When I did my PhD research, I worked with outdoor educators on how they connect to climate change in their local environment. One of the things that came out of it was the dilemma of getting outside to be active and connect with natural spaces versus the environmental (and arguably potential social and economic) costs. This is something I struggle with personally. I dragon boat which means, generally, two trips to the river valley every week, all year. Now, we’re lucky, Edmonton isn’t huge and the river valley runs through the centre of the city, so I can often walk, bike, or talk public transit from work and then car pool back home at the end of practice. But it is still trips across the city for sport and being outside. And dragon boating is just one piece of my active outdoor lifestyle. As a result, I often find myself wanting to get outside, perhaps even wanting to go outside of the city to one of the provincial or national parks we have just within Alberta, let alone wanting to travel to other places both within Canada and elsewhere to just be active outside. But at the same time, I am acutely aware of the costs. The greenhouse gas emissions of my travel, the impact that my activities may have in a location, the economic costs and whether that money would be better used as a donation to a local charity.
In a recent article, Wicker (2018) calculated the carbon footprint of active sport participants and it just reaffirmed my dilemma. Wicker studied German residents and found that their sport-travel behaviour resulted in 844 kg of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions. This, Wicker seemingly proposes, sits on top of the average footprint for a typical resident. However, I have questions about this conclusion. It seems like this additional sport related behaviour could be replacing other behaviours that would normally be included in a carbon footprint calculation. For example, when I use a footprint calculator I would include all my sport related trips, both within and outside of the city, as part of my overall travel, thereby indicating that some portion of my total footprint would be sport related rather than there being an additional footprint on top of my daily footprint. In addition, because I am active I am more likely to walk or bike both as part of my activities but also in general to work or grocery shopping. Having said that, it does confirm my challenge, and the one identified by my research participants that being active, and getting outside has an impact.
Perhaps with all the carbon offset opportunities that are out there, we need one that lets us offset our sports-footprint? Or perhaps the key is in developing a stronger (and more trusting) social system so that it becomes easier to carpool with strangers to outdoor or fitness destinations. Could gyms start not just workout buddy programs but also travel buddy programs? Based on Wicker’s finding that participants in team sports actually had the smallest sport-related footprint, it seems that finding ways to make all active sport more collegial would be a step in the right direction. As an outdoor educator who has seen the difference that an afternoon spent canoeing can make in an individual’s relationship with the environment (acknowledging of course that knowledge does not equal behaviour) and with full recognition of the importance of the health and social benefits of sport and physical activity I just don’t see the answer being that we can’t participate in these activities. But perhaps we can rethink them to create better outcomes for more than just our carbon footprints.
Wicker, P. (2018). The carbon footprint of active sport participants. Sport Management Review. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.smr.2018.07.001
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