Non-League football can lead the way in the climate agenda

MY local non-league club, Hitchin Town, has averaged round trips of 120 miles per away game this season and on four occasions, the milometer has almost hit the 200 mark. This is a part-time club, run mostly by volunteers and their home attendances for league games average around 450. They are loyally supported, both at home and away matches.

They are unfortunate in that they are in the Central Premier of the Southern League, Hitchin often feels like an outpost and therefore they travel quite a distance to some games. At times, you have to wonder if a 200-mile round trip is worth it for a game played in front of less than 500 people, but that’s non-league. Hitchin are just one of dozens of clubs in a similar position.

Travelling to away games by coach is certainly better for the environment than any army of cars, including the very harmful, gas-guzzling and climate unfriendly SUVs that proliferate British home counties towns. Coaches are even less damaging than trains, often thought to be the most friendly mode of transport. 

Local football should encourage less travelling to games. It is quite remarkable that even in a town like Hitchin, a lot of people still drive to the Top Field stadium. The myth that everyone walks to the ground is just that, the stream of parked vehicles in surrounding streets tells you that many opt for convenience. While any club can claim to be “green” in its processes and practices, while a big percentage of the crowd drives to the match, the damage will continue. Perhaps a day of walking to the ground would be a good initiative for a club, or maybe a non-driving day?

In order for travelling to be restricted, leagues may need to become more regionalised than they are at the moment. While football is an essential part of so many lives, there is ample scope for recalibration of an activity that should have a degree of flexibility. As Real Betis in Spain proclaim in their stadium, “No planet, no football”, so we should all be motivated to help. It is arguably time for the governance of clubs to include stronger rules around environmental issues that can be punished if breached.

And that would include floodlights. Around a third of Hitchin’s games in 2021-22 have been under floodlights, and one can assume this applies to most of their peers. One could argue that midweek games are needed to ensure fixtures are fulfilled, but smaller league constitutions could help the reduction quite easily. As for Saturday games, making kick-off times earlier would reduce the need for “lights on” in the winter months. With fewer games, closer rivals and earlier kick-offs, non-league clubs would surely cut their fuel and travelling costs. Less reliance on artificial lighting would also reduce light pollution.

Pitches are another issue. The average football pitch needs approximately 20,000 litres of water per day. That’s a huge requirement, so recycling has to be a priority for clubs. Artificial pitches may be a commercial winner for some clubs, but there has to be some question marks about their environmental impact. Water conservation has to go hand-in-hand with energy efficiency technology such as solar panels.

Many non-league clubs are proud of their position in the local community, but a firm commitment to the environment can make them even more important and also local standard bearers for the green agenda. But this won’t be fully effective unless leagues and governing bodies grasp the task at hand and reshape the game beyond the Premier League and EFL. While COP26 has stole all the headlines, nobody should be fooled into believing that small-time football will be immune from the consequences of severe climate change.

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. 

Major clubs need to create the right climate

RIGHT NOW, climate change is a very topical issue, and rightly so. If the scientists are correct, we may all face some serious issues in the relatively near future, issues that cannot be ignored or dismissed as scaremongering.

Football has to ask itself what role it can play in combating climate change. We are told that there are three things that we most certainly do as a start: ensure we do not waste food; eat less meat like beef and lamb; and travel less by air. Although these three conditions may seem rather trivial, consider the impact on the football industry and the periphery of the game.

But first of all, we should ask how much energy it takes to put a game of football on. For a start, floodlit games must cost an awful lot to stage, cost-wise and in its energy usage. I recall reading a couple of years ago that the home of Arsenal, the Emirates has a battery storage system that can provide enough energy for an entire 90-minute match. Presumably, they are not the only club with this type of facility.

Increasingly, new stadiums are being built with ecology in mind. In Morro da Mineiro, Brazil, a football pitch has been constructed that uses human energy to power its lighting. It cost just US$ 100,000 to create and uses underground kinetic tiles that convert player movement into energy to power the lights. Given this is Brazil, the land of joga bonito, apparently the lights work even better when players apply some typically skilful Brazilian movement!

Clubs should be asking themselves if their summer tours to the other side of the world are really necessary

One of the most high profile club commitments to ecology can be found at Forest Green Rovers, whose New Lawn Stadium not only has the world’s first organic pitch, but also sources its power from 100 solar panels. All rain water is recycled and the catering at the club is 100% Vegan. The club has also announced a plan for a new, completely sustainable stadium, which is still to be approved.

Lower down the pyramid, Dartford FC’s new ground has caught the imagination of a lot of people. From the outside, Princes Park looks very attractive, with sleek lines and tasteful facades. It doesn’t look like the average bolt-together ground comprising modern corrugation and slabs of concrete. Some thought has clearly gone into it. Furthermore, it is low level, which we are told is aimed at reducing noise and light pollution. And, most strikingly, although I didn’t notice it myself when I visited Dartford, the entire ground has a sedum roof blanket, which, for the uninitiated, is a grass roof. In fact, almost every aspect of the stadium has been built in the name of ecology.

Where there is a large football crowd, there is the potential for pollution, but in some countries, the discarded burger box or drinking cup is a thing of the past. In Japan, after a game, the fans recycle their litter and ensure they don’t leave anything behind. Before a game, “stadium sanitation” rules are displayed on the electronic scoreboard, ranging from rubbish disposal instructions and pleas to respect other spectators’ privacy. It’s typical of the Japanese and their self-discipline – this is no gimmick, it is a reflection of a way of life.

One thing we should perhaps ask ourselves is whether clubs really need to fly around the world for summer tours and ambassadorial friendlies. We know why they embark on these tours, in order to spread the love among the global franchise and in order to monetise their audience. But if flying is such a toxic pollutant, then surely we should start to ask (as they did in WW2), “is your journey necessary?”.

And if cattle farming and the production of beef is something that needs to be reined in, we could, eventually, see the demise of the dreaded burger. Football, indeed all sporting events, will need to find something else for the staple diet of football fans. The owner of Forest Green Rovers could provide some advice there!

There’s little doubt that we will need to alter the way we live in the future. The world’s resources are becoming scarcer, raw materials are getting consumed at an alarming rate and the weather seems to be becoming more extreme. Sometimes it is difficult to persuade politicians, corporations and governments that we must do something, but a 16 year-old from Sweden made people sit up and take notice. Football, as most popular sport and one of the planet’s most effective people attractors, could really help point the way for the rest of the world. The game as a force for good.

Photo: PA