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Unforced Error: Assessing the climate actions of the men’s tennis tour

The Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) deserves recognition for tracking the enormous carbon footprint of the jetsetting men’s tour. However, attempting to offset rather than reduce this impact is of no service to the climate.

Before hitting the first serve, I declare myself as a tennis fan. I have spent many (arguably too many) hours watching a small yellow ball be bashed over a net than I’d care to admit. 

My eyes were therefore raised as if admiring a Jannik Sinner forehand winner when recently stumbling upon this TV report revealing the results of the ATP’s – the men’s top-tier professional tennis tour – Carbon Tracker for the 2023 season, a subject that lands inside the court of my day job communicating CMW’s carbon market analyses and critiques.

It is encouraging that a globetrotting sport such as the men’s tennis tour, which in 2023 held more than 250 tournaments across 50 countries, starting in Australia in January and culminating in the late November Next Gen Finals in Saudi Arabia, is considering its carbon footprint. However, a Hawk-eye style examination of the ATP’s climate actions suggests that the tennis tour has made an unforced error.

Grand Slam or grand scam?

Aerial view of tennis court
Image: Ryan Searle, Unsplash

The ATP Carbon Tracker is an app built for players that allows them to record the kilometres they accumulate when competing around the world, with an option to then purchase carbon credits via Gold Standard, one of the leading programmes in the voluntary carbon market, to ‘offset’ the accrued carbon.

According to the ATP’s press release, the 200 players who used the app offset a total of 6.55 million km travelled (the equivalent of 17 journeys to the moon). The given rationale for this is that a carbon credit “represents the certified reduction or removal of one tonne of carbon dioxide equivalent (tCO2e) from the atmosphere.”

However, there is a major snag with this wrongheaded reasoning. Benja Faecks, CMW policy expert on global carbon markets, explained

“Carbon offsetting is based on an outdated and scientifically debunked idea that a tonne of CO₂ emitted can be cancelled out by the purchase of a credit representing one tonne of CO₂ avoided, reduced or removed. The equivalence of tonne-for-tonne offsetting does not exist.”

Carbon Market Watch’s research has shown why the offsetting logic, to borrow from a tennising legend, “cannot be serious”. This handy FAQ explores the subject in greater detail. 

Finnish star Emil Ruusuvuori explained his well-intentioned reasoning for supporting the scheme saying, “90% of tennis’ emissions comes from travelling, so we know what the problem is. But even though the problem is big, and it’s going to take a lot to make a difference, we know that we can. So that’s why we started this thing.”

Break point or breaking point?

Tennis racket with ball
Image: Chino Rocha, Unsplash

The Carbon Tracker also fails to disclose the individual travel miles accrued by players and no examples of the carbon credits used have been given.

The men’s tour announced its sustainability perspective in 2021 to highlight its corporate focused intentions to become more environmentally responsible. In comparison the WTA, the women’s top tier tour, provides “minimal public information on any carbon reduction initiatives,” according to The Guardian.

However, in the days following the public celebration of its Carbon Tracker, the ATP announced a deal with Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), opening the door to funding from an oil-rich nation that is doing everything it can to avoid decarbonising its economy, and enabling the kingdom to divert attention from its catalogue of human rights violations through ‘sportswashing’.  

What’s more the ATP tour is supported by highest-grade sponsorship from Fly Emirates, the so-called Premium Partner. This close relationship with the aviation industry is about as far from climate positive as can be. 

In addition, despite the Carbon Tracker’s aspiration to encourage good climate behaviour in its professional players, it is evident that the offsetting approach is proving as useful as a double fault. 

Alexander Zverev, who publicised his undertaking of a carbon audit to measure the impact his lifestyle has on the climate, is simultaneously an ambassador for Goodwill Private Aviation, and is known to post his private jet journeys on social media. Here we explain why flying in a private jet is bad for the environment, even when you offset.

The jetsetting ideal of the men’s tennis tour is helping to push the climate towards break(ing) point. So if offsetting isn’t the fix that the ATP is hoping for what is?

Serving the climate

ATP Sustainability Lead Mark Epps estimated in an interview that more than 90% of the sport’s emissions are generated from travel (though it is unclear how he arrived at this figure, given the significant footprint of staging major tournaments). It is clear that the demanding and world-spanning event schedule is a key issue.

In highlighting the self-proclaimed success of the Carbon Tracker, the tour declared MacKenzie McDonald its uncrowned champion offsetter in 2023 (32/32 tournaments offset). Again, whilst the player’s actions are well intentioned, and his willingness to contribute positively should not be criticised, his 2023 schedule was extensive.

From his home in Florida, he ventured to Adelaide, Melbourne and Tashkent in January, with the spring and summer weeks and months following spent spanning the US and Mexico, yo-yoing the continent of Europe, traversing North America once again before a weekend in Croatia. From there, his season ventured across the length and breadth of China stopping at Zhuhai, Beijing and Shanghai before a week in Tokyo. His campaign ended in the French capital of Paris in October. In the pursuit of success, players appear to spend as much time in the air as the ball does flying over the net.

Inigo Wyburd, CMW global carbon market experts who likes to tell his colleagues that he was once a tennis prodigy, observed that: “Unfortunately the tennis tour is inherently unsustainable. For players to stay competitive and in the mix they are required to take to the skies on a regular basis. If the ATP is serious about sustainability, it must reimagine the calendar so that players aren’t zigzagging across continents on a weekly basis. Rewarding the player who travelled the most as is the case with the Carbon Tracker is to reward unsustainable behaviour.”

The last words in this article will go to former Wimbledon junior champion Reilly Opelka, a four time titleist on the ATP tour who has slammed the organisation’s climate strategy.

Taking to his now deleted Twitter account he said, “If sustainability was such a concern for the ATP why does our schedule say otherwise? Can drinking from a metal water bottle really offset flying from Australia to South America, to the USA, to Europe, back to US, to Asia, back to Europe in 10 months?”

“They post about it every week so clearly it’s a concern. So why not adjust the schedule to avoid players flying with a coach and physio overseas every other week? Planting trees for one person doesn’t offset anything. But it’s great optics,” he added.“The mentality of something is better than nothing does not seem to be getting us anywhere. If they really cared about carbon footprint, they would look at the schedule.”

This highlights the urgent need for professional tennis’s top governing bodies to rethink and reimagine how they stage their tournaments to maximise enjoyment while minimising the amount players and fans fly.

For more on corporate greenwashing check out our Corporate Climate Responsibility Monitor

For more on sport, check out our verdict of the carbon neutrality claims of the 2022 Fifa World Cup in Qatar report

Author

  • Gavin Mair

    Gavin is a member of the communications team. He formerly supported the work of MSPs in the Scottish Parliament, and held responsibility for media output and office management for two MEPs prior to Brexit. He is an experienced campaigner, relishing the challenge of communicating for causes that have a social and environmental impact and is motivated by CMW’s mission of holding businesses and governments to account as they move towards essential environmental ambitions and transitions. When not fighting the good fight Gavin can typically be found enjoying live music or attending to his houseplants.

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