Carbon emissions total 14 million kg from Commonwealth Games athletes coming to Birmingham

Carbon emissions from athletes flying into the UK for the Commonwealth Games is estimated to be more than 14 million kilograms - equivalent of a petrol car driving 35 million miles.

The figures have come from an ITV Central investigation based on our own calculations.

The figures doesn’t include coaches, support staff, or the tens of thousands of spectators expected to attend the Games - so the true figure could be much higher.

Our Environment Correspondent Charlotte Cross has been speaking to the Games’ organising committee to show them our findings - and challenge them on out how they are trying to balance holding a major global event with growing concern over the climate crisis.

Joanna Leigh, sustainability co-ordinator, said: “I don’t think we could ever do enough within the time and resources that we have. What we are doing is our best.

“So we’ve done a couple of baseline measurements to understand what our carbon hotspots are, and we can focus our reduction efforts in the right places. 

“And then of course measuring that final carbon impact as the final carbon footprint, so we understand what our overall impact is.”

Just days remain until the Commonwealth Games rolls into Birmingham and thousands of athletes will travel from their home countries to the UK to compete - most with little other option than to fly.

An ITV Central investigation reveals the carbon emissions from athletes alone is on track to total more than 14.2 million kg of CO2.

That’s the equivalent of: 

- 35 million miles driven by average petrol cars

- electricity to 2,767 homes for a year

- or charging 1.7 billion smartphones

The figures from our investigation have been revealed just days since temperatures in the UK reached record-breaking highs.

Trains at Birmingham New Street ground to a halt after damage to overhead cables - while emergency services across the Midlands declared major incidents.

Passengers at Birmingham New Street station Credit: Jacob King/PA

A fire at the Lickey Hills in Worcestershire ripped through 50,000 square metres of valuable habitats.

Ms Leigh said: “Obviously athlete travel is a big aspect, we know that, we’re aware of it, but unfortunately there aren’t many other alternatives for athletes to take at the moment in order to get here.

“But we’re trying to really focus on what we can control as well, so taking account of that impact of course, but then really focusing on what we can actually do as an organising committee to reduce our footprint.”

Jess Fidler, head of sustainability, said they are creating a Commonwealth forest to offset carbon emissions.

She said: “Things like including public transport in our spectator travel is a great way of encouraging people to get on low-carbon transport.

"We’ve looked at things like energy and how we can reduce the impact that might have. Energy - we’ve got some interesting things like carbon labelling on some of the menus.

"We’re creating a Commonwealth forest in partnership with Severn Trent, so we’re planting a Commonwealth Forest which will sequest the carbon that we want to rebalance from the Games.”

While their efforts have been praised by climate experts - a perceived over-reliance on tree-planting to offset carbon emissions has come under criticism.

Julian Todd, Climate Action Network West Midlands, said: “Every flight of an athlete or a spectator into the Games releases carbon into the atmosphere which has an immediate warming effect.

"Planting trees pulls some of that carbon out of the atmosphere over decades. So there’s a big gap between the impact and the supposed solution.”

In our investigation, we found it would take more than 235,000 trees grown for 10 years to absorb the amount of carbon emissions we have calculated from athletes’ flights.

Charlie Kronick, of Greenpeace UK, said: “The problem with carbon offsetting is you cannot completely remove the impacts of carbon dioxide emissions, particularly from the burning of fossil fuels, by planting trees.

"There’s a difference between the carbon that goes into the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels and the amount you can remove by tree planting.

"So it’s a good thing, it just doesn’t solve the problem.”

Ms Fidler believes it is not perfect, but thinks reduction first is the right approach to take.

She said: “In the past few days, we’ve seen the effect of climate change first-hand - is a solution like the forest, which is going to take decades to have an effect, really a good answer to this?”

“It’s definitely not perfect but I think that reduction first is the right approach to take, really understanding our footprint and reducing it where we can. And I think what the forest has in terms of residual benefits, is all the other benefits it brings to the region. So the open space, getting people involved in volunteering, the biodiversity it brings, the lower flood risk.

All those additional benefits. It’s definitely not a perfect solution, but I think it’s a good position for us to take.”

And compared to previous Games, there are signs their efforts are paying off.

Mr Todd said: “I think under the circumstances in a short time and a lack of resource, they’ve done extremely well.

"And it almost certainly will be an improvement on previous Games. But the key question is can the city region, and the Commonwealth, build on this legacy.”

The committee will be working with others in future to share what they’ve learned - and what they wanted to do, but couldn’t.

So that this might be a greener Games than ever before - but hopefully, not the greenest one to come.

What do Greenpeace say?

Dr Doug Parr, Chief Scientist for Greenpeace UK, said: “The Birmingham Commonwealth Games are doing a lot of useful things.

"We welcome them recognising that the transport choices of spectators is an issue that can’t just be shrugged away by event organisers, and repurposing existing venues and arenas rather than risking more of the expensive white elephants that litter former Olympic sites.

"Their focus on reducing their direct carbon emissions before resorting to offsetting is also a positive, but it’s a half-way step, and with decarbonisation, as with contraception, partial success looks a lot like complete failure.

"The trees they’re planting will hopefully become a beautiful forest, and that is a wonderful thing, but history suggests they may not, and in any case they will not compensate for the emissions from the games, because slow, uncertain, temporary storage does not balance massive, instantaneous, permanent release.”

The calculations:

Calculating distance (km) from each nation state's main airport to Birmingham.

In larger nations or those with more than one international airport, we used the airport which is geographically closer to the UK.

- Using online flight emissions calculators to establish the emissions per passenger, on average, for this distance. Two such calculators were used; in cases of a discrepancy, we used the lower figure.

- Visiting team announcements for each nation state to establish the number of athletes travelling.

- This number was multiplied by the emissions per passenger figure.

- Athletes from England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were excluded from the calculations due to the increased availability of alternative means of travel.

- The calculations focused on competing athletes only - ie excludes coaching and support staff.