The Super Bowl and the Green Economy

February 5, 2012: New England Patriots vs. New York Giants in the Super Bowl to determine the champion of the National Football League.  A huge global event generating millions in advertising revenue, 100,000 travelers from around the country and internationally, and will be the most globally viewed television broadcast for the next year.  To understand the role of the Super Bowl in global environmental politics, our larger question involves:

Where do huge events fit in a Green Economy?

Similar to earlier Super Bowls, the 2012 event aims to highlight the green aspects of the activity.  There will be:

  • 1st and Green– A program sponsored by the Super Bowl Host Committee and various Indiana organizations where individuals and groups compete to cut carbon and water use.  At the time of writing this was at 1.4 million tons of carbon reportedly cut.
  • NFL Initiatives towards Greening.  This involves, like earlier events, getting power for the Super bowl to have Renewable Energy Credits, purchasing carbon credits, and planting trees in the host area.  Green Mountain Energy Company explains in promotional material that the contribution is to cut 29 million pounds of Carbon—–>
  • Some concessions at the game will be organic and left over prepared food is to be donated to local soup kitchens.
  • If you are not going to the game, the NFL has suggestions on how to Host a “Green” Superbowl Party with suggestions like appoint a Recycling QB to organize the sorting of trash.

The criticism has been leveled by others that all the efforts done by the NFL are too small in comparison to the hopeless problem.  Others find that the efforts taken this year are pleasantly surprising.  Earlier reflections have broken down the ecosystem services that are needed to sustain the event.  These are all quite interesting articulations, but the question remains, are these various monster events in the world (the World Cup with 300,000 air travel visitors, the Super Bowl with 100,000 air travel visitors, Rio Carnival with 500,000, etc.) is are they part of a green economy?

It seems a green economy doesn’t necessitate shutting down such large-scale events, but it may mean rethinking them.  The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) defines the idea of the green economy in terms of:

improved human well-being and social equity, while significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities. In its simplest expression, a green economy can be thought of as one which is low carbon, resource efficient and socially inclusive.

Let’s assume, even with the air travel and other carbon activities that are not included in any of the offsets, that the low carbon goal is achieved at some Super Bowl in the future: it does not seem to follow that the event will be an easy fit in a green economy.  For three reasons:

  1. Distribution of Pollution. The problem and solution are not evenly spread.  Carbon offsets and renewable energy certificates typically offset with resources far removed from the problem.  Although the open grid does distribute power without discrimination to source, the pollution from power impacts specific areas.  The Gibson Generating station in Southern Indiana  which impacts Indianapolis is one of the most polluting in the country and in 2005 emitted over 9,000 tons of toxic air chemicals.  And like all pollution, that from the Gibson station is not minority or poverty neutral.  In 2014, it will be the largest coal burning power plant in North America.  Wind turbines in North Dakota producing power for the Super Bowl are excellent; but a green economy would need to deal with the spread of the problem.
  2. Reducing Environmental Risk.  Reducing carbon and other pollutants is of course absolutely necessary; however, it does not address the issue of environmental risk.  A green economy may entail that environmental investment prioritize decreasing risk.  Areas of Indianapolis, like many areas in the Midwest, have large areas sandwiched between industrial zones.  An Indianapolis Star Report in 2004, found that:  “residents in the heavily industrialized neighborhoods have died of cancer at rates significantly higher than elsewhere in Marion County… And a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency report indicated that two Southwestside neighborhoods were among the top 10 in the nation in terms of residents’ risk of developing cancer from industrial pollution.”  Benefits from large events should help reduce risk and not just offset its environmental impact.
  3. Travel costs.  Travel isn’t bad; it is one of the best things in life.  But it needs to be accounted for in a green economy.  Part of the pageantry of the events is certainly for tourists and fans; but local residents reduce travel costs for the events, keep the events unique and particular, and improve the social inclusivity of events.  Super Bowl Tickets, like many of these events, operate less as necessary funds to hosting the event and more as Veblen Goods (those valuable mostly because of the price paid).  These events would go far toward contributing the green economy and lowering travel costs by making sure tickets went to local citizens.

Just some preliminary thoughts on what the Green Economy may mean.  It doesn’t mean we have to reject big, celebratory, conspicuous events.  But it might mean we should think about what it means for those events to be ‘Green’.

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