New tool measures sustainability of sports events

Diehard hockey fans may be able to recite scores for the entire Stanley cup playoffs, but ask about the games’ carbon footprint and they’d be stumped.

To date, no professional sports organization or league has made a concerted effort to measure how their operations impact the environment aside from mega-events such as Olympic Games.

But sports executives may soon have a new tool for measuring their climate change impacts, thanks to a pioneering UBC research project.

The university recently published North America’s first carbon footprint calculation of a sports event that measures the entire life cycle of game-related greenhouse gasses.

Focusing on a recent varsity men’s basketball game between the UBC Thunderbirds and Thomson Rivers University’s Wolf Pack, researchers found the event generated five tonnes of carbon emissions—the equivalent of 360 cars commuting to the university for a day.

A whopping 73 per cent of the event’s carbon emissions resulted from travel to and from the game. Travel by the event’s 560 spectators, largely by car, produced half of the total emissions, while the visiting team’s 400-kilometre bus trip from B.C.’s interior to Vancouver produced 15 per cent of total emissions— and the largest per capita impact, by far.

The other major sources of event carbon emissions were: food and beverage (12 per cent), team accommodations (11 per cent), venue operation and infrastructure (three per cent) and event materials and waste (one per cent).

The findings were shared last month in Portland, Oregon at the Green Sports Alliance Summit 2011, founded by sports organizations from the Pacific Northwest, including the Vancouver Canucks, Portland Trailblazers and Seattle Mariners. The research is also scheduled to be presented at the World Resources Forum in Davos, Switzerland later this month.

Matt Dolf, lead author of the study, from UBC’s Centre for Sport and Sustainability (CSS), calls the research an important first step toward understanding the environmental ?impact of everyday sporting events.

“The carbon footprint of a single UBC basketball game may seem relatively modest compared to the tar sands, but over a 200-game varsity season, it quickly adds up,” says Dolf, a PhD candidate in UBC’s School of Kinesiology and L’Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne’s School of Civil and Environmental Engineering, in Switzerland.

“And if you take a step back from UBC and consider the impacts of other teams and leagues—the NFL, the NBA, the NHL, Premier League Soccer—you begin to see sports organizations’ significant environmental impacts, which few scientists or sports organizations are currently working to assess in any rigorous way,” he says.

The study was commissioned to support UBC’s target of zero carbon emissions by 2050, the most aggressive carbon reduction target among the world’s top 40 universities, according to Kavie Toor of UBC Athletics and Recreation, which encompasses 27 varsity sports teams, 10 sports facilities and more than 100 recreation programs.

“This study has helped us better understand our impacts and where we need to focus our efforts to reduce the footprint of our operations,” says Toor, Associate Director of Facilities and Business Development. “We think we can make improvements in all categories, but knowing travel is our largest contributor, we can now think creatively about how best to address the issue.”

While cutting out team travel completely is impossible, the researchers offer a number of general recommendations to help sports organizations reduce it. These include increased back-to-back games in a single city, the use of hotels near to stadiums and regional competition.

Teams can play a role in promoting sustainable modes of transportation to their fans and game tickets should double as transit passes—a strategy widely used in Europe and partially adopted during the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games, the researchers say.

While many recommendations require cooperation with partners—the Canadian Interuniversity Sports league, Translink and other teams, for example—Toor says UBC is moving forward in several ways, including a major clean energy retrofit program for venues and a revamped composting ?and waste management program. ?They also plan to prioritize local suppliers and increase their digital marketing and promotions in an effort to reduce paper usage.

CSS and UBC Athletics and Recreation are now summarizing their findings and process into a user-friendly tool the department and other sports organizations can use to track the impacts of all their individual events.

For more information on the ?Centre for Sport and Sustainability, ?a legacy of the 2010 Winter Games, and Athletics and Recreation, visit: ?www.css.ubc.ca and ?www.gothunderbirds.ca.

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UBC Reports | Vol. 57 | No. 9 | Sep. 1, 2011

A research partnership with UBC Athletics aims to improve the sustainability of sports events – on campus and beyond.

A research partnership with UBC Athletics aims to improve the sustainability of sports events – on campus and beyond.

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A recent varsity men’s basketball game generated five tonnes of carbon emissions.

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Matt Dolf, Centre for Sport and Sustainability (left), and Andrew Hass, UBC Athletics, are working to reduce the environmental impacts of sporting events. Don Erhardt Photographs

Life cycle assessment of carbon footprint

The UBC basketball study is North America’s first use of life cycle assessment (LCA) to examine the environmental impact of a sports event.

Unlike other carbon footprint methods, which typically only track items an organization has budgetary control over, the LCA approach measures all relevant impact sources, regardless of their institutional ownership, including resource extraction, processing, distribution, use and disposal.

Study author Matt Dolf says 97 per cent of the event emissions his team captured using LCA’s comprehensive “cradle-to-grave” approach would have been considered “indirect” under BC Carbon Tax guidelines and other internationalstandards—and therefore would not require reporting.

For example, emissions due to spectator travel are often excluded 
from reported impacts of events because these emissions are not directly influenced by the event operator.

“LCA is gaining broad acceptance as a transparent, robust method for understanding of the total impacts of an event,” says Dolf, a member the LCA Alliance, an interdisciplinary group of UBC graduate students promoting and applying environmental life cycle assessment.

“If your goal is to know the complete carbon footprint of an event—not just what you are fiscally or legally responsible for—then it is important that more organizations adopt life cycle assessment,” he says.

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