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Environmental sustainability central to the future of sport and funding agreements

AuthorsMegan Dent

5 min read

Sport, Environmental

Environmental sustainability central to the future of sport and funding agreements

With Sport England set to “embed environmental sustainability as a pillar of funding agreements”, national governing bodies (NGBs) must follow suit or place the future of their sports at risk.

Here, Solicitor Megan Dent outlines the various sustainability strategies being taken across the sport sector amid this positive yet daunting development.


Sport England and Get Active

Speaking at the recent Blue Earth Summit, Sport England Chair Chris Boardman MBE highlighted data on the detrimental impact that increasingly extreme weather (from heatwaves to heavy rainfall) is having on sport in England on a practical level.

Both adults and children reported that severe weather conditions had impacted their ability to participate in sport in 2022. This will be seen all the way from grassroots to the most elite levels of sport, with half of previous Winter Olympics venues claimed to be unsuitable to host the Games again unless the climate crisis is addressed.

Boardman’s stance is in-line with the aims of the Government’s Get Active strategy — published in August 2023 — which pledges to collaborate with both UK Sport and Sport England to work towards embedding environmental sustainability into funding agreements.

The Get Active strategy states that by working with partners — including those in local authorities — the Government will support the development of locally-driven action that caters to the specific needs of communities across the country. This will be done by sharing relevant expertise and guidance to ensure that resources and best practice are freely available.

UK Sport’s environmental sustainability strategy, launched in March 2023, sets a goal for high-performance sport to be having a net positive impact on the environment by 2040 and for NGBs to have reduced their emissions by 50% by 2030. The focus for UK Sport remains, for the time being, on encouraging and supporting NGBs to meet these sustainability ambitions. The strategy document specifically reassures NGBs that environmental sustainability is not a matter which UK Sport would withhold funding over or make funding conditional upon, emphasising a collaborative approach to meeting environmental goals. How much longer that will be the case remains to be seen.


Rising energy costs impacting access to swimming

One ambitious local authority project is Exeter City Council’s new leisure centre, St Sidwell’s Point. The first UK leisure centre built to be Passivhaus compliant — a rigorous energy efficiency standard and certification — St Sidwell’s Point is home to a 25m competition swimming pool and uses less than half the energy of a conventional facility.

Such focus on energy efficiency is sorely needed, as Swim England recently told the Government that the cost of operating swimming pools means that prices for visitors are becoming increasingly expensive, making affordability one of the biggest barriers to swimming. Yet further developments can only happen if local authorities (like Exeter City Council) and other funding bodies prioritise the initial investment required.


Birmingham Commonwealth Games

The Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games aimed to deliver on ambitious sustainability goals at the elite performance level. Its sustainability team knew that this required complete buy-in from the very top of the organisation and sought to take a comprehensive approach to environmental responsibility before, during and after the event.

This focused on three key areas:

The measures taken included:

British Canoeing

British Canoeing — whose sport is directly and overtly impacted by the changing climate — has published its own environmental sustainability strategy, which commits to a 50% reduction in emissions by 2030 and a net zero target by 2040. The ambition is to achieve these goals through a wide range of measures across its business operations, events and competitions.

One of the specific actions outlined in the strategy is to reduce the carbon footprint generated through travel emissions by creating policies to encourage and incentivise more sustainable travel choices and reducing the amount of travel needed through increased use of technology.

There is also an intention to minimise the amount of waste generated by eliminating single-use plastics by 2025 and working towards zero landfill.

Going further, sooner

While the Government’s Get Active strategy indicates that UK Sport and Sport England will “work towards” tying environmental sustainability into funding, Boardman’s comments indicate that Sport England may intend to go further, sooner.

Speaking to the Guardian prior to the Blue Earth Summit, he stated that “fundamentally we have got to move from a position of ‘inform and encourage’ to one of ‘enable and require’”.

A recent Sport England statement claimed that Boardman will commit to working in partnership with the sector on when and how this is done and that Sport England will publish its own sustainability roadmap in the coming months. This should set out what the impact on funding will look like.

Regardless of the forthcoming obligations and their links to funding, it’s clear that environmental sustainability must be a priority for NGBs and major sport event organisers.

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