Stephen Day

Those of you who, like me, serve as a soldier in Wellington’s standing army of public servants are now adept at recording every kilogram of carbon we emit in pursuit of serving the bureaucracy. We know the carbon cost of travelling to work, of working from home, of switching on the lights and of failing to compost our scraps.

It’s been a long time getting started, but we are finally on the journey to understanding what reducing our carbon footprint means for our day-to-day working life.

But, for our other life, our running life, there is no reporting, analytics or analysis. We just take the best guess about how to live in a way that reduces our impact on the climate. 

Me, I spend 45 hours each week at or on my way to and from work. I  spend about 5 to 8 hours a week engaged in physical activity and recreation — mostly running. Some of that running overlaps with commuting, which is accounted for in my work’s carbon emission reporting. The rest belongs predominantly to Wellington Scottish and the Wellington running community. Carbon-zero running sounds like it should be some space-age-Kipchoge-level technology. In fact, it is about removing the carbon from the Wellington Scottish ledger.

Running should be climate-friendly. Apart from the shoes, very little carbon is emitted from the actual act of running. But once we turn it from a casual thing we do — lace up our sneakers and run out the front door for 30 minutes — to a structured, competitive sport, we introduce layers of complexity that all start emitting carbon.

I have travelled to seven countries and sat on numerous long-haul flights to run races. I have driven thousands of kilometres, and imported running gear from across the globe. Because of this, I know I don’t have any moral authority. And I don’t claim technical knowledge to share on our path to carbon zero running — just a concern that we can do things differently. 

How can our club do more to lower our impact on the climate? Here are some suggestions:

Buying environmentally friendly shoes and clothing such as Adidas and recycling it all afterwards helps a bit, but the big carbon-friendly changes we can make are around transport. When you buy new gear from a company that claims to be environmentally friendly, it is normally either focused on reducing plastic (a good thing, but a separate issue to carbon emissions) or it is offsetting its emissions (also a good thing) rather than reducing them. Ultimately though, all new products have a carbon cost to them. Buying more stuff, no matter its provenance, means more carbon emissions.

We should still take these actions — both as individual consumers and as connected citizens. Wellington Scottish can be one of many voices in the national and global citizenry pushing for change. For example, we can demand running shoes made from recycled materials, reducing the sport’s carbon footprint. We can pressure to restore NZ manufacturers of running shoes so we can change from overseas companies. We can advocate for our national grid generators to use only renewable energy sources, such as solar or wind, to power event equipment, lighting, and sound systems. All of these actions ask other people, companies and politicians to change. 

But the most important measures we can take to significantly reduce our carbon emissions are local ones that we, as a Wellington community, have direct control over — transport to and from our runs and the location of our runs. These local measures are where we can make urgent and significant reductions to our emissions. 

Most runners heading to the University Relays this year will need to use private transport — no public transport is available. For most, a bike ride is not feasible unless they live on the Kāpiti Coast. For that event and many others, the races start at various times, meaning that walkers, families with children and adults will all have different travel schedules. This makes carpooling and bus hire more complicated and less convenient. 

Walking, cycling, running or taking public transport to racing and training locations is more climate-friendly than driving. But often, those options are impossible because we have yet to account for them as a concern. 

We need to redesign our races, our entire racing and training calendar, with carbon emissions in mind. For instance, the Honest Ten, which is centrally located and close to active transport and public transport hubs, has the potential for a much lower carbon footprint than the Shaw Baton or Wellington Road Champs.

There, runners can easily arrive by bus, train or bike, and everyone starts at the same time, so if they are driving, carpooling is a more viable option. 

Choosing an environmentally friendly location, equipped with facilities such as toilets and water fountains can also reduce the need for additional equipment and energy consumption.

We also need to explore whether there are better options to get us to our runs. Chartered public transport is an obvious option for events with many people who all want to be at the same place simultaneously. But perhaps flamingos, mevos and ferries all have a role to play too. 

Currently, the choice is the wrong way around. We assume when people are going to races or training, they will be driving. If people are not driving, they usually need to make a conscious choice to do so. Instead, we should assume that people are not driving to races and training. If they are driving they should be making a conscious decision to do so. 

Club weekends away should account for climate emissions — road trips where we carpool, or take trains and buses have far fewer emissions than ones where everyone flies. But this is not currently a consideration when we design our calendars for the year.

We also collectively need to reduce the number of long-distance trips we take to go running. We must reframe our values to cherish local races in our outdoor communities as much or more than we love distant bucket-list races. 

It took me a long time to learn that what makes a race a special experience is the community of runners coming together for a shared human experience. If we make a collective commitment to creating these experiences locally, together, in a carbon-neutral way, we reduce our need to seek out those experiences individually and afar. 

We need to take the carbon emissions out of an activity that should be carbon neutral. Changing our model for organised running is going to be complicated, but it is also necessary.