In Focus

Not just a game

Sustainable sports events


Christiane Weihe

Win or lose? As we cheer on the women’s national football team and bewail their early exit from the championship, nothing else seems to matter in that moment. But off the pitch, of course, there are many other important issues to consider. How sustainable was the event? How much waste did it gen­erate? How much energy did the stadium use? And how did the fans and players travel to the venue? And it’s not just about the environmental dimension of sustainability. Another question comes into play as well: what about the social and economic impacts of the event?

Whether it’s a rock concert, a handball tournament or a civic celebration – whenever large numbers of people come together to sing along, cheer on their team or take part in a celebration, sustainability should play a key role at the event. There are numerous opportunities to protect the environment and the climate here, just as there are in other areas of our lives. Reusable tableware, avoiding single-use packaging to conserve resources, effective waste separation and eco-friendly transport to the venue by bus and rail are just some of the options to consider. “Transport plays a major role in relation to the carbon footprint of public events, and this applies particularly to national and international events that involve air travel,” says Dr Hartmut Stahl, a Senior Researcher in the Oeko-Institut’s Resources and Transport Division. “Although admission tickets often include a free pass for local transport, it should be our ambition to ensure that free transregional rail travel to the event is included as well.” However, the focus should not only be on the environmental and climate aspects of events. The social and economic dimensions of sustainability are also important. How sustainable are the supply chains for balls and equipment, for example? Are human rights principles considered here? And what about the running of the event – is it non-discriminatory with regard to background, gender, age and skills? “Event organisers who engage with these issues not only ensure more sustainability at various levels; they also have a positive impact on society and enhance their own image at the same time,” says Hartmut Stahl.

Sports events in particular are often disrupted by the impacts of climate change, giving event organisers a very good reason to take action. “As we have seen on so many occasions, if there’s not enough snow on the ski slopes, the races­ can no longer be run under natural conditions. Canoeing faces challenges if river levels are too high or too low. And track events may be affected if temperatures are simply too high to allow the athletes to compete safely.”

EURO 2024

The Oeko-Institut is involved in various projects which look at how sport and sports events can become more sustainable. For example, researchers at the Institute have been advising the German Football Association (DFB) and the German Olympic Sports Confederation (DOSB) on environmental and climate issues for many years. On behalf of the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Nuclear Safety and Consumer Protection (BMUV), they have now produced a Concept and Feasibility Study for a "Climate-Neutral" Staging of the 2024 UEFA European Football Championship 2024 (UEFA EURO 2024). They began by calculating the event’s ex ante carbon footprint – projected at approximately 490,000 t CO2 equivalents (t CO2e) – and then looked at how to make this a climate-friendly event. “Our proposals identify practical measures to cut greenhouse gas emissions,” says project leader Hartmut Stahl. “As a substantial proportion of these emissions will come from travel by fans, teams and others involved in the event, we are proposing a Combi-Ticket for local and long-distance transport so that people can choose environmentally friendly options for travel to and between venues. Other key elements include additional rail services, with special trains, and a commitment from teams to travel by rail and thus act as role models.” From the project team’s perspective, providing more vegetarian and vegan food in stadiums, cafeterias and hospitality ar­eas would also increase sustainability.

In addition, the project team has drawn up a set of general recommendations that can be applied to other major sporting events, with a focus on mobility, the energy supply and catering.

But what about emissions that cannot be avoided? The experts looked at this issue as well. “Rather than relying on sometimes questionable carbon offset certificates, our suggestion is to apply the concept of climate responsibility.” Here, the remaining emissions are multiplied by an applicable price based, for example, on the price of emission allowances. “The budget determined in this way will be invested in mitigation projects in sports clubs, for example, but without claiming to offset emissions or be carbon-neutral,” he explains.

On behalf of the Federal Environment Ministry (BMUV), the Oeko-Institut is also focusing specifically on the circular economy. In the “Circular EURO 2024” project, the researchers identified practical measures to reduce waste. There are numerous entry points for this, including, of course, separate waste collection and recycling, but here, there is a particular emphasis on waste avoidance through the use of temporary structures (e.g. tents) and rental of furniture and technical equipment (e.g. cables). “The recommendations are targeted consistently towards multi-use systems, not just for food and bever­ages but also for the packaging used in the delivery of goods and materials.”

Major Events

The value of sustainable major sporting events has now been recognised in the political arena as well: the National Strategy for Large-Scale Sports Events was published by the German Federal Ministry of the Interior and Community (BMI) and the DOSB in 2021. “One of the aims of the strategy is to utilise these events in order to initiate positive social development,” says Hartmut Stahl. Against the backdrop of the strategy, a project entitled "On the Path to (Large-Scale) Sustainable Sporting Events in Germany”, funded by the BMI and the BMUV and implemented jointly by the DOSB, the German Sport University Cologne (DSHS) and the Oeko-Institut, will run until October 2024. “One objective of the project is to develop sustainability standards for small- to large-scale events because at present, there are so many different views about what qualifies as ‘sustainable’,” Senior Researcher Hartmut Stahl explains. “In addition, environmental, social and economic aspects should be considered equally. And it is also about conveying the message that sustainability adds value to events and helps to create positive settings and outcomes.” The researchers are drafting recommendations for event organisers and associations and offering tangible support by developing practical guidelines and a toolbox for future events.

As Hartmut Stahl emphasises, it is important to ensure that all the various strategies and mechanisms are not just applied to the individual event but continue to have an impact once fans have gone home. “Let’s say event organisers want to encourage more people to cycle to the venue. In that case, this should be integrated into the training schedule as well. This may mean launching a campaign to motivate athletes to cycle to their training sessions. And this in turn requires support from the local authorities as it may be necessary to expand the network of cycle paths or install bike parking facilities.”

The Olympics’ carbon footprint

The shift towards sustainable sports is not only happening in Germany. The Olympic Committees of Europe Approaching Carbon Neutrality (OCEAN) initiative aims – with the Oeko-Institut’s support – to empower Europe’s National Olympic Committees (NOCs) in the field of climate action. This includes developing carbon reduction strategies, defining objectives and measures, and providing training for Climate Action Officers. The project particularly encourages National Olympic Committees to measure their carbon footprint. The Oeko-Institut is developing a tool to aid NOCs to accomplish this task independently in future.

Sport and society 

Sustainability in sport is not only about making the next large-scale event as eco-friendly as possible, however. Sport also offers an opportunity to share the sustainability message with society at large. “These events have a very extensive reach and can encourage people to engage with the issue on an emotional level.” So it is about inspiring local clubs and grassroots sports organisations to think about how to run their sports facilities and smaller-scale events more sustainably. One challenge identified by Hartmut Stahl is that many sports facilities are owned by the local authorities, not the clubs themselves. “Everyone needs to get round the table if the aim is genuinely to build more sustainability into sports events and beyond.”

It is also important to raise spectators’ awareness of the social and environmental dimensions of sustainability. So as we cheer on our teams again in 2024 – at the European men’s handball and football championships or the Summer Olympics in Paris, for example – we should not only think about who scores the most goals or who runs the fastest time on the track. We should think about whether sustainability is in play as well.


The link between sports and the environment is Dr Hartmut Stahl’s research priority at the Oeko-Institut. Among other things, the Senior Researcher in the Resources and Transport Division provides consultancy services for organisers, associations and policy-makers on this topic.

Contacts at the Oeko-Institut