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Climate change will have major impact on rugby globally, says sport’s governing body

Climate change will have major impact on rugby globally, says sport’s governing body
Damian Willemse of the Springboks in action against the All Blacks at Emirates Airline Park in Johannesburg, South Africa. 13 August 2022. A World Rugby report highlights significant consequences of climate change on rugby. (Photo: Gordon Arons/Gallo Images)

A new report by World Rugby, the sport’s governing body which also organises the Rugby World Cup, identifies six major climate hazards that directly and indirectly affect the sport, including its players, fans, infrastructure, and playing fields. 

Noting that “the consequences of climate change on rugby’s practice and ecosystem” will vary from one region to another, those consequences are “significant and will continue to deteriorate in the coming decades,” the new World Rugby report examines the impacts of climate change on rugby as a whole and aims “to anticipate the evolution of the sport and the associated steps required to ensure a more resilient sport”.

It attempts to do this using the latest scientific evidence from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), among others, to illustrate the projected impact of climate change on rugby by analysing 10  “rugby nations”. The countries are Argentina, Australia, England, Fiji, France, India, Japan, New Zealand, South Africa and the US which the authors say is “representative of rugby’s geographical footprint, taking into account current and future playing populations, future tournament hosts, and representation of different climate regions”.

Dr Pedro Monteiro, an acclaimed oceanographer, has previously told Daily Maverick that “the rise in the incidence, magnitude and persistence of extreme events (heat, water cycle, storms) as a result of the continued greenhouse gas emissions will increasingly constrain our social choices, including sports”.

Separately, Dom Rumbles, chief communications officer for World Rugby, previously told Daily Maverick that “there are more frequent examples of rugby grounds being unplayable because of flood or drought, and instances where games must be cancelled because of smog from bush fires, or extreme heat or storm events”.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Climate change shifting the goalposts for global sport

The report identifies and examines six major climate hazards, each of which will have a substantial impact on the game of rugby.

  1. Increase in the number of hot days. The authors of the report explain that rugby needs suitable temperatures and humidity for player safety, measured by the Heat Stress Index (HSI). World Rugby advises following all Heat Illness Prevention Interventions if the HSI exceeds 150, which can occur at 35°C with 50% humidity or 30°C with 60% humidity. In a +2°C climate, all countries will see more hot days. At least six of the 10 countries studied will have 10 or more extra hot days each year. In South Africa, they say, this can mean up to an additional 15 hot days exceeding 35°C.
  2. Increased frequency and intensity of droughts. Droughts affect water availability for irrigating turf pitches, making them harder and more injury-prone. Experts say a turf pitch needs up to 50,000 litres of water per day in summer, equivalent to about 1,000 showers. Reduced irrigation and water rationing may limit the use of grass pitches to prevent damage during training or matches, the report explains. Put simply, the hotter the planet gets, the less any one pitch can be used per year. Half of the countries studied will experience an increase in the frequency and intensity of droughts.
  3. Increase in the frequency and intensity of heavy precipitation and flash floods. Floods often follow droughts since dry land absorbs water poorly. Eight out of 10 of the countries studied are seeing more frequent and intense heavy rain and flash floods. These floods damage turf health, stadium access, and structure. The report explains that when pitches are submerged, costly repairs can make the stadium unusable for a long time.
  4. Increase in the frequency of marine submersion. Climate change is raising sea levels due to warmer water expansion and melting polar ice and this marine submersion threatens turf health and stadium structures, the World Rugby report explains. Of the countries studied, 11% of major rugby stadiums in six of the 10 countries studied face yearly risk of flooding.
  5. Increase in the frequency and intensity of severe cyclones. The report notes that global warming intensifies cyclones, making them stronger and more destructive. They can also cause flooding, damage equipment and infrastructure, and disrupt rugby training and events. Notably, the report finds that 30% of the 111 stadiums studied are in cyclone zones and will face increased wind and cyclone activity.
  6. Increase in humidity. Warmer air holds more humidity, leading to higher humidity in some regions due to global warming, the World Rugby report explains. This, it notes, increases the sensation of heat and the risk of heat strokes and combined with high temperatures, high humidity can be fatal. Additionally, higher humidity can cause diseases in grass varieties.

Read more in Daily Maverick: World Rugby scores points in move towards sustainability, despite controversial World Cup sponsor

So what are the next steps to be taken?

Some of the recommendations World Rugby outlines include:

  1. Develop and implement individual sustainability plans to help reduce rugby’s environmental impact, aligned with the World Rugby Environmental Sustainability Plan 2030, and support stakeholders to adopt a similar approach.
  2. Integrate climate projections into relevant commercial and policy decision-making processes and strategies in order to prepare for expected and evolving climate impacts.
  3. Develop/adopt share management tools to support agreed actions (including monitoring and reporting) to anticipate the impacts of climate change on rugby.
  4. Establish a solidarity funding mechanism to support the most vulnerable rugby communities and assist those suffering loss and damage from severe climate hazards.
  5. Undertake further research into the adaptation and modification of rugby practices, laws, regulations and event specifications to make the sport more resilient to climate change.
  6. Promote and support local climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies for rugby.

“Rugby is not immune to climate change, it needs to anticipate and prepare for the likely climate scenarios and the hazards they pose.” DM

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