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Protecting the Playing Field: A baseline on how sport can act for nature

  • New study of 100 sports aims to create a baseline for the up-and-coming Sport for Nature framework

A new report has carried out the first-ever assessment of how sports that take place on landscapes ranging from water, turf, mountains, and cities can act to protect nature.

The report was commissioned by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), led by researchers at Loughborough University. The study – which consulted more than 100 organisations representing 30 different sports across 48 countries – assessed what work is currently being done by sports on the global nature agenda and was supported  by the International Olympic Committee.

It finds that 25 per cent of the sports surveyed are beginning to scale up their efforts, but the biggest barrier for many sports is a lack of relevant resources or funding that would help them to invest and protect the natural environment their sports rely on.

The study focuses on the unique role sport can play in engaging billions of people who watch and participate in sports across the world, and particularly on the need for sport to take place in clean and healthy environments. Many sports rely on nature across the planet. For example, there are more than 5700 football stadiums in the world, while outdoor ski areas cover a combined piste length of 60,212 km – eight times longer than the Amazon.

Dr Madeleine Orr, Lecturer – Institute of Sport Business, Loughborough University London, and lead researcher on the project, said: “When we set out to assess the current state of the field on sport and nature, there was very little to draw from. The impacts of sport on nature are understudied, and sport's reliance on nature is deeply misunderstood. This study allowed us to unlock two key findings: first, the sports sector is aware of its reliance on nature and concerned about nature and biodiversity loss, but also, that sport organisations are unclear on how they might act to protect and preserve nature. The research also revealed what is missing for sports, which is a shared framework to guide action, more sport-specific guidance to support nature efforts, and networking and information-sharing opportunities.”

The report calls for sport to do four things to act for nature:

  • First, to set a baseline on your dependency and critical relationship with nature and determine what is most in need of protection and conservation.
  • Second, align efforts to prioritise what matters the most by placing them in a hierarchy.
  • Third, for sports to learn and work with partners inside and outside of sport
  • Finally, to educate and advocate fans, with elite and grassroot athletes and viewers about what actions they can also take.

The report is the first step in a more ambitious plan that will roll out in the coming months. UNEP, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and the International Olympic Committee will be working to develop a new Sports for Nature Framework that will be introduced at the UN Biodiversity Conference in Montreal in December 2022. Working with and for sport, this new framework will work in close partnership with the existing UN Sports for Climate framework.

Susan Gardner, Director of UNEP’s Ecosystem’s Division said: “Without a healthy planet, there will be no pitch to play on, no ocean to swim in and no clean air to run with. Nature is fundamental to sport. But sport can be fundamental for nature, through its actions and engagement of billions of fans.”

Examples of leadership on sports for nature come from major sporting events such as the London 2012 Olympic Park, which is the largest urban park created in the UK in over a century - the creation of 45 hectares of biodiverse habitat replaced degraded urban environments. It’s now home to rare species and is one of three top bird migration routes in south-east England.  At sea, the World Surf League have worked to restore coral reefs in Tahiti and French Polynesia with WSL surfers such as Michel Bourez and Lea Brassy getting involved.

Sport relies on a healthy environment - nature is our most precious field of play,” said Marie Sallois, IOC Director for Corporate and Sustainable Development. “The Olympic Forest, which will help restore degraded land in the Sahel in the lead up to the Youth Olympic Games Dakar 2026, and the Olympic Forest Network, which will include similar projects around the world, are just some examples of our efforts to help address the climate and biodiversity crises. We welcome the Sports for Nature report, which creates a much-needed baseline to help the sports community play its part in protecting the natural world.”

The report also shows there is growing concern from athletes and fans. A World Athletics survey last year showed that 77 per cent of their athletes were increasingly concerned by climate change, while a 2021 survey of 9,763 Gen-Z sports fans indicated 69 per cent supported the need for environmental action to be taken.

The report also acknowledges that many sports are investing their resources and focus into the UNFCCC Sport for Climate Action Framework. The findings of the report will be unveiled at Lord’s Cricket Ground in London on Tuesday 2 November, 2022. It comes just weeks before the critical nature summit that will take place at the UN Biodiversity Conference.

The full report and its findings can be found by visiting: https://www.unep.org/resources/publication/sports-nature-setting-baseline-handbook.


Notes for editors

Press release reference number: 22/195

About Loughborough University

Loughborough is one of the country’s leading universities, with an international reputation for research that matters, excellence in teaching, strong links with industry, and unrivalled achievement in sport and its underpinning academic disciplines.

It has been awarded five stars in the independent QS Stars university rating scheme, named the best university in the world for sports-related subjects in the 2022 QS World University Rankings – the sixth year running – and University of the Year for Sport by The Times and Sunday Times University Guide 2022.

Loughborough is ranked 7th in The UK Complete University Guide 2023, 10th in the Guardian University League Table 2023 and 11th in the Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide 2023.

Loughborough is consistently ranked in the top twenty of UK universities in the Times Higher Education’s ‘table of tables’, and in the Research Excellence Framework (REF) 2021 over 90% of its research was rated as ‘world-leading’ or ‘internationally-excellent’. In recognition of its contribution to the sector, Loughborough has been awarded seven Queen's Anniversary Prizes

The Loughborough University London campus is based on the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and offers postgraduate and executive-level education, as well as research and enterprise opportunities. It is home to influential thought leaders, pioneering researchers and creative innovators who provide students with the highest quality of teaching and the very latest in modern thinking.

About the UN Environment Programme

The UN Environment Programme is the leading global voice on the environment. It provides leadership and encourages partnership in caring for the environment by inspiring, informing and enabling nations and peoples to improve their quality of life without compromising that of future generations.