff, they did. Alone in English county cricket, the club signed up to the UN framework; their energy supply is 100% renewable, vehicles are electric, and their waste is 0% landfill. It’s also the small details like investing in electric rather than petrol-driven lawnmowers, and building new cycle racks.

The Bristol City and Bristol Sport websites give very few hints that they are engaged with these issues, except for the team’s new 2020 strip, promoted for the low energy and water use its manufacture requires. Yet a huge array of solar panels was installed on the roof of the new Ashton Gate in 2016, cycle racks have multiplied, and although there is plenty of high carbon hog roll on sale, now there is also the very popular ‘vegan pie of the month’.

Bristol Rovers, Commercial Director Tom Gorringe admits, is “some way from where they would like to be on these issues,” and are tied to a sponsor-related energy deal that is not fully renewable. Nonetheless, Gorringe points out initiatives on single-use plastic reduction and a commitment at senior level to do better. The club has also offered more bus services to its travelling fans to tempt some of the 82% who go to games by car, which has so far failed.

Bristol’s sports clubs have first to navigate their way through the pandemic; the absence of crowds and the huge economic hit that will follow. But, once on the other side, these kinds of initiatives need to be redoubled, not abandoned. Rovers, City and Bristol’s rugby and basketball clubs could all join Gloucestershire Cricket and sign up to the UN Framework. Indeed, as a green sports city, we could go further and commit to carbon-zero operations in a decade, then extend this to the city’s golf courses, public pitches and leisure centres.

As and when Rovers build a new stadium and City build their new basketball arena, let’s be aiming for carbon-zero construction and maintenance, and maximum public transport. City has been lobbying for the repositioning of a local Metrobus link, and the reopening of Ashton Gate train station which, as late as the 1970s, delivered football specials to the game. So let’s do it.

Forest Green Rovers, based in Nailsworth and backed by green energy company Ecotricity, are the most environmentally-focused club in the country. Their new carbon-zero home will be the first wooden stadium built for over a century. It is a utopian, fanciful thought, but could we imagine when Bristol Rovers is not just carbon zero, but carbon negative due to the fabulous urban forest at its stadium, and the crowd is singing to Forest Green, “you dirty Northern bastards”?

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