How green is the Commonwealth Games?

18th July, 2022.      //   Sport and Leisure  // 

A new West Stand and additional temporary stands boost the capacty of the Alexander Stadium as the principal venue for Birmingham 2022

The organisers of this year’s Commonwealth Games, taking place in Birmingham from 28 July, say they are meeting a bold ambition: to create the most sustainable Commonwealth Games yet.

“Sustainability was set out as an important strategic priority right from the beginning,” explains Jess Fidler, head of sustainability at Birmingham 2022. “Our sustainability pledge sets out the aims and ambitions of the Games across seven pillars, covering social and environmental aspects of sustainability.”

The plans detailing how they will achieve this are comprehensive and include several firsts. “We will be the first Commonwealth Games to create a carbon-neutral legacy,” says Fidler. “We will also be the first to measure our social value, and the first to have a dedicated ethical trading manager.”

The approach, which is certified to the ISO 20121 sustainable events management standard, will include a commitment to minimising the creation of waste plastic. By working with packaging subcontractors and suppliers, single-use plastics will be reduced across the complete Games footprint, and organisers are installing free drinking water refill points wherever possible.


However, Alexander quickly recognises that achieving sustainability and climate change goals is never easy. “It can only be successful if someone is driving it forward,” he says. “As humans, we can often revert to habit, it is human nature. Good intentions like the annual diet or new year resolutions can wane by mid-February or sooner. Sustainable intentions and strategies need a strong team and system behind them to ensure delivery and successful legacy to hand over to the next generation.”

Alexander’s biggest concern, then, is ensuring accountability going forwards. “The industry is more focused now on making sure the performance gap is shortened, and the question of operational performance is foremost at the design and implementation stages. It is a long path to successfully delivering on these matters.”

Zipp agrees that this is often where event organisers fall short. “With any mega-event, organisers need to think carefully about the legacy. When they develop a facility or renovate a building, they need to plan how it will be used in ten or twenty years’ time. This hasn’t always been the case. Often stadiums are built and left empty or underused, but this isn’t acceptable today.”

Yet Fidler is confident the Games will leave a lasting legacy. “Each Commonwealth Games is different, but we feel we have focused on important topics for this Games within the region,” she continues. “We are committed to clear and transparent reporting and will measure our progress against various KPIs post-Games. Sustainability is also a key workstream feeding into the Games-wide evaluation, which will independently measure and assess whether we achieve our vision against the five Games mission pillars and capture the impact and legacy of hosting the Games.”

Fidler highlights the partnership with Severn Trent as an example. “Planting 2,022 acres of new forest across the Midlands is no small task, and it certainly hasn’t been without its challenges. Behind it, there is a robust governance process, which is essential – with each area of forest planted undergoing a detailed process of assessment and scrutiny.

“The forest will be such a great legacy for the region, well beyond the Games, with multiple benefits such as increasing access to green spaces, which, as we all know, has multiple physical and mental wellbeing benefits. The hundreds of volunteers who have already been involved in planting it is already having a positive impact on the region.”

In fact, great care is being taken to ensure the forests will be well looked after in the years to come. According to an official press release, Severn Trent is now on the lookout for tree keepers who will play an important role in caring for the sites and track the positive impact each forest has on the environment.

“With support of Severn Trent and Earthwatch Europe, a team of up to four tree keepers will be recruited to take care of each tiny forest site planted in the community, with the team being responsible for monitoring and maintaining their tiny forest,” said the press release. “Tree keepers will also be trained to collect data from the tiny forest to assess the ecosystem benefits of each site, such as noting the different kinds of wildlife it attracts.”

Despite all this, Fidler and her team acknowledge that there’s always more progress to be made. “Ultimately, we are putting on a global mega-event which is under the spotlight and will have an environmental impact. We must acknowledge that and then go about mitigating the impact through a transparent approach,” she says. “Having a strategic approach and getting the timing right is key. We know there is always more that can be done, but we hope that we can help share our learnings and continue to keep pushing the dial forwards.”

Fidler says that several challenges are already being tackled. “Not everyone’s understanding of sustainability is at the same point, so education and engagement are critical,” she says. “It’s also important to recognise that sustainability is a complex and evolving space, and this is exacerbated by supply chain challenges. The world of waste is multifaceted, and while we have made some great strides in some areas – such as providing water bars to reduce single-use plastic bottles, driving down the number of signs being created and improving recyclability – we know there is a long way to go.”

Ultimately, however, Fidler believes the advances made this year demonstrate real progress. What’s more, she believes steps are being put in place to make sure momentum is continued and built upon going forwards. “We are really keen to be transparent about our process and share the lessons we have learned,” she says. “We will create a post-Games sustainability report which will discuss our approach, achievements and lessons learned. One of the main objectives of this report is to be useful to future event organisers.”

Local partner Aggreko will also be running educational events on sustainability, enhancing understanding of sustainable technology and energy transition, as well as nurturing science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) skills in local schools and not-for-profit organisations.

“We are also working hard to educate stakeholders,” says Fidler. “For example, we are providing carbon literacy training for our volunteers and encouraging them to learn more about their own carbon footprint and actions they can take. We’ve also started working with some athletes in this space, who have such a powerful voice with great potential to promote positive change.”

Zipp praises this effort: “Sport and politics are deeply intertwined and always have been. There will be a lot of eyeballs on this Games, so using the platform to generate attention around sustainability is a positive. I think we have reached a real turning point for sustainable sport, and Birmingham 2022 is a part of that.”

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