10 Worst Sports for the Environment (Complete 2024 List)

10 Worst Sports for the Environment (Complete 2024 List)

Dennis Kamprad

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Sports were inevitable human creations that not only feed our competitive spirit but are also greatly advantageous to both physical and mental health. Some sports like running, hiking, and swimming put man and the environment together in harmony. However, sports that rely on engines or on artificially shaping a location into a specific sport territory are not harmonious with the environment, and they have some rather adverse effects. So we had to ask: What are the worst sports for the environment?

The worst sports for the environment include skydiving (massive relative carbon footprint), golf (water consumption and chemicals needed), auto-racing and other motor-vehicle sports (absolute carbon emissions), and motorized water-sports (fuel consumption and biosphere interruption).

Some of the biggest environmental offenders have made some notable improvements over the years, yet the problems remain at large. We took a look at some of the worst sports for the environment to see how their environmental impacts have been lessened (in hopes that one day, they may find their way off this list), and other popular sports that are still less than friendly for the environment. And some sports fans are going to be a bit surprised. 

Skydiving, Aerobatics, and Other Air Sports

As far as life-experiences go, skydiving–or parachuting–is something people do once or twice in a lifetime. Many will never experience this thrill. But every single time you want to skydive down, a lot of jet fuel is required to get you up to altitude first. With only a few other skydivers in the same plane skydiving down with you.

That leads to a heavy carbon footprint per person per jump! Relatively seen, skydiving is one of the worst sports for our environment.

And for some, competitive skydiving is even performed like a sport. You may have even seen a sanctioned skydiving competition on ESPN. And unlike its sustainable cousin, base-jumping, skydiving requires a plane that requires a lot of fossil fuel.

At least the World Air Sports Federation seems to facilitate a move toward a future of eco-friendlier air sports. And they reward individuals and organizations for innovations that make air sports more environmentally friendly.

You be the judge, though, how much of an impact this has had on the reality of air sports worldwide and how much of that is part of a greenwashing campaign to preemptively save the air sports industry from harsh regulations.

Golf… (It Isn’t as “Green” as the Courses Make It Look)

It’s hard to believe that a sport played on the green isn’t considered green, especially when you look at those beautiful, vast, rolling green courses that appear to be preserving nature by maintaining open land. But both the development and maintenance of golf courses can have adverse effects on fragile ecosystems.

More often than not, that vast land space often displaces wildlife. On average, 110 golf courses are built annually, many converting upwards of 150 acres of land from wildlife habitat to iron-swinging playground. The animals are then pushed into meadows and forests on the expanse of the courses that are then met with electric cars, flying balls, and a consistent parade of people.

The Golf Course Water and Chemicals Hazard

Another concern about the sustainability of golf courses is the amount of water these facilities use. According to the United States Golf Association (USGA), golf course irrigation was last estimated at 2,312,701 acre-feet annually. This translates to around 2.08 billion gallons per day, accounting for just .5% of the nation’s 408 billion gallons of water withdrawn daily. (But we’ll give a pass to those other sites; maybe they were using new math).

Of course, this figure is still disheartening. And America is, indeed, the biggest culprit here, with over 16,000 golf courses creating these astonishing numbers. (The U.K. is a distant second coming in at under 3,000 golf courses nationwide). 

With more than 70 golf courses today, Las Vegas had taken major criticisms for decades surrounding these statistics–and deservedly so–going back to 2003, when these facilities were listed in the top 30% of the 100 heaviest water consumers surveyed. And with water access for the desert communities of Nevada and Arizona being subsidized with tax dollars, all tax-paying Americans are made to support this wasteful recreational use of water. 

But the environmental impact doesn’t end there. Golf courses maintain that lush, green turf with routine spraying of various chemicals, including herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers. These hazardous toxins then runoff and pollute nearby waters. 

Tourism Concern was a British organization that, unfortunately, ceased activity in 2018. However, they accomplished quite a bit in their time spent working with communities of popular destination countries to reduce the environmental and social problems tied to tourism. They estimated that in a tropical country like Thailand, an average golf course uses 1,500 kilograms (3,307 pounds) of chemicals and consumes as much water as 60,000 residents!

