‘CRITICAL DIALOGUES ON SUSTAINABILITY, SPORT EVENTS, AND IMPACT ASSESSMENTS’: EVENT SUMMARY
NOTE: The authors of the following article – Phoebe Autio, Rachel Chan, Damara Featherstone, Hannah Sarchuk and Xuedan Xu – were part of the 2019-2020 cohort of UBC Sustainability’s flagship Sustainability Ambassadors programme. This is a year long programme for students interested in enhancing leadership and community engagement skills that will aid them in sustainability work now and into the future. This year, UBC Kinesiology’s Centre for Sport and Sustainability (CSS) partnered with the Ambassadors programme, with the aim of offering support to Ambassadors interested in sport, and offering these students what we’re calling the ‘Sport and Sustainability Ambassador Designation’. The CSS is grateful to each Ambassador for their contributions to the organization of the ‘Critical Dialogues on Sustainability, Sport Events, and Impact Assessments’ event described in their article below, and their support in disseminating key information emerging from the event.
On March 9th, 2020, ~ 40 people gathered in UBC’s BC Hydro Theater – along with a livestream audience tuning in from a range of locations – to attend the panel discussion, ‘Critical Dialogues on Sustainability, Sport Events, and Impact Assessments’. This event was organized by UBC Kinesiology’s Centre for Sport and Sustainability, and was the first panel in a planned series titled the CSS Legacy Series.
This first event in the CSS Legacy Series highlighted five panelists with a passion for sport and sustainability, and also served as the unveiling of a carbon emission impact assessment tool created by one of the panelists, Matt Dolf. Dolf is the current director at UBC Wellbeing and has long been a passionate researcher and advocate for sport as a tool for positive change. Dolf previously co-created a foundational sustainability management document for sports events titled, the “Sport & Sustainability Event Toolkit,” which the IOC and the Vancouver 2010 Olympics and Paralympic Games both utilized. The other panelists included Kavie Toor—UBC’s Director for Facilities and Business Development, Caitlin Pentifallo Gadd—the Principal at Halycon Sport and Event Consulting, Phoebe Autio—an undergraduate UBC Sustainability Ambassador, and Rob VanWynsberghe—the lead researcher for the 2010 Olympic Games Impact study. Along with VanWynsberge, both Dolf and Pentifallo Gadd have a long history of research related to sustainability and sport event hosting.
Why This Event and Why the CSS Legacy Series?: CSS’s 10th Anniversary and the Climate Emergency
In his introduction, Brian Wilson—the Director of the CSS and event moderator—explained that the idea to launch this series came as a result of a couple of converging factors. For starters, this year marked the 10th year of operation for the CSS, as well as the 10th anniversary of the 2010 Vancouver Olympic and Paralympic Games. In 2010, members of the CSS, led by Rob VanWynsberghe (panelist at this event!) and the CSS’s inaugural Director Robert Sparks, were commissioned by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to carry out the Olympic Games Impact study (OGI) – with the goal of assessing the impacts of the Olympic and Paralympic Games on host cities Vancouver and Whistler, with attention to social, environmental and economic sustainability. Wilson explained that the organizers of the CSS Legacy Series felt that the anniversary of these activities presented as an opportunity to reflect on the work the CSS has done thus far, as well as to expand upon the momentum created by the recent climate strikes. Another factor that impacted the decision to launch the CSS Legacy Series was the declaration of a climate emergency on December 5th, 2019, by the UBC Board of Governors. In this announcement, the UBC Board of Governors recognized that UBC would need to drastically reduce their carbon emissions in the coming years. This announcement inspired a growing dialogue around how this might occur. What better time to host a series and come together in a critical discussion than now?
Matt Dolf Unveils Sport Event Carbon Footprint Estimator Tool
Following Wilson’s introduction was the unveiling of Dolf’s Sport Event Carbon Footprint Estimator Tool, and a discussion amongst the panelists regarding its potential use. The discussion ranged in scope, covering local issues, tangible actions UBC could take, and broader questions about the role sport could and should play in our society around climate change.
As we dive a bit deeper into the discussion, an important place to begin might be to understand why Dolf created the footprint estimator tool focused on sport events in the first place. Dolf explained that the problem with many environmental discussions pertaining to sport events is that they are too focused on waste reduction, and not focused enough on the actual impact of the range of participant and spectator activities – and he thought the tool would help with this.
To demonstrate why it is important to look at the impacts of waste alongside other impacts, Dolf compared the estimated carbon footprint of driving from the Olympic Village to campus—his daily commute – to the estimated carbon saved by owning a reusable coffee cup. This simple calculation revealed it would require saving an estimated 522 disposable coffee cups to amount to one average day of driving to campus. Dolf noted that “we tend to focus a lot on waste and recycling, when really if one person didn’t commute from home that would be much more than all of the cups combined.” Dolf also stressed that “gaining a better understanding of impact will help us make guiding decisions.”
So, what does Dolf’s tool do, how does it do it, and why is it so helpful? To put it simply, Dolf’s tool allows event organizers to estimate the carbon footprint of participant travel and accounts for distance, mode of transport, and the number of people. It is user friendly and accessible (the CSS plans to make the tool available on its website following peer review of the tool), which allows for event organizers, larger and small, to estimate the carbon footprint of travel for their event. It provides two assessment options: (1) a simple estimator with adjustable assumptions, and; (2) a data capture form and report.
