Sustainability had to be central to the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games. We were determined to be the most sustainable edition yet, to leave a lasting legacy both for other events and also the local community.
We had a sustainability pledge, and this incorporated seven key pillars.
All the detail is included in our full report, which can be read here, but what did it boil down to?
What did we want to achieve, how did we set about it, how successful were we and what will the legacy be? Those are the questions we will cover in this blog.
For our commitment to sustainability to bring tangible benefit, we knew as an Organising Committee that goals had to well defined with progress measured. Saying sustainability is at the heart of an event is one thing, proving this to be the case quite another.
We created seven pillars, these are explored in depth in the report, but three key environmental areas were to:
- Create a carbon-neutral legacy, this as part of our carbon and air quality pillar
- Reuse and repurpose assets and avoid waste and single-usage – this relates to the circular economy pillar
- Preserve and protect biodiversity – this within our conservation pillar
We balanced having established goals and also being willing to learn and improve and admit when a change of approach was required. We hope our learnings can benefit all future events.
Research was also crucial and finding out which aspects would have the biggest impact. We knew, for instance, that journeys by spectators had the potential to be a huge contributor to our carbon footprint. How could this be addressed?
What we did
The 2022 Commonwealth Games had unique planning challenges – the Games were only awarded to Birmingham after planned host Durban pulled out and much of the planning was then impacted by the global Covid-19 pandemic.
We faced the challenge of putting on the most sustainable commonwealth Games at a time when putting on simply any Games was far from straightforward.
A solid footing was required. We identified the key pillars and then considered our sphere of influence, identifying things under our direct control, things we could influence (for instance Games suppliers) and then aspects outside of our control.
Given the need to work with a whole host of external suppliers and bodies, this became a focus, we needed providers to not only fulfil their role in putting the Games on but also to align to our sustainability pledge.
We also made an early decision to make sustainability local. Birmingham, in common with most major cities, has issues with air pollution. We knew the Games would bring with them disruption and some degree of waste to manage, and the many extra journeys created by fans travelling. Any major event will have an impact on the locality, we therefore made minimising this local impact core to our plans, with sustainability then centred on projects that would benefit the West Midlands.
We would oversee projects that saw, electric vehicles and public transport prioritised, local canals cleaned, forests planted, and Birmingham residents educated on sustainability.
Complete buy in
As a sustainability team we were blessed to have those at the top of the organisation - including the chief executive – demonstrate complete commitment to sustainability.
Frameworks matter too though, and we aligned with the ISO 20121 framework to ensure sustainability was always approached in a systematic manner. We were also signatories to the UNFCCC Sports for Climate Action Framework.
This oversight helped us set monitoring objectives as we looked to turn pledges and commitments into visible action and results.
We identified key areas within which sustainability needed to be prioritised – for instance procurement, logistics, catering, office management and many more.
As such, there are a lot of highlights, even the full report can only offer an edited selection.
Some are highlights because of their impact. Public transport was included with every Games ticket, this was used by some 54% of spectators. With an estimate that over 50% of our carbon footprint would come via spectator travel, the benefit here is obvious.
We also had a fleet of cars whereby 42% were low emission (electric, hydrogen, plug in hybrid and mild hybrid), including those charged by stations loaned to us by National Grid. Other charging ports were installed in central office and will be the permanent benefit of Birmingham.
Severn Trent was our Sustainability Partner and with them a forestry team was created to plant trees across a (not entirely coincidental) 2022 acres of land. Some 85,200 trees have already been planted, with the aim to plant the rest of the Commonwealth Legacy Forest by the end of planting season 2024/5 which will sequester the Games footprint of 201,800 tonnes of CO2 over time.
We were also proud that:
- 28,000 riders used the West Midlands free bike hire scheme, cycling 49,000 miles
- HVO fuel used in generators cut emissions by 90%
- 16,000 sporting items were donated to community groups post use
- 2,000 people got involved in planting days, inspiring behavioural change
- 61 charities benefitted by receiving items recovered from the Games, such as lost and found from the athlete villages
- 480,000 refills were made at the 41 water refilling stations
- 72% of wayfinding signs have been donated, reused or repurposed post Games
Working with others
To use sporting terminology, we knew we could control the controllables, but what of the uncontrollables?
