World in union? Rugby World Cup begins with target for the game to be net zero by 2040, but sustainability challenges loom.

The 2023 Rugby World Cup, which takes place in France in September and October, will be the first edition of the tournament to be held since World Rugby unveiled targets to halve its emissions by 2030 and reach net zero by 2040. But with 20 teams from across the world involved in the World Cup and reports of an expansion to 24 teams from 2031, the plans face numerous difficulties.
September 7, 2023

With over 500 million people said to be fans, more than eight million players, and 132 countries with member federations of World Rugby, the game’s global governing body, rugby union remains one of the most popular sports on the planet.1

Its geographical reach is widespread, from Europe to Australia, New Zealand, the Pacific Islands, Africa, the Americas and also increasingly Asia – Japan hosted the last World Cup in 2019.

World Rugby says it is keenly aware of its responsibilities around both the mitigation of climate effects as well as its own carbon footprint, and states that:

“climate change is impacting our players and communities who already experience consequences of extreme temperatures, storms, floods, droughts, air pollution and sea level rise.”2

It adds:

“A true fabric of our game, the Pacific Islands are among the most vulnerable communities on earth to the impacts of climate change.”

The body notes that 70% of the Samoan population is in low-lying coastal areas, and Tonga is second only to Vanuatu as the country most at risk from climate change, according to the UN.

Over recent years, World Rugby has taken a number of steps designed to help address such concerns and also reduce its own environmental impact. In 2018, it joined the UN Environment/IOC Clean Seas initiative; in 2019, it became one of the first international sports federations to sign the UN Sports for Climate Action Framework, and in January 2022, it launched its Environmental Sustainability Plan (ESP) 2030.3

World Rugby says the plan is designed

“to help tackle the environmental sustainability issues that both affect and are affected by rugby.”

It sets out a series of ambitious targets, including halving World Rugby’s emissions by 2030 and reaching net zero by 2040, in line with the commitments required to join the UN Sports for Climate Action Framework and its Race to Zero pledge.4

The plan focuses on three “priority themes”:

·      Climate action: addressing the carbon footprint of rugby, adaptation measures to stay in line with the 2015 Paris Agreement and use rugby’s platform to spread awareness and advocate for climate action

·      Circular economy: addressing issues of single-use plastic, short-life materials and waste management

·      Natural environment protection: addressing how rugby can help sustain ecosystems and promote healthier environments wherever it is played.

World Rugby says it aims to achieve its target of reducing the carbon footprint of all its operations, including its events, by at least 50% by 2030, without relying on offsetting and will make sustainability a material consideration in all World Rugby decision-making processes, including the awarding of Rugby World Cups.

The body is yet to publish a breakdown of its current emissions, although, in its ESP 2030, it acknowledges that:

“our principal sources of greenhouse gas emissions are likely to be the travel and operational activities related to our portfolio of major events.”

The 2022 Rugby World Cup Sevens, held in Cape Town last September, provided fans with free travel via the MyCiTi bus network as part of efforts to offer sustainable transport options for fans.5

And for this year’s Rugby World Cup in France, due to be held from September 8 to October 28, initiatives will include a ‘green mobility platform’ offering fans all available eco-friendly travel solutions, such as carpooling, green taxis, scooters and electric buses.6

However, with 20 teams from across the world competing in a tournament that lasts just over six weeks, the total emissions from the air travel used by players, spectators, media, fans and everyone else involved in the World Cup will pose the biggest challenge when it comes to reducing the game’s carbon footprint.

And with World Rugby reported to be considering expanding the tournament to 24 teams from 2031, when the USA will be the host, that challenge is likely only to get bigger.7 With the 2027 edition taking place in Australia, the size of the host countries also means the next two World Cups are likely to involve significant amounts of internal air travel.

At this stage, it is unclear how World Rugby will be able to achieve its targets whether the World Cup expands or not. Among its short-term actions listed in the ESP 2030 is the following: “In collaboration with organising committees use science-based targets to confirm a carbon budget for event delivery and define a GHG emissions reduction plan considering each operational area, without relying on offsetting.”

After a foundational phase of 2022 and 2023 to establish a series of short-term measures, World Rugby says the plan will then follow the Rugby World Cup cycles of 2024-27 and 2028-31.

“It is too early to give a detailed breakdown of the latter two phases, as much will depend on outcomes of the first two years of implementation,”

it states.

However, in the ESP 2030, World Rugby also unveiled the additional target of the Rugby World Cup and the annual HSBC Sevens Series becoming climate-positive by 2030.

World Rugby says this would mean:

“the residual carbon footprint of delivering the event will be over-compensated by low/zero-carbon initiatives in the host territory that have been inspired and instigated by the event being held.”

It explains that

“examples could include upgrading local energy and transport infrastructure, introducing new low carbon practices to local sports facilities, and creating or enhancing greenspaces.”

Other aims listed in the ESP 2030 include ensuring all World Rugby competitions have a positive impact on the natural environment by 2025 and reducing the number of short-life items produced for World Rugby competitions by 80% by 2027.

As part of its plans to address waste, more than 200,000 used mobile phones were collected and recycled to make the medals for the 2023 Rugby World Cup, in an initiative carried out with tournament sponsor Orange.8

While World Rugby’s plan to reduce its impact is still at a relatively early stage, it seems that this year’s World Cup will help provide clarity over how it might be able to reach its ambitious targets. Yet, as discussions continue about the number of teams playing in its flagship tournament, as well as future hosts, there will inevitably be growing tension over how it can achieve its aims as the game continues to expand globally.



1 Overview | About World Rugby

2 Environmental Sustainability Plan 2030 | World Rugby

3 World Rugby launches ambitious plan to support global action on climate change | World Rugby

4 Sports for Climate Action | UNFCCC

5 World-Rugby-tournaments.pdf (

6 France 2023: a Rugby World Cup with a positive impact | Rugby World Cup 2023

7 24 teams likely to line up at USA 2031 (

8 With Orange and Monnaie de Paris, sustainable medals for Rugby World Cup 2023 | Rugby World Cup 2023

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Jonathan Dyson

Jonathan's work on the sports industry has been published by The Times, The Observer, The Independent and The Sun, as well as Sport Business, Off The Pitch, FC Business and Zero Carbon Academy.

He has also contributed to BBC Radio 5 Live, Middle East Eye, The Scotsman,, World Soccer, When Saturday Comes, Wisden Cricket Monthly and School Sport.

Away from sports, he has held full-time and freelance roles at a number of global B2B publishers. He was the Founding Editor of Twist - a magazine covering the latest developments across the fashion industry supply chain. The title is published by World Textile Information Network (WTiN). Following the success of the launch of Twist, Jonathan was promoted to Head of Content at WTiN. In this newly-created role, he was responsible for developing WTiN's digital content and social media presence as the company evolved from being a magazine publisher to a market-leading media company across all platforms.

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