COP 26: Why football has to fully embrace the climate agenda

WE HAVE seen it many times over the decades, a football pitch deep in water with seagulls perched on the crossbars. Any club close to major rivers or residing on a flood plain or marshland can be vulnerable. Even before we became aware of the dangers of climate change and rising temperatures and sea levels, football clubs would occasionally become victims of excessive rainfall and swollen rivers and streams. David Goldblatt, in his paper on the subject, suggested that almost a quarter of football clubs in the Premier/EFL will be subject to flooding in the future. To some extent, it has always been somebody else’s problem, but environmental issues, like the displacement of people, is a worldwide issue that we all need to address.

Let’s start at the lower levels, because in truth, it is grassroots football that will be most affected by the consequences of water levels. Non-league football in Britain, which is arguably most connected to local communities (or should be), can become a standard-bearer for sustainability and social responsibility. However, it may be that big changes have to be made to ensure this level of the game demonstrates firm commitment.

First of all, travelling to away games should probably be restricted, in other words, journeys need to be shorter and more accessible. The biggest contributor to emissions aside from aircraft – aviation accounts for 5% of all global warming – are cars and buses. Non-league teams travelling a couple hundred miles to play in front of 250-300 people in midweek just doesn’t make sense on many counts. The answer is smaller, more localised leagues, which may not please everyone, but it would show responsibility. At the same time, energy usage can be restricted by limiting the number of floodlit games. In terms of weekend games, kick-off times could be adjusted to ensure lights are not needed in the winter, as for midweek, the calendar could be adjusted to only play midweek in the late summer and spring. Again, kick-off times could be modified to make that more feasible. If non-league is all about local people watching their local club, this should be an achievable goal.

In addition to these measures, clubs could adopt eco-friendly strategies such as water recycling and discouraging fans from driving to games. Certainly, in the small town football paradigm, there should be little need to use a car to attend a match.

Non-league and grassroots can play its part – according to the Climate Coalition, some 62,000 grassroots games are cancelled every year because of climate change – but like every aspect on environmental responsibility, it needs the bigger entities to follow suit for any projects to be successful.

UEFA have recently introduced the Europa Conference League, an additional club competition that increases the number of travelling clubs and games. This produces a 20% rise in qualifying games and 55% rise in group games. An astonishing 85% of Conference group games will be between teams that are at least 1,000 kilometres apart. Around 40% of these games involve trips of 2,000 kilometres or more. 

UEFA claims to be responsible about its carbon footprint, but the multi-hosting of the European Championship seemed quite contradictory. In addition, hosting the Champions League 2021 in Porto, between two English clubs, seemed a foolhardy idea, as it did in 2019 when Madrid and Baku played host to two all-English European finals. The World Land Trust estimated that the Liverpool v Tottenham Champions League final in 2019 in Madrid would generate 10,000 tonnes of carbon. From a practical perspective, this didn’t make sense at all.

FIFA also has to ask itself if the Qatar World Cup, so controversial in many ways, is really such a responsible event given the need for air conditioning to make games more palatable. AC emits very harmful gases into the atmosphere. 

AC is a completely artificial solution to a major problem and one that is counter-productive to the climate cause. Artificial pitches, so long seen as the answer to many clubs’ problems in terms of community use and fund-raising, may not be as climate friendly as people hoped. They have contributed to plastic pollution and there were health concerns about the inhalation of particles. 

Experts claim that football, to send the right messages, has to reduce its reliance on sponsorship from the hydrocarbon industries. UEFA’s tie-up with Gazprom is a good place to start, but around half of the Premier League has some sort of fossil fuel sponsorship and across the other top five leagues, more than 50% of clubs have links with companies from the sectors. It is no great surprise given the amount of wealth across these industries. The world’s leading clubs, including Chelsea, Manchester City, Paris Saint-Germain and now Newcastle United, are owned by energy-related states, companies or individuals – the so-called “petro clubs”.

Happily, clubs embracing green strategies are on the increase, but the leader is Forest Green Rovers from the English Football League. This is a club that has risen from non-league and has shown that an unwavering commitment across every aspect of the club’s operations can be successful and replicable. Tottenham Hotspur’s new ground has also been constructed with environmental responsibility at the forefront, including repurposing the old stadium’s rubble. Other clubs, such as Arsenal, Brighton, Hibernian, Ajax and Borussia Dortmund, have all included sustainability in their business model. Initiatives like “Game Zero”, which took place at the Tottenham v Chelsea Premier League match in 2021-22, are laudable, but how did the fans get to the game?

The environmental cost of travelling to games has to be factored in, hence pan-European competition must surely be under threat, but pre-season tours of Asia and the Americas have to be considered superfluous. 

Adapting to change has to be a priority for clubs and governing bodies, indeed the whole of global sport. Football, globally, emits about 30 million tonnes of carbon dioxide every year, the same as a small country like Denmark. This fact, along with the social position of the game has, makes it ideally placed to influence and inspire way beyond its boundaries. 

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