The Future of Eco-Friendlier Golf

Over the last twenty years, since the global onset of ecological awareness, several cases have built up against these seemingly unobjectionable sporting grounds. These days, anyone who wants to build a golf course is encountering the same auditing process as factory and freeway developers, being made to go through several environmental hearings to gain approval. 

Even Sin City has committed to repentance and reduced its water consumption by golf courses over the decades, starting when the drought hit the desert location in the early 2000s. Golf courses now account for “just” 7% of Las Vegas’ total water consumption–which is now at least lower than the casinos. This was accomplished primarily through the water recycling efforts of the Las Vegas Valley Water District (LVVWD) and its partnership with the City of Las Vegas and the Clark County Water Reclamation District.

Still, with all that said, no claim can be made that a few dozen golf courses in America’s driest locale are gleaming examples of sustainability. However, much can be said about their successful execution of providing golfers an attractive course to play while making every effort to maximize water conservation.

And these initiatives can also be taken as an example for other golf courses all around the globe to implement environmentally-friendly, water-saving measures.

Here are some of the additional successful measures in golf course irrigation: 

  • Watering timings optimized based on local evapotranspiration data
  • Upgrading equipment with high-efficiency nozzles
  • Modifying irrigation schedules to prevent runoff
  • Placing polyvinyl lining around lakes to reduce leakage
  • Using drive pumps that meet demand by a variable-frequency operation
  • Conducting routine irrigation audits that factor in topography, wind, system pressure, spacing, head type, and more
  • Changing turf to heat-tolerant plants and xeriscaping
  • Switching from ryegrass to Bermuda
  • Discontinuing practices of overseeding roughs

NASCAR, Formula 1, and Drag Racing

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that these sports (if you consider them such) are on the list of worst sports for the environment. In a world where there is a war on gasoline-fueled vehicles, a sport that sends several cars speeding through the streets or on a 500-mile (804-km), high-speed, left-hand-turn parade for hours doesn’t fare well with the eco-conscious. And it’s not hard to see why this is one of the least environmentally-friendly sports around.

Driving Toward Climate Change

Where to begin? NASCAR vehicles are gas-guzzlers; the EPA does not regulate engines nor any other devices responsible for emissions. For example, these race cars do not have catalytic converters built-in like normal vehicles do. NASCAR cars get a scant 5 mpg as an industry-standard in fuel efficiency. (Most of us will get upset these days if we get under 30 mpg.)

In fact, just a little over 10 years ago, it had been estimated (conservatively, mind you) that a typical NASCAR race weekend–with over 40 cars traveling at speeds near 200 mpg (322 kph), plus practice laps–burns up some 6,000 gallons (22,712 liters) of fuel. Not surprisingly, NASCAR was even labeled as a waste of gas by the U.S. government in the 1970s during the fuel shortage. 

And how do these figures translate into carbon emissions? Well, at roughly 20 pounds (9 kg) of CO2 per gallon burned, that’s around 120,000 pounds (54,430 kg) of carbon dioxide emitted every race weekend. Averaging 35 races per year, NASCAR has an annual carbon footprint approximating 4 million pounds (1.8 million kilograms).

Despite these troubles, auto-racing is not suffering from a shortage of fans. NASCAR is second only to (American) football and has more fans than baseball–which is supposedly the nation’s pastime. Yet the numbers show that, despite environmental concerns, fans prefer the race tracks.

The Future of Eco-Friendlier Auto-Racing

Two other big racing associations, Formula 1 and Indy, have already made large strides toward a more eco-friendly sport. Formula 1 instituted a 10-year ban on engine development to encourage the development of green racing technology in its place; And these days, all Indy race cars use 100% ethanol fuel. Granted, that doesn’t change the 5 mpg fuel efficiency the cars get, but at least it’s a lower-emitting 5 mpg.

