News & Updates

5 June 2023 • General

Eliza's call for a cleaner, greener future

New Zealand pole vault champion Eliza McCartney believes we need to act with greater urgency amid the climate change crisis.

To mark World Environment Day today (5 June) we chat to sustainability advocate and New Zealand pole vault star Eliza McCartney about how we can make a difference and combat the climate change crisis.

Following the extreme weather events that have battered New Zealand this year, it has never seemed more timely to discuss the growing threat of climate change.

For Eliza McCartney, one of nine global athlete ambassadors for the World Athletics Champions for a Better World programme which supports greater sustainability and encourages other athletes to take a more active role in addressing climate concerns, events such as Cyclone Gabrielle offer even greater evidence of the need to act more with more urgency about the real and present threat of climate change.

“Unfortunately, it’s evident we are in it now (the impacts of climate change),” says Eliza. “The extreme storm events we’ve seen in New Zealand were most likely intensified by a warmer climate, particularly rainfall volume. The storms we’ve experienced this year scream of a changing climate, I just hope it helps bring about some greater urgency.”

Eliza’s deep and passionate advocacy for living in a more sustainable world was triggered after completing a marine science general education paper when studying a physiology degree at Auckland University years ago.

“It blew my mind,” she says of the paper. “I was just so shocked that I was only learning about the horrible degradation happening in our oceans by accidently stumbling across this paper. I had no idea the extent our impacts were having on the oceans. It was an awakening moment.”

Finding the demands of juggling a career of an international athlete with that of extensive periods in the lab as part of her physiology degree increasingly challenging, she would later decide to pursue her increasing fascination in sustainability by switching to study an environmental science degree at Massey University.

As she discovered more about the changing global environment and understanding the science behind it, this hardened her stance on the seriousness of climate change and over time she has changed her habits to live a more environmentally responsible life and helped bring about changing habits in others.

“I found changing my behaviour more significant than I expected,” she says. “I think sometimes if you tell someone to do something they are less likely to do it. But I noticed that when people saw the little changes I’ve made and the everyday sustainable habits I’ve incorporated into my life, then their behaviour started to change too. I found leading through action caused a chain reaction.”

Eliza also made a conscious decision not to partner with companies she believed did not offer a satisfactory sustainability approach. As a professional athlete with a high profile she opted to adopt a philosophy to use her profile with different organisations to promote environmental and social issues.

The 2016 Rio Olympic pole vault bronze medallist, for example, happily aligned with Hyundai NZ, who she says are “community focussed and fully engaged” in sustainable transport. As their electric vehicle ambassador she drives an EV.

Where possible, Eliza also tries to avoid short haul flights  – “because the emissions per person are much higher than for a long haul flight” – and reduces emissions by driving with others to athletics meets in the North Island.

Eliza has also tried to live the values of her environmental philosophy by reducing the number of animal products she eats and when she does consume red meat she opts to buy from a company that hunt wild deer on the South Island.

“I find it hard to be fully plant based with the demands of my sport, so I buy local and more sustainable animal products where possible,” she explains. “Particularly in a country like New Zealand, the biggest impact on the environment we have as individuals comes from our diet. Local, seasonal, fresh, and lots of plants is a good guide to stick by.”

Beyond her personal stance on environment issues, she is encouraged by the general view of many athletes in the sport and Eliza insists international athletes’ familiarity with global travel and exposure to different cultures and languages does make them more receptive to environmental and social issues.

She is also encouraged by a World Athletics Survey which found that 76 per cent of athletes were very concerned about climate change and almost 90 per cent said the sport of athletics should help build a more sustainable future.

However, she called upon the sport to do more in this space.

“Sometimes there is a lack of understanding in how sport fits into sustainability,” she says. “It is important to remember that every facet of society has to change, and sport is part of that. We have to be willing to do things differently. We are not exempt from it. I can understand some people saying, ‘what has sport got to do with climate change’ but it is about the whole of society working together.”

Initiated last year, Eliza hopes to make an impact with the World Athletics Champions for a Better World Programme. Understanding the power of sport in eliciting change, she hopes that by adding an athletes’ voice to sustainability strategies and initiatives can help raise greater awareness for all stakeholders in the sport.

She takes her role seriously and believes sport can be a positive vehicle for environmental and social change.

“Sport has huge power,” she says. “It has millions of fans around the world to influence and individual stars with their own fan base. There are just so many opportunities for athletics to lead, raise awareness, and show society how we are changing. Change doesn’t have to be negative, change is usually full of opportunities to improve a system. Events can still carry on, they will just need to do so in a more sustainable manner which is kinder on the planet.”