By Gina S. Warren, Associate Professor, University of Houston Law Center
Minneapolis will host the 2018 National Football League (NFL) Super Bowl in February. Pyeongchang, South Korea will host the 2018 Winter Olympics that month, followed next summer by the FIFA World Cup in Ekaterinburg, Russia. A growing number of mega sporting events promise fame and fortune to the host cities, with the lure of funding for new infrastructure and community projects and a boost in tourism for the event and beyond.
Just as the athletes compete in their sport’s biggest showcase, cities dream of urban revitalization, an improved economy and a better quality of life for residents. Past experience has shown, however, that host cities do not always reap social and economic benefits from these events. Instead, these major sporting events generate significant unforeseen – or at least unaccounted for – environmental consequences .
The environmental consequences involve everything from building new stadiums, hotels, parking lots and other infrastructure to handling the sanitation from all those new toilets. The use of “social licenses” – a practice adapted from mining and energy industries working in developing nations – could help.
Carbon emissions that contribute to climate change are a significant factor. While some organizers tout policies for offsetting carbon emissions generated by an event, this is little comfort in a time when the world needs to reduce carbon emissions, not just offset extra carbon generated by an event. Further, those offsets do not account for the heaps of trash and food waste, energy consumption to power the stadium or water consumption for toilets and to irrigate the fields and nearby areas. It is separate from the consumption, pollution and waste of constructing new buildings, parking lots, apartments and other structures. One research study conducted by professors at Cardiff University in the United Kingdom looked at different models to assess the ecological footprints of a major event – the Football Association Challenge Cup Final (English domestic football). The impact elements included travel, food and water, infrastructure and waste.
The study found that the average attendee generates a footprint seven times greater than someone going about normal, everyday activity. Increased travel by event visitors accounted for the biggest part of this significant increase. The consumption of food and drink, and the energy and resources required to produce that food and drink, makes up the next largest part of the footprint.
The study apportioned a very small footprint to the stadium itself (here the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, Wales), in part because the footprint was amortized over a 100-year life span. This is a very optimistic view. Instead, it is more likely that the stadium will become obsolete within a few decades, as new technologies are introduced, new urban development occurs and cities offer lavish facilities to lure teams looking for a new home. NFL stadiums in the United States, for example, have a median age of 31 years before they are replaced. In any event, it is difficult to assess the global environmental and economic impact of these events, let alone to try to create a strategy to address them.
Lastly, the ambition of hosting a mega sporting event tends to encourage cities to relax their rules for urban development and restructuring. This may be because of the short timeframe for hosting the event, or it may be that cities receive significant internal and external pressure to satisfy their obligations for the event.
In the run up to the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics in Brazil, for example, politicians in Rio de Janeiro executed “flash-votes” that allowed the Legislative Assembly to push through emergency bills to (1) lift the ban on alcohol at stadiums; and (2) annul the laws that protect historical architecture and patrimony of certain existing stadiums. These emergency bills were approved without the usual mandatory public debate, resulting in the demolition of two historical structures – the Sambodromo and Maracana Stadiums – and their replacement with a new stadium. This not only reflects a disregard for community involvement, it is also disconcerting because much of the cost for these events is borne by public funding. In the United States, for example, sports stadiums have historically been funded through publicly subsidized financial mechanisms including general sales taxes. In Australia, much of the $30 million annual cost of holding the Formula 1 Grand Prix comes from public funds. Further adding insult to injury is the fact that most local residents cannot afford to attend these mega events, which are targeted toward the elite foreign traveler.
Little legal framework exists to regulate these transient pop-up cities created by mega sporting events. While there are a handful of United Nations treaties on sports, mostly recognizing the general right to participate in and have access to sporting and recreational events, no international treaty addresses the social, economic and environmental externalities. The closest is Agenda 21, adopted by United Nations (UN) member nations in 1992. At the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, many UN member states committed to environmental sustainability in economic development generally and adopted Agenda 21 as the framework for fulfilling this obligation. Agenda 21 is non-binding and voluntary but encourages all organizations – governmental and non-governmental, international, regional and local – to prepare their own version based on the framework provided. While it does not specifically address sporting events, the International Olympic Committee (IOC), working with United Nations Environment Programme, adopted its own Agenda 21 in 1999, following the general framework of the Rio Agenda 21 and providing a plan to improve socioeconomic conditions, conserve and manage resources and strengthen the role of major groups in each Olympic host country.
Agenda 21 provides a potential framework for sustainable development generally, but it does little to address the unique temporary nature of mega sporting events, and if the 2016 Olympics were any indication of its effectiveness, it falls well short of ensuring sustainable practices. Further, other than the IOC, it does not appear to have been adopted by any other major sporting organization.
With more sporting events on the horizon than ever before, it is time to more holistically address the pollution, waste, greenhouse gases and other negative consequences. Agreements between host city and event organizer often ignore key issues, and host cities are sometimes concerned that organizers will simply go on to the next city if they push too hard on specific terms.
So what might work? One possibility is the use of social licenses, a concept that originated with mining and energy industries operating in developing nations. After unbridled environmental damage – and the ensuing reputational hits – during the 1990s, the World Bank encouraged the industry to use social licenses. These social licenses, which are essentially ongoing agreements with local governments and other stakeholders to indicate local acceptance of a project, helped identify and address concerns about the environmental and human cost of the transitory mining and drilling activities.
Over the last few decades, societies around the globe have begun to shift to a more informed and involved form of decision-making, with an eye toward sustainable practices. Social licenses are part of that, legitimizing stakeholder decisions and providing a framework for managing expectations. The use of social licenses for mega sporting events could benefit all parties and allow for a fair allocation of the benefits and costs associated with the event. Some of the key elements of a social license that could apply include full disclosure and transparency of process; making environmental, social, and economic information available in the local language; early and meaningful community involvement in decision-making; a commitment to sustainable energy and environmental sensitivity, and longevity of community investments.
Although there is no silver bullet to prevent the negative side effects of these mega sporting events, implementing a social license to operate mechanism could at the very least allow communities to identify and meaningful analyze the costs and benefits associated with hosting the event early in the process.
Gina S. Warren is an associate professor at the University of Houston Law Center where she teaches classes in property law, oil & gas law, and domestic and international energy law. Her research explores the role of policy and regulation in the area of sustainable energy, with a focus on renewable energy, climate change, and distributed generation. Prior to entering academia, Warren worked for the international law firm of Perkins Coie, based in Seattle, Washington, where she litigated and advised on matters of energy and utility law. Warren holds a Bachelor of Science in Psychology from the University of Arizona and a Juris Doctorate from Rutgers School of Law.