It is important to note—and this is something Dolf stresses—that this tool is an estimator: “What my tool focuses on, is the idea that it doesn’t have to be perfect. A rough estimate is enough to inform initial planning and thinking.” Perfection is not the intention, according to Dolf, as the ultimate goal is to use these estimates to guide decisions. The point is, if the tool can reach and be used by those within the sports world who would not use a tool otherwise, the possibility for rapid positive change around sustainability in sport becomes more likely. The hope also is that others can contribute to refining the measures that are built into the tool over time in ways that reflect evolving knowledge about carbon impacts.
Responses From Panelists and Discussion about Estimator Tools: They Can Help…and They Can Be Manipulated
Responding to Dolf’s presentation of the Estimator Tool, Caitlin Pentifallo Gadd suggested that, “To put evaluation tools in the hands of those who are going to use them, of those who can actually make intelligible and actionable decisions […], that’s where change really comes from.” She highlighted that if managers can better conceptualize the impacts of their decisions on event planning and hosting, the conversation on sustainability will be driven forward. Dolf—who has 10+ years working in event management—expressed a similar standpoint, but added, “The earlier you can have that conversation, the more potential influence you will have on the design of the venue, the event, opportunities to bring in sponsors, opportunities to find other ways to make meaningful changes […]. Have that conversation early on and repeatedly, and you can really inform some pretty amazing things.” Therefore, the tool should not be used solely as an after-the-fact evaluator, but should instead be used to influence the early decision-making process.
Greenwashing: Ways That Environmental Standards Procedures Can Be Manipulated
Another important issue that was covered in the discussion was the current lack of a standard emission reporting procedure – and ways this can be exploited. Pentifallo Gadd and VanWynsberghe, who have studied every Olympic bid book since 2000, noticed a theme: every bid has some iteration of “the greenest,” “the best,” or “the most sustainable” games included in the bid book, but the majority of these claims were not achieved in delivering the Games. Pentifallo Gadd noted, “making sure the evaluation tools are contextually specific and locally defined is so important in terms of setting the stage for what expectations are and accountability… and that accountability half of the equation has not yet caught up.” The accountability for evaluations should not just be measured, but they should be acted upon.
Equally imperative, according to Dolf, is the ‘locally defined’ aspect of measuring event impact. “It is easy to move the goalpost and decide what counts,” he says, in reference to the lack of standardization when it comes to measuring event impacts. Currently, it is far too easy for managers to tweak their metrics to look good and avoid accountability. Many managers do not include spectator travel when calculating the carbon footprint of sporting events, which accounts for a large misrepresentation of the actual numbers. In short, if evaluation tools are contextually specific and locally defined, the accountability aspect of the equation can be addressed, and real change could result.
Sport and Sustainability at UBC
From here, the panel discussed the question, “what role does climate change currently play in UBC Athletics’ decision making, and what are some other changes that should be made”? Kavie Toor—who has led over $200 million in capital projects at UBC—reflected on some of the positive changes in decision making he has seen in his time at UBC:
“When we look at our capital projects or even sustainable renovations that allow us to reduce our carbon impact, we look at having two checkmarks: a sustainability checkmark and a business check mark…I’d say we’ve shifted – percentages have changed: previously we would have had 80% business, 20% sustainability success, now I think they are very even metrics.”
Granted that sustainability has become a larger part of the discussion, the questions that follow from Toor’s point pertain to whether or not the changes being made are drastic enough and who should be held responsible for effectively addressing sport-related sustainability issues.
Autio—a former competitive ice hockey player and one of the five Sustainability Ambassadors working with the CSS—is in support of continual growth of student engagement, but remarked that due to the scale at which sports managers can make decisions, they should ultimately hold the primary responsibility in generating change within an organization. Autio discussed how coaches and players—the other possible instigators—are historically not encouraged to engage heavily with initiatives outside of sport, and that there is rarely time to do so. In her experience, a competitive team’s attitude towards, “anything that takes away from the game,” is that it “should stay outside of the locker,” meaning, the primary goal of coaches and the players is to perform at the highest level possible; anything that may take attention away from this goal, is ultimately something that they do their best to ignore. That being said, she adds, “the sports community in general is a very cohesive one… so if change is made at the top, it can quickly work its way down.”
Suggestions for Pro-Environmental Change
Although UBC recognizes the importance of sustainability and has made some changes to reflect this, panelists acknowledged that more changes will need to be made, and the scope of these changes may have to extend past UBC to reach a wider, more societal level. Rob VanWynsberghe—an Associate Professor in the UBC Department of Education Studies and lead researcher in the Olympic Games Impact study—said it best during a discussion around Dolf’s tool,
“When I looked at the calculator, I was really struck by the fact that everything that is heavily extractive has to do with people. All of these [areas]… are about people getting there, people eating, and people sitting and watching and I think if we can think through about what sport actually is and what sport could be to serve more people, and in the ways it can function and can provide, I think we can peel back some of the major assumptions that go into these big events…”
Although it may seem that few individuals within the sports community have pondered the effects that climate change may bring to sport or mega-sport, VanWynsberghe raised the possibility that, if acted upon, the sports industry could help lead the movement. He observed, “Sport has an opportunity to become a leader. When traditional institutions like family and religion are struggling to be a voice, sport is not having that difficulty right now.” It seems that by further grappling with the deeper role sport plays within our society and recognizing the powerful global unifying characteristic it carries, we may just be able to find our way forward.