A line item in Sport Minister Pascale St-Onge’s mandate letter signals Ottawa is taking note of efforts within the sector to greenify its operations and curb climate change, which could allow the rookie Liberal to use targets as a “carrot” as the feds dole out infrastructure dollars, say some experts and advisors.

Speaking to Parliament TodayDan Wilcock, a past president of the Canada Games Council who spent some time in the federal environment department, said the move carries significant weight, as “suddenly, there’s accountability” to move on the file.

“It doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to write large cheques,” said Wilcock, founder of the Canadian Alliance to UN Sports for Climate Action Framework. “I anticipate this will be much more about carrots — offering support, resources, pilot projects to assist movers to do a good job of this and show the way forward for others in the sector.”

Fresh off an election victory, St-Onge was handed the portfolio that was previously under Steven Guilbeault’s post at heritage. Carving out the standalone ministry was welcomed within the sporting community, and, in a bid to further trumpet the feds’ green bonafides, St-Onge was ordered to work with the sector “to find solutions to reduce its environmental footprint” and encourage athletes to discuss “the fight against climate change.”

Sport Minister Pascale St-Onge, pictured here with Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault, was ordered to work with the sports sector “to find solutions to reduce its environmental footprint” and encourage athletes to discuss “the fight against climate change.” (Facebook/Pascale St-Onge)

A spokesperson for St-Onge shared that she met with her provincial and territorial counterparts in January to discuss, among other things, the “greening sport” initiative. Announced last summer, the effort saw the creation of two committees to guide a green shift in arts, culture, sport and heritage, with Wilcock named a member of the sport committee.

“Until recently,” sports organizations in the country have been navigating the sustainability world “kind of independently,” but Wilcock said his informal group is “trying to bring some co-ordination” to that effort.

Describing climate “expertise” as a challenge for sports groups, he said the feds can aid by helping them conduct a “carbon inventory” of their operations — which he dubbed “low-hanging fruit.” From there, an easy way for teams to cut emissions would be by limiting the amount of air and vehicle travel needed to get athletes to their events, he added.

Meanwhile, well-known athletes have already taken up the call on St-Onge’s task, with retired Canadian hockey player Hayley Wickenheiser set to play in a March tournament that doubles as a “Save Pond Hockey” event. The initiative pushes athletes to raise awareness about climate change and is in part funded by the feds’ climate and sport initiative.

Expect a learning curve, says expert

U.K.-based Madeleine Orr, a Toronto native who founded the Sport Ecology Group, said Ottawa appears to recognize a need to beef up sports’ environmental cred.

“There’s efforts that are happening left, right and centre, just none of it is getting enough attention, and I’m hoping this mandate will shine a light on that,” said Orr, another member of that committee.

She noted groups like Canoe Kayak Canada work with Indigenous advisory boards in a “really interesting marriage of truth and reconciliation efforts with sustainability,” allowing sport officials to learn best practices of how to “steward” the land from those that came before them. (CKC cites the TRC’s calls to action, which urge governments to ensure “Indigenous peoples’ territorial protocols are respected and local Indigneous communities are engaged in all aspects of planning and participating” in sporting events.)

Orr said Ottawa should dole out grant funding for sport facilities, most of which in Canada are publicly owned, for upgrades and renovations to bolster sustainability at arenas and stadiums by “tying” cash to any such green conditions.

With many professional “big leagues” not based in Canada, most federal public dollars “actually go to lower level” sport organizations, meaning Ottawa is well placed to form any climate-focused criteria “predetermined to be OK” for its spending, such as retooling an existing ice rink to be powered by renewables.

Orr predicted there will be “little pushback” from local organizations that are typically cash-strapped and struggling to find the “human capacity” to man their operations.

“I think there’s going to be a learning curve we need to expect, and it has to be recognized as such,” she said. “Most organizations that I’ve spoken to are very on board. They like the idea, they want to be able to do it, they just don’t know how.”

Ditch big parking lots for ‘active transit’ routes

It’s a message echoed by Shoshanna Saxe, a University of Toronto engineering professor who holds the Canada Research Chair in sustainable infrastructure. Saxe noted Ottawa can flex its muscles to be “a soft influence” in getting projects off the ground.

“Society is having these conversations at every scale — how do we build a more sustainable future,” she said. “Whenever there’s change, there’s pushback.”

The professor said authorities have “tended to build big sports stadiums” that offer ample parking around them, a sign that not much thought has gone into how the sites are “integrated into the community” and public transit routes.

Stadiums could be better set up so they are accessible via “active transit,” which relies on bike, walk or other routes. “Parking is a really destructive use of land in terms of incentivizing people to drive, which is a polluting way of getting around when they’re not full for a game — they’re just empty and underused,” she said. Many lots can sit idle in the off seasons too.

Saxe pointed to the 2010 Olympics as an example that saw organizers and developers create a “legacy plan” for the Richmond Olympic Oval, which hosted long-track speed skating events for the Games but was later converted to two ice rinks, six hardwood courts, indoor wall climbing facilities and oval running and sprint tracks.

The site’s ceiling incorporates wood steel arches and wood wave panels made from pine beetle-killed wood board from the province’s forests, she added.

Aileen McManamon, the founder of 5T Sports Group, a consultancy firm that works with professional sports leagues, said Canadian facilities “are not that progressive” on the infrastructure front. “Bill of materials remains the primary consideration in most instances, as opposed to the long-term cost of operations,” said McManamon.

A recently nixed agreement between the Calgary Flames and City of Calgary to build a new arena could serve as a cautionary tale on pushback to pony up climate costs. (Sammy Hudes)

Money talks lead to no deal in Calgary

The recently nixed agreement by the Calgary Flames and City of Calgary to build a new arena could serve as a cautionary tale on pushback by professional sports teams to pony up climate costs — at least on the surface.

Construction for the project was supposed to start early this year, but in December, Calgary Sports and Entertainment Corporation pulled out of an agreement with the city, citing the latter’s demand the team pitch in to cover the cost of solar power and other road and sidewalk work, along with other rising costs associated with the pandemic.

McManamon said in the professional sports world, teams often cite the pandemic’s impacts on its operations over the last two years “right off the bat” to any proposed changes, meaning buy-in will be hard given “they’re operating quite a bit more thinly than they would have.”

Staff at big league arenas also took a hit amid slumping broadcast revenues and the like throughout Covid, she added.

“Frankly, everybody always finds dollars for something when they have to do that something,” said McManamon. She added builders need to account for the fact that insurers “won’t insure you” if organizers appear to be “ignoring” any operational “risks” or failing to account for higher rates of things like the carbon price, which can have an impact on an organization’s balance sheet.

Moshe Lander, an economics professor who studies sports and gaming at Concordia University, noted it is not a “regular occurrence” to see stadiums built in Canada, meaning any “requirements” today could lead to squabbles over costs down the line. “It’s a matter of what avenues are you giving the teams to adjust on the fly,” he said, adding governments signalling to builders that as environment regulations change, the stadiums need to “conform” to those requirements, could “scare off arena and stadium developers.”

Lander added if governments begin introducing “stringent requirements” on the building of arenas, the costs of those will likely “show up in ticket prices” for fans. “But in terms of how they market this to the public, it’s virtue signalling” to tie the “brand” of the stadium to environmental responsibility.

He pointed to the NHL’s Seattle Kraken, a newly formed team that plays out of the city’s aptly named Climate Pledge Arena, as a shining example of where marketing appears to be playing a crucial role in appealing to a fanbase.