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Here’s how major league sports can be climate role models: Stick with lockdown-era schedules

Research demonstrates how fewer games, more regional travel, and consecutive matchups can slash a team's carbon footprint
November 23, 2021

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U.S. sports leagues could slash carbon emissions associated with air travel by more than one-fifth simply by making changes like those put in place during the pandemic permanent, a new analysis suggests.

“Athletes are role models for fans, and pro sports leagues are leaders in the business community,” says Seth Wynes, a postdoctoral researcher in geography at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada, who conducted the study. “There is an opportunity for both groups to use simple, proven scheduling changes to reduce their carbon footprint from air travel and show that climate change is an ‘all-hands-on-deck’ emergency.”

Wynes focused on air travel because it’s an aspect of professional sports that is difficult to decarbonize. As electricity grids shift to renewables, for example, the carbon footprint of stadium lighting and operations will shrink – and air travel will come to represent a larger and larger proportion of sports teams’ overall emissions.

When the global coronavirus pandemic hit, professional sports leagues made changes designed to reduce potential exposure to the virus and keep players and staff safe. They canceled overseas games, scheduled teams to play multiple games in a row against each other (an arrangement that has long been common in baseball but was adopted by some other leagues during the pandemic), and increased the percentage of games played against other teams in the same geographic region.

sports teams carbon footprint

©Seth Wynes


These changes also had the effect of reducing air travel by sports teams—making the pandemic a sort of natural experiment illustrating the reductions in climate footprint that might be feasible, Wynes realized.

Wynes gathered information on the 2018 and 2020 schedules of the National Basketball Association (NBA), National Hockey League (NHL), Major League Baseball (MLB), and the National Football League (NFL). He used these to analyze teams’ intercity flights for games, and calculated the carbon emissions associated with those flights.

Across the four major professional sports leagues, teams traveled a total of 7.5 million kilometers in the pre-pandemic 2018 season, Wynes reports in the journal Environmental Science & Technology. Their air travel generated 122,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions.

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Not all of the leagues implemented all of the same pandemic-related schedule changes. For example, the NHL and MLB scheduled more games between teams in the same geographic region, the NBA and NHL introduced baseball-style series of consecutive games between the same teams, and the NFL canceled international games.

In the NHL, which implemented multiple, comprehensive scheduling changes, per-game air travel emissions fell by half during the pandemic. If each league continues with the changes it implemented in 2020, this will reduce carbon dioxide emissions from air travel by 26,814 tonnes or 22% across the four leagues, Wynes calculated.

Teams could reduce air travel emissions even more by using smaller, more fuel-efficient airplanes. In the NBA, downsizing league aircraft from 757s to A319s would reduce air travel emissions by one-quarter. Leagues could also reduce air travel emissions by shortening their seasons, a move that has been contemplated by the NBA.

Another possibility is for teams to partner with airlines to use sustainable aviation fuels on their flights. These alternative fuels “are a very young technology and there are a lot of questions about how they will develop and how useful they will be in cutting emissions,” Wynes says.

Emissions from major league sports air travel are a tiny proportion of global carbon emissions. But reduced air travel also has the potential to improve players’ health and performance, and reduce injuries. And climate action by sports stars could set a powerful example for the public—an idea Wynes aims to continue to explore in future research.

“I think there are more general questions about the roles that societal elites (government leaders, celebrities etc.) could play in accelerating decarbonization and I hope to be looking into those!” he says.

Source: Wynes S.COVID-19 disruption demonstrates win-win climate solutions for major league sports.” Environmental Science & Technology 2021.

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