In August 2022, French climate activists filled in holes at golf courses near Toulouse with cement. In July 2023, Spanish activists followed suit, filling in holes at courses across Spain with soil and planting seedlings on the courses. The reason? Protesting golf’s very thirsty use of water in times of drought.
At a time of unprecedented heatwaves and droughts fuelled by the climate crisis, we got curious – what would the world look like if we had fewer golf courses? What might we have instead?
Less Golf? More Water
Golf courses use a lot of water. The United States Golf Association estimates that golf courses in the USA use over 2 billion gallons (that’s over 9 billion litres) of water per day for irrigation. That’s 9 times the amount of water used by the entire nation of Scotland, every single day, just to keep American golf courses green. Golf courses are often exempt from hose-pipe bans, even during times of drought. This not only uses up precious water supplies, but the perceived unfairness makes it harder for everyday people to want to reduce their water use. When extreme weather is leaving people with no drinking water and groundwater reserves are drying up, how can anyone justify this amount of water use for a game of golf?
Less Golf? More Space for Nature
We are in a biodiversity crisis as well as a climate crisis. Research has shown that rewilded land not only supports more wildlife, but captures more carbon into the environment. While some golf clubs claim to have benefits for the environment, they seem to conveniently ignore the heavy use of fertilisers and herbicides used to keep the monocultures of grass looking pristine, or the damage done to protected natural sites such as sand dunes, due to the construction of golf courses.
Less Golf? More Renewable Energy
In 2022, during her brief stint as UK prime minister, Liz Truss proposed a ban on solar farms on agricultural land. Landowners in Ohio have also opposed renewable development on their farm land. To avoid this clash between food production and energy production, why couldn’t we turn some of the 40,000 golf courses world wide into solar farms? Some back-of-an-envelope-maths shows that turning every golf course in the world into a solar farm could provide nearly 1% of the energy that we use globally each year (you can see my working at the bottom of the article*). While this is not a realistic suggestion, it highlights just how differently we could use the space for the good of the climate. Plus, solar farms have been shown to increase biodiversity compared to other agricultural land.
Less Golf? More Wellbeing
Golf courses take up huge amounts of room. In the UK, nearly one third of all open green space is a golf course, but around 1 in 5 people in the UK are deprived of access to green space. The late Peter Allis, a golfer and golf commentator, stated that golf courses “create a pleasant place for people to go and enjoy themselves”. However, this doesn’t seem to consider the vast majority of the population that don’t play golf. Surely the benefits to everybody of time spent in nature outweigh the needs of a privileged few to whack a ball into a tiny hole?
If we don’t want to go totally (re)wild, could we turn golf courses into allotments to produce sustainable, affordable food? The UK has approximately 10 times more space devoted to golf courses than to allotments, and waiting times for an allotment could be up to 17 years depending on where in the country you live. Research has shown that allotments have huge benefits for our health and wellbeing, as well as boosting food security. Wouldn’t it be great if we had 10 times more of them?
Golf is a pastime of the wealthy – the majority of UK golf clubs charge over £1,000 a year for membership – and, like many wealthy people’s habits (like flying, or fashion hauls), uses up a disproportionate amount of resources while nature and the climate get squeezed out. Isn’t it time we gave up golf for good?
- Don’t play golf! Try your hand at other sports or try mini golf or a driving range to get your golf fix
- If you really can’t be without a game of golf, join a more eco-friendly club, or encourage your club to adopt some of these more environmentally friendly practises
- Read about successful golf course rewilding in Australia
- If you’re in England, join the Right To Roam campaign to get more access to green spaces
*The average UK golf course is about 70 hectares (according to the Financial Times), although courses in larger countries like the USA are likely to be bigger. 40,000 golf courses globally means 2,800,000 hectares of golf course. Carbon Commentary estimate the annual energy production of a solar farm in the UK to be 480 megawatt hours per hectare per year. 2,800,00ha of golf courses times 480mwh of solar energy is 1,344,000,000mwh per year (1,344twh). Our World In Data report that, in 2022, annual global energy use was 178,899twh. If we divide our potential golf course energy by the total global energy use, we get 0.75%. Therefore, if we assume the average golf course is the size of a UK golf course and can produce energy at a similar rate to a UK solar farm (admittedly some big ‘if’s there) turning all of the golf courses in the world into sources of renewable energy would produce nearly 1% of global energy.