A modest proposal

Special to the VOICE

Greta didn’t mention sports. Maybe it wasn’t in the script, but its footprint is gargantuan. And growing by the day.

This week the Chicago Black Hawks and Philadelphia Flyers open their NHL season in Prague, of all places. Do league owners have expansion in mind? Of course they do.

Hockey season will run until June next year. Same with basketball. Baseball’s been going since March, and football will last into February.

NBA teams traveled more than 1.3 million air miles last season and its arenas hosted 730,000 spectators. The top ten traveling teams out of 32 in the NFL totaled 250,000 air miles to play their eight away games. To figure out what it takes to transport an NFL team, its bloated staff and equipment, we can start with the New England Patriots’ recent purchase of two retrofitted Boeing 767s to offset the cost of charter flights.

Each of the 30 Major League baseball stadiums hosts 81 regular season games and draws an average of 2.6 million fans. That’s a lot of plastic beer cups. And a lot of cars—literally. Dodger fans, for example, drove 960,000 miles to fill the stadium parking lot with 16,000 vehicles, while Jets and Giants fans drove 1,428,000 miles and parked in 23,800 spots.

One gallon of gasoline emits almost 20 pounds of carbon.

Each NFL stadium draws some 542,000 fans over the course of a regular season. In 2012, the Super Bowl used 15,000 megawatt hours of electricity, enough to power 1400 average homes in the US for a year. Imagine all the stadium and arena events year- round, the energy required to power the lights, heating and A/C, water consumption for toilets, and the incalculable tonnage of trash and food waste. In Toronto, more than 26 tonnes of garbage were left on the streets after 100,000 fans finished celebrating the Raptors NBA title, and it took 46 people nine hours to clean it all up.

It was all properly recycled. Said no one.

Across the Atlantic, some 26 million spectators travel to attend large-scale sporting events, generating 210,000 tons of carbon emissions. The Tour de France attracts between 12 and 15 million spectators over a three-week period, and includes a bizarre tradition where a train of corporate, open-backed vehicles, several kilometers long, shower millions of plastic freebies onto spectators while they wait for the cyclists to appear.

Across the Channel in England, soccer is huge. The Premier League drew 14.5 million spectators last year (Germany’s Bundesliga drew even more). And with 92 teams in the English League itself, and over 1100 clubs in county leagues, the spectator accumulation is massive. Nearly 70% travel to the games by car.

All this goes on all year, every year. And we haven’t considered the hundreds of professional golf and tennis tournaments across the globe. Then there’s women’s sports, NCAA and minor league sports, World Cups in hockey, soccer, rugby, cricket and…so it goes on.

What about the Olympics? Two of them every four years. Summer and Winter. Some 8.3 million tickets were sold at the record-breaking 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. Since then, tens of millions of people have flown to Australia, Russia, China, South Korea, Japan, France and Britain to compete or attend.

But before we declare a moratorium on sports as a non-essential aspect of human existence, think for a moment about the tens of millions of jobs that manage the moving parts.

Where to begin? How about considering a competitive alternative to sport that will help to reverse the damage.

A friend in England, Jim McCue, has come up with an ingenious proposal for harnessing the all-consuming competitive energy that drives this behemoth of national and international sports into a comprehensive strategy for reducing, rather than increasing, our carbon footprint.

I’m trying not to think about our Prime Minister planting two billion trees in ten years and funding the project with revenue from an oil pipeline he bought but hasn’t yet built. My friend’s proposal actually makes sense.

What about staging a Green Olympics, he asks. Not a regular Olympics being more environmentally responsible. An actual Green Olympics. Here’s what he says.

The message of doom has generally been understood, but where’s the message of hope? When will the public have a chance to see the thousands of initiatives that are going on around the world, from a plastic-substitute made from air pollution, to germinating crops in desert conditions, and recycling coffee beans?

Nothing creates mass involvement and brings the world together the way sport does. Professionally arranged to maximize media interest, sport captures the public imagination and often dominates public conversation—particularly with tales of triumph against the odds. Its stars are household names, the budgets are vast, and the worldwide prestige sees nations vying to stage events and investing billions in facilities, technology and razzmatazz. All it is, really, is bread and circuses, but boy do they know how to do it. The Olympics and the World Cup are now two of the most important events on the global calendar. And the environmental movement desperately needs some of that excitement and glamour.

Many green ideas and devices are wonderfully ingenious and inspiring, but they are short of publicity. We hugely sponsor some essentially unproductive activities for mass consumption, when we should be using some of those resources to nudge the public’s perception of what is exciting.

So let Britain announce the first Green Olympics, to be held in 2022 (time is pressing) in Birmingham or Manchester — using existing facilities and infrastructure—there will be no building of everything anew— and invite every nation to show off its best green innovations, science and engineering. Like the Great Exhibition in 1851, or the Festival of Britain in 1951, the Green Olympics would be a spectacle to celebrate achievement and anticipate many aspects of the global future.

(Canadians might take issue here. Why not have it in Canada? Because this isn’t about us. It’s about everyone. So maybe we could start by sending our best teams.)

There would be an element of competition, with medals in various technological and social categories. But as well as trading, like sport, on national pride and loyalties, it would bring imaginative people together and inspire collaboration. Denmark has the lowest CO2 emissions, the Germans are best at recycling, and China is developing huge floating solar power projects. But with so much activity around the world, from multinational research labs to tiny startup companies, no one knows the whole scope of the field. So participants would be learning as much as the visitors and viewers.

Government would be one of the sponsors, but so would big corporations showing their green credentials, and industry, charities, philanthropic trusts and universities all have natural stakes.

Among other things, the Green Olympics would be a huge media event, with much of Hollywood wanting to seen to support it. The star of the opening ceremony would of course be Greta Thunberg. Broadcasters and newspapers could be enticed by the participation of the Royal Family, with their keen interest in green issues. Danny Boyle, PR firms and events organizers, would queue up to volunteer for the organizing committee. Perhaps the Russians could coordinate the social media coverage?

We can light a torch not only for the next Green Olympics, to be staged by another nation, but also to change the way the world feels about that challenge. With the right global involvement, perhaps the seemingly impossible can be done after all.

Why wouldn’t this work, I ask myself. It isn’t by any means the wackiest proposal ever advanced in response to climate change. Remember the Leap Manifesto?

My nephew, Gordon, a chemical engineer working on fossil fuel alternatives at the University of Virginia, has a great idea for zero emissions Green Olympic torch. Every movement needs an icon, so how about this one?

“Use a liquid hydrocarbon fuel—for example, methanol—produced from water, carbon dioxide captured from the atmosphere or industrial waste streams, and solar-generated electricity—essentially artificial photosynthesis. These processes produce enough fuel to power a torch, and draw attention to a technology that will eventually replace fossil fuels. The faster we can get there, the better.”

As for “getting there,” no one but the competitors would need to travel to the Olympic site. Spectators would watch the events from the comfort of their living rooms, as many do the current Games, no fewer than 3.6 billion for Rio de Janeiro in 2016. Even the Eurovision Song Contest, the biggest one-night show on the planet, drew 182 million viewers in 40 countries.

Okay, the Green Olympics won’t give us another Abba, Blue, Celine Dion or Nana Mouskouri, but it could give us the lives of our children and grandchildren.

Planet earth to Emission Control. Who’s on board?