Any major event relies heavily on suppliers and partners and so we knew that we had to both be selective - making any supplier or partner’s approach to sustainability a key criterion – and very clear as to what we expected.
Where possible we worked with local suppliers, those who would have a natural investment in the region and so motivation to act sustainably. Many we worked with also had world class sustainability programmes of their own already in place.
All had to sign up to our Sustainable Sourcing Code, this, for example ensuring they measured their carbon footprint while being encouraged to switch to less polluting forms of energy.
With larger suppliers, there was no one-size-fits-all approach, instead how to work in partnership in a sustainable manner was discussed at the beginning of the relationship. Aggreko worked with us to provide lower carbon options, Kuehne and Nagel optimised their logistical support, CSM Live oversaw signage in a way that ensured the reuse and repurposing of materials. All these and more are detailed in the report.
Creating a sustainability Legacy
As a major global sporting event we immediately understood that no matter how robust our carbon reduction plan was, there would still be emissions that we could not avoid, and a short-term impact. We wanted to be intentional about how we addressed that and considered the sustainability legacy we could leave.
Commenting on our approach, Dr. Russell Seymour, the chief executive of the British Association for Sustainable Sport (BASIS) says: “The sustainability team at the B2022 Commonwealth Games acknowledged, and even embraced these unavoidable impacts, and were honest about their efforts to reduced and mitigate them while developing a comprehensive and realistic long-term legacy.
“The events weren’t all perfect – but few things ever are – but they were realistic and used language that recognised the impact and tried to explain the actions taken, whether that be integrated public transport or the planting of a legacy forest.
Speaking of the legacy forest, we know that our approach to offsetting via this resource will take decades to sequester the final footprint of the Games, but we also know that it will have multiple additional benefits for the region – from biodiversity improvements to improving peoples access to green space.
We used the Games platform to promote the ‘What’s your number campaign’ allowing people to find out more about their own carbon footprint and get an insight how to reduce it. We wanted to leave a legacy of learning and developed two carbon literacy training courses. Working with the West Midlands Combined Authority we have created a course that will enable up to 3,000 people to become ‘Carbon Literate’ and so become advocates for behaviour change. Our Sustainability Coordinator, a former Team GB hockey player, also developed a Carbon Literacy course for those working within the sports sector with a sharp focus on the impact climate change is having on all sports.
Our approach to dissolution also means there is a legacy of Games assets, from furniture to signage to items from the village lost and found kept within local communities and charities to benefit from these in the long term. For example two community vehicles will be used as mobile ‘shareshacks’ which will transport items around the city for temporary free hire.
To those who follow
Of Birmingham 2022, Dr Seymour says: “I feel that the B2022 Sustainability Team have set a high standard for practical, realistic planning and reporting around sustainability impacts of major, multi-sport events.”
We are proud of our achievements and our endeavours to raise the bar; our legacy is growing – literally in the case of the forests – but our ambition is that others learn from and build upon our lessons.
We hope our openness in documenting both our successes and challenges will be of use to future events, sporting and otherwise. We hope citizens and businesses of the West Midlands and beyond have greater knowledge on how to make sustainable decisions and act upon this.
The report has a full reflections section, but here are a few.
- Place sustainability at the heart of strategy. We believe that having a sustainability team and strategy in place before other strategies are considered would be drive further progress
- Challenge the supply chain even more. Set them strict sustainability requirements and this in turn will inspire them to adopt this approach more generally.
- Demonstrate the business case for sustainability. Consider ring-fenced funding for incentives
- Use your platform. Your event might be there to entertain, but it can also educate and inspire.
We pass on our findings and the report in the same way we pass on the Queen’s Baton Relay: with the hope that the next custodians will take it and try to improve upon our efforts, for the good of sport and our planet.