NASCAR has also taken several steps to improve its environmental impact. Since 2008, the association has joined multiple partnerships and set numerous green initiatives from tree-planting to recycling programs to solar-farms and more. 

Of course, if you’re a NASCAR fan, you’ve likely seen these improvements, as studies show that fans see these improvements and view the association as being environmentally responsible.

Furthermore, roughly 88% of NASCAR fans believe the planet is enduring a period of climate change, and 76% feel a personal responsibility to do something about it. Not surprising, NASCAR fans are aware of these green-initiatives and their success within the sport.

For many, this is good news, but it’s not yet enough to quell concerns. However, these are very promising advancements; and when green-technologies make some further advancements, NASCAR and the rest of the auto-racing world have the potential to remove themselves from the list of environmentally-destructive sports.

Water Sports That Use Motor Boats

Let’s start with the obvious. Gasoline engines in recreational watercraft need a lot of fuel. And they have less-effective emission controls than cars, meaning that they cause relatively more air pollution. According to some figures, one hour spent waterskiing can produce almost the same amount of smog as driving from Orlando, Florida, to Washington D.C.

But the environmental impact of water sports has an additional component that it also impacts: the marine biosphere. Here’s a list of some of the most common types of environmental impact

  • Noise pollution – from boat engine and movement on the water
  • Emission of harmful gases, gaseous products and particulates from marine engines
  • Emission of hydrocarbons into water body, ground water, lake sediments and atmosphere
  • Release of potentially toxic heavy metals in the water
  • Increased water turbidity due to the engine, boat and even water skier
  • Creations of excess garbage on land and water
  • Disturbance of birds and wildlife due to boating activity and noise

Dishonorable Mentions in Non-Eco-Friendly Sports

Off-Road Vehicles

These high-octane thrill-vehicles are loved by many, but off-road vehicles (ORVs) have the potential to cause considerable harm to the environment. Besides the unpleasant noise pollution, ORVs leave choppy trails, disturb the soil, crush vegetation, frighten wildlife, and cause erosion.

A report by the United States Geological Survey (USGS) and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) says that air quality is also affected by ORVs, as riding lifts up dust and emits combustion by-products. Wind will then further disperse the contaminated dust far beyond designated ORV-use areas. Some of the leading combustion by-products that can potentially affect air quality include sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and ozone.

Skiing & Snowboarding

The worst impact on the environment of skiing and snowboarding comes from the operations to make these winter sports possible. These ski and snowboarding resorts are energy-intensive operations that require massive amounts of energy: On average, one ski lift alone nearly needs nearly as much energy in a single week as one household needs in a whole year!

Then come the fossil fuels that are used when people travel to resorts, which aren’t always close or easy to get to. Plus, plenty of energy and material goes into manufacturing necessary gear.

And in addition, winter sports might also cause disturbances that create stressful conditions for local wildlife.

Big-Arena Professional Sports

From basketball to soccer to american football and baseball, some sports are hugely popular–both recreationally and professionally. But getting together with a few friends to kick a ball around in the park isn’t really the problem here. It’s the professional part that is causing a problem. Or, to be more precise, all the logistics behind.

The teams, themselves, are constantly globe-trotting back and forth to arenas, burning large amounts of fossil fuels and increasing the production of carbon dioxide all the while. As are the supporters showing up game after game to fill massive stadiums – at home and away. And sometimes even internationally.

Soccer, for example, is the most followed sport worldwide, with fans so dedicated and passionate about the sport that many are willing to travel across the globe to see their favorite teams play.

But really, all professional sports that are held in large arenas are contributors to these statistics. In fact, football–the American version–hits hard, with one-day total carbon emissions for the 2005 Super Bowl sitting notably at 1 million tons (907,184 metric tons).

Final Thoughts

Many sports have negative effects on the environment, and we must continue working to reduce or eliminate these–sometimes highly frivolous–impacts to improve global sustainability. But so long as new developments in green technology continue to advance, we can remain hopeful that the world of sports has a green future ahead of it. 

Stay impactful,

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