Adapt now: what cricket can learn from sailing on how to be green

<span>Photograph: Lee Smith/Action Images/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Lee Smith/Action Images/Reuters

If you want sportspeople to make greener choices, there’s a simple way to do it: make it a competition. “Athletes really want to win things,” says Fiona Morgan, who has helped to create one of the most sustainably minded sporting tournaments in the world.

SailGP, of which Morgan is chief purpose officer, was launched four years ago to be the F1 of the sailing world – a fast-paced, high-drama racing circuit where Olympic legends such as Ben Ainslie and Heather Mills drive the fastest boats in the world, “flying” them across the water on hydrofoil stalks within easy sight of shoreline spectators. It has reinvented sport by having its sailors compete on and off the water: alongside its race fixtures, the sailors vie in an equally valuable Impact League, which measures the actions they are making to mitigate their environmental impact and innovate for a carbon-free future.

Related: ‘A great step forward’: ECB signs up to UN climate framework

The results have been extraordinary – three seasons in, the ultra-competitive athletes have changed their behaviours so dramatically that Morgan has had to make the criteria far tougher. If you wanted proof that humans can change – and sport can help to change them – then it’s right here.

Which is good news for cricket, not least because Morgan has a vested interest in it, sitting on the board of Manchester Originals. As a sustainability champion, she is uncompromising about the big changes the sports industry needs to make, and fast, but she’s also impressed by what the England and Wales Cricket Board has already achieved.

“People underestimate what cricket have done,” she says, pointing to the Environmental Sustainability Plan for Cricket last week and the work the governing body has been quietly undertaking to help clubs build resilience into their infrastructure. “They’ve invested £5m in mitigating climate risk like flooding, which is no small thing.”

For Morgan, the Hundred offers a huge opportunity for the sport to do things differently. “Cricket’s a heritage sport, like golf or the America’s Cup,” she says. “The reason why SailGP could have sustainability at its heart was because we were starting a tournament from scratch.”

Through their Old Trafford takeover each summer, Manchester Originals have been setting more challenging sustainability goals around the stadium than had been attempted before, introducing a plant-based menu in the media centre. In September, the ground announced its first official sustainability pledge including a number of pilot schemes to encourage more travel to the venue by public transport and bike.

The travel and tourism associated with sporting events is the thorniest part of the problem when it comes to the industry’s detrimental impact on the climate, Morgan says. “Sport is a travelling circus. That is who it is. And the value of that is really big.”

The outcome is a vast glut of emissions as planes ferry athletes, support staff, fans and equipment across the globe and back again. Staging competitions and air travel account for roughly half of the ECB’s carbon footprint.

In many sports, fixture calendars are thrown together with no thought for the travel emissions they will incur (just look at England’s tour to South Africa in January, which comprised three one-day internationals). In SailGP, they are carefully planned in order to prevent needless flying. “Everyone has the data, so they know which is the better option. It’s about changing decision-making at a senior level.”

Climate change is going to require sport to challenge the basis of some of its most embedded economic models, Morgan says. “I don’t know how we’re going to tackle this, but when a big event goes to a city the most important key performance indicator for the host is how much international tourism it will generate. Everyone is currently ignoring that and the fact it’s simply not going to be available in the same way in the future. We need to be asking how sport can drive different kinds of value – stuff that’s not footfall.”

Her message to cricket – as to all sports – is to adapt early and to adapt now. Even the most unlikely sports can make a huge contribution to a more climate-positive future: “People assume that motorsport has a terrible footprint, but some of the stuff it’s doing is incredible. The investment it can make in clean energies and car technology will shift the entire automotive industry.

“Instead of criticising sport, we need to recognise their influence. Educate your athletes. They go through EDI [equality, diversity and inclusion] training, so why wouldn’t they go through climate education? They have such a powerful voice.”

The UN has identified sport and fashion as the two consumer sectors with the greatest potential to change global behaviour because people continue to relate to them at all ages. As such, athletes have become the greatest influencers the world possesses.

Which brings us back to the idea of the impact league and whether cricket could ever be persuaded to adopt it. Could we see Nat Sciver-Brunt and Harry Brook competing to eat less meat or to lobby world governments on their environmental concerns? Morgan says that all the most-watched sports have shown interest in the concept. “In the next year you’ll see another sport doing it in some way, and one of our big ambitions is getting it into schools to inspire young people.”

In the meantime, you can see it – and the teams – in action in Dubai this weekend, at the final SailGP race of the year.

• This is an extract from the Guardian’s weekly cricket email, The Spin. To subscribe, just visit this page and follow the instructions.