Credit: Henrique Macedo

Moving the goalposts: can football really commit to the climate crisis?

By Gabriel Wheway

The climate crisis is hitting football, now it can lead the way by taking the radical steps to create a carbon-neutral world.

For a sector of society that is supposedly so adept at harnessing communities, cities and even countries, football often appears strangely weak at empowering action on the issues which matter most. Perhaps, this can be attributed to the pace of the sport, the relentless process of preparation, travelling and performing, restraining us as individuals from stopping and considering the existence of the sport as we know it. The climate crisis is the biggest issue facing humanity to date and its impact on the lives of people worldwide is becoming ever more profound. The world of professional sport seems to get overlooked when examining issues surrounding climate change. Sport is far from immune to these challenges and as an industry that is largely reliant on our natural environment, holding mass events every week and requiring people to travel to facilitate the immense competition; the sporting world recognises the responsibility and the vital need to help protect the planet. The climate crisis touches on all aspects of life in a complex web, where examining the consequences of a single action is startling and frankly overwhelming. 

“…football often appears strangely weak at empowering action on the issues which matter most.”

Football is at the forefront of inspiring individuals. The sport has the capacity to have a positive impact on many pressing issues and has the capability to inspire and affect real change in society. The English Football League (EFL) and its clubs have supposedly made a collective commitment to improve environmental practices and operations.  Sports Minister Nigel Huddleston has stated with “COP26 in Glasgow…just around the corner and the EFL Green Clubs initiative rightly puts football clubs front and centre of those sectors doing their bit for the planet”. On 11 October, the league announced details of EFL Green Clubs, a new league-wide initiative that will offer support to 72 members to aid the reduction of their environmental impact via a benchmarking and development scheme delivered by the environmental specialists at GreenCode. GreenCode is an environmental accreditation founded and managed by those who have successfully pioneered numerous sustainability initiatives at Forest Green Rovers. The club has since been recognised by both the United Nations and FIFA as the most environmentally sustainable professional sports club in the world. 

This commitment, however, is long overdue. It’s about time football uses its overwhelming power to address the climate crisis we are currently enduring. More than 62,000 grassroots football matches are cancelled or postponed due to climate change-related reasons every year, research has shown. The climate coalition discovered that on average every amateur club in the UK is hit with five cancellations or postponements each season due to extreme weather. Extreme weather conditions linked to climate change are already having a disruptive impact on the grassroots game and this has had and will likely have a profound effect on future participation levels. This hits professional clubs too, of the 92 teams in the Football League, 23 of these can expect partial or total annual flooding of their stadiums by 2050. Rising temperatures, prolonged periods of drought, new patterns of precipitation, destructive storms, and rising sea levels all need to be addressed as a matter of urgency. Football has the capacity to aid the termination of these daunting prospects. 

“More than 62,000 grassroots football matches are cancelled or postponed due to climate change-related reasons every year, research has shown.”

While clubs in the EFL are supposedly attempting to improve environmental practices and operations, one must ask: is it possible to be a green football fan? Carbon outlays are incredibly important when it comes to fans travelling and the potential consequences they can have. Borussia Mönchengladbach has taken an alternative approach to tackling emissions by providing all ticket holders with free use of public transport within a 300km radius of the stadium. Furthermore, car sharing incentives, linked to better or cheaper parking are being considered as a carbon-cutting measure. Mönchengladbach has even gone as far as expanding train capacity on match days. Perhaps this points to the biggest challenge for sport: dealing with the carbon emissions from spectator attendance, especially with international events that must deal with a large amount of air traffic. Due to the results of a study in 2019, UEFA decided to absorb the entire costs of offsetting the aviation emissions for Euro 2020 themselves. If international and European football is looking to continue in anything close to its current form, this must at the minimum be the default model for every single international sporting event. 

“…one must ask: is it possible to be a green football fan?”

Looking closer to home, while the EFL has set up plans to combat the climate crisis, the details and measures being taken are rather unclear. Independently, clubs have been making considerable attempts to combat the climate crisis in their own ways and have produced some rather eye-catching results. Manchester City now has edible coffee cups, Liverpool has built a new veggie and vegan pie stand at Anfield, and Juventus plants 200 trees for each goal they score. Dutch title winners, Ajax have committed to going beyond these small changes by making a positive impact at their ground, the Johan Cruyff Arena. They aim to build the most innovative stadium in the world: having installed more than 4,200 solar panels on the stadium roof and linking their energy supply to wind turbines, the Johan Cruyff Arena has ample power for matches and sends any excess to the national grid. Further, the stadium’s energy storage system makes use of batteries from used Nissan Leaf cars and grass cuttings from the pitch are fed to local goats, who in turn provide milk used to make the stadium’s own cheese. 

Football truly has an immense capacity to engage such a large audience on such pressing issues. Novel ideas for fan involvement are slowly beginning to appear. Competitions such as CUP26 pits supporters against each other in a bid to help change their habits. A team scores a “goal” each time a fan completes a green action, such as eating a meat-free meal or enjoying a screen-free evening. While the idea is novel and merely used as a mechanism of engagement, clubs do have the ability to influence and encourage fans. Football’s wider societal role is vital to tackling the ongoing climate crisis, it’s not only what clubs can do directly; it is a challenge that football needs to address with the billions of fans worldwide


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