By Allen Hershkowitz, Founding Director, Sport and Sustainability International
No environmental threat to sports is more urgent to address than global climate disruption. Climate change is affecting public participation and attendance, raising costs, and threatening the health and well-being of communities where sports are played. On Jan. 18, scientists reported that the Earth in 2016 reached its highest temperature ever recorded. As reported by The New York Times, this year’s global temperature “trounce[ed] a record set only a year earlier, which beat [the] one set in 2014. It is the first time in the modern era of global warming data that temperatures have blown past the previous record three years in a row…The Earth is heating up, a point long beyond serious scientific dispute…Temperatures are heading toward levels that many experts believe will pose a profound threat to both the natural world and to human civilization.”
There is no single solution to the diverse challenges confronting sports due to climate change. The dire situation we face is the result of millions of ecologically ignorant decisions made over centuries throughout the world. In response, we now need millions of ecologically intelligent decisions, but quickly. We don’t have the luxury of waiting centuries to respond to the threats we face from climate change. What we do today will affect every generation that comes after us.
All business sectors are assessing how to smartly respond and survive in a climate-constrained economy. The smartest companies are figuring out how to profit from the irreversible momentum toward a more climate-friendly market. Witness Dow’s incorporation of innovative low-carbon technologies into the Rio Olympics, laying the groundwork for market penetration by Dow into the growing decarbonization industry. Two hundred countries signed the 2015 Paris Agreement, committing to reduce their contributions to climate change. Two hundred countries equals the number of International Olympic Committee member countries that participated in Rio. Two hundred countries represent a huge market and, per the Paris Agreement, that market has publicly committed to decarbonize.
A market shift
The food and beverage sector, so central to the sports industry, is facing complex challenges due to climate change. Globally, more than 67.5 billion land animals were raised for human consumption last year. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, raising these animals “causes nearly 15 percent of global [greenhouse gas] emissions. Beef [is] about five times more GHG-intensive than chicken and 34 times more GHG-intensive than legumes like beans and lentils, pound for pound.”
To address the climate impact of our dietary choices, a movement is evolving within the food sector promoting “climate-healthy menus.” This movement is melding public health, animal welfare and climate issues to promote a market shift toward decarbonization. Explaining the basis for this movement, the NRDC has reported that raising “the animals we eat causes as much climate pollution as all the tailpipe emissions from the world’s vehicles combined. [Moreover,] researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health estimate that substituting 1 serving per day of other foods — like fish, poultry, nuts, legumes, low-fat dairy, and whole grains — for red meat could lower the risk of mortality by 7 to 19 percent. Recent findings…highlight the strong connection between high red meat consumption and health problems including obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. The scientific evidence is so solid that the World Health Organization recently classified the consumption of red meat as a probable human carcinogen.”
The Humane Society, among the most influential organizations focused on animal welfare, is also promoting climate-healthy menus: Adding to its focus on animal welfare, the Humane Society is alerting its members to the climate impact of animal protein in our diets:
“One of animal agriculture’s greatest environmental impacts is its contribution to global warming and climate change. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the animal agriculture sector is responsible for approximately 18 percent…of human-induced greenhouse gas emissions.”
The movement promoting climate-healthy menus is being taken seriously by F&B concessionaires who keep a keen eye on market trends. One sustainability director at a major sports industry F&B concessionaire told me, “We have been reviewing our current practices and potential path forward in relation to this issue. We aim to have our internal policy woven together this year.”
Advocates for climate action are joining with animal rights advocates and public health advocates aiming to make sports fans aware of the carbon footprint of dietary choices. As described by Sujatha Bergen, a policy specialist in the food and agriculture program at the NRDC, “The climate-healthy menus movement brings together diverse partnerships of environmental organizations, public health advocates and animal rights groups. Our coalition is promoting a shift toward food that is better for the planet, public health and your taste buds.”
Sooner or later, given the market’s irreversible momentum toward addressing climate change, all sports venue concessionaires will have to respond to this market evolution. In fact, climate change implications from the farm animal sector are projected to be significant for decades to come. A 2010 National Academy of Sciences study found that the sector’s GHG emissions might increase by more than 35 percent by 2050.
As documented in the NRDC’s 2015 report “Champions of Game Day Food,” the good news is that F&B concessionaires at some of the world’s most iconic sports venues are championing healthier, more sustainable food options. All of the major food service companies supplying professional sports venues have factored some sustainability issues into at least some of their menus. Aramark has gone so far as to create a “Sustainable Sourcing Advisory Panel.” This bodes well for those advocating for a shift toward more climate-healthy menus (beyond select markets on both coasts).
Food industry data suggest that some regions might be open to fewer servings of animal protein. According to data reported by the NRDC, “In the National Restaurant Association’s 2016 ‘What’s Hot’ survey, nearly 60 percent of professional chefs listed meatless items among the top culinary trends. Roughly half of younger consumers and one-third of older people already regularly choose plant-based foods instead of meat. Half of consumers between the ages of 25 and 34 are more likely to visit a restaurant that offers healthy options.”
At the end of his term, President Barack Obama published an article in Science magazine titled “The Irreversible Momentum of Clean Energy.” According to Obama:
“We have long known, on the basis of a massive scientific record, that the urgency of acting to mitigate climate change is real and cannot be ignored. In recent years, we have also seen that the economic case for action — and against inaction — is just as clear…With countries representing more than 75 percent of global emissions having already joined the Paris Agreement, climate action momentum is irreversible.”
Irreversible momentum is a strong claim, but given the consequences of inaction on climate change, there is no other choice: The market will evolve or human life on Earth will disappear. That means the sports industry’s F&B sector — like all other industries — is going to shift, sooner or later, to climate healthy menus. For the sake of us all, the sooner this occurs the better.