The Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games and the UN Sustainable Development Goals

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Runners on a race track, with their shadows above them showing their silhouettes

By Professor Ian Thomson
Lloyds Banking Group Centre for Responsible Business, Birmingham Business School, University of Birmingham

The Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games has been lauded as one of the most successful Games of all time, and the most successful hosted in Britain. With a record number of over 1.5 million tickets reportedly sold, and around 1 billion people watching on television around the world, the Games gave a needed post-pandemic boost, not just to Birmingham but the wider West Midlands region. But as the clamour around the games begins to die down, now is the time to take a deep dive into what this success actually means, examine the legacy that Birmingham 2022 will leave behind, and see how it aligns with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are 17 aims adopted by all member states in 2015, which act as a blueprint for sustainable development. This holistic approach allows governments, businesses, and individuals to examine their activity and make sure it is putting them on the path to achieving the 17 different goals by 2030. Large events, such as the Commonwealth Games, can often be seen as counterintuitive to the SDGs. They can have negative impacts on the environment and aren’t often thought of as an opportunity to create meaningful change for people.  But has Birmingham 2022 changed this?

The Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games claimed to be the first carbon-neutral Commonwealth Games, laying out a fairly comprehensive strategy for their carbon-neutral legacy. Although carbon neutrality is rarely simple, the effort to minimise carbon emissions and the negative impact on the climate is commendable. By adhering to the key principles set out on their website, the Games organisers have done a brilliant job at integrating goal 7: affordable and clean energy, goal 11: sustainable cities and communities, and goal 13, climate action. By working with third-party experts on this plan, they have done their best to ensure that their carbon reporting is robust and accurate. When considering the number of extra visitors coming into the city, the organisers tied their entry tickets to the city’s public transport system to make it easier to get around without using private vehicles. Small steps such as this seem simple to integrate into the planning phases of large events, but they can have a huge impact. With earth in the middle of a climate crisis, carbon accounting and net-zero ambitions should be commonplace in every large-scale event.

It’s easy to see where the games align with some of the SDGs. For example, sporting events naturally align with goal 3: good health and well-being. But for other goals, further investigation is warranted. Goal 10, reducing inequalities and goal 5, gender equality, are not usually obviously progressed at sporting events, however, Birmingham 2022 was the first Commonwealth Games to integrate para-sport, and the first global multi-sporting event to give out more medals to women, rather than men. Similarly, the volunteer programme for the Games, the ‘Commonwealth Collective’, provided chances for improved participant well-being and training and education opportunities (goal 4: quality education).

The Birmingham 2022 organisers implemented a ‘social value charter’ for suppliers. According to their website, this attempted to ensure that ‘suppliers generate local benefits, and that inclusivity and human rights are central to Games delivery.’ Over time, if this policy is shown to have achieved what it set out to then this will have hit goal 16: peace, justice, and strong institutions and goal 8: decent work and economic growth. In fact, apart from goal 3, goal 8 is probably the most obvious SDG aligned with the 2022 Commonwealth Games. By hosting the Games, Birmingham and the wider West Midlands region saw a huge increase in tourists, meaning a boost to local businesses and new jobs created. Goal 9: industry, innovation, and infrastructure has also been somewhat incorporated into the preparation for the Games with huge investment in the pre-existing sporting venues such as the Alexander Stadium, as well as the building of the brand-new Sandwell Aquatics Centre.

So, on the surface, Birmingham 2022 has embedded and helped move the needle forward on a huge number of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. We will have to wait a bit longer to understand the real outcomes of the Commonwealth Games and its resulting legacy. However, the intention to do good is obvious – not just for Birmingham and West Midlands but on a much larger scale. If Birmingham 2022 is revealed to have achieved even a small portion of these SDGs, it will be a great example of how international events can be a force for positive change.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham.

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