What Can the Global Game do about Football’s Carbon Footprint?

Joe Ronan

Joe Ronan

socer footballs on the playing field turf
photo credit: Forest Green Rovers

Football is the world’s most popular sport. It also has a reputation for being a little reactionary, slow to change. However, there are key figures in the game pushing for it to take football’s carbon footprint seriously. Is football ready to play its role in the fight against climate change? 

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Football’s carbon footprint: What can the global game do about global warming?

250 million people play football. The last World Cup, hosted by Russia in 2018, was watched by half of the world’s population- an estimated 3.572 billion people. It is no surprise that football’s carbon footprint is substantial. 

Football is a truly global industry. There is little else that has the same reach and emotional pull as the thrilling game.   

On the surface, it seems that there is a real lack of engagement in the sporting world with the environment. In and amongst the whirl of transfers, tournaments, and results, noise about football’s carbon footprint can be hard to come by. But there are signs that things might be changing.  

One of football’s most popular podcasts,  The Guardian’s ‘Football Weekly,’ recently ran a special episode entitled ‘The Climate Crisis and Football.’  

What is the relationship between football and climate change? 

David Goldbatt, an author of Playing Against The Clock, told ‘Football Weekly’: “what’s the lesson of Covid? Well, take the scientists seriously, assume the worst-case scenario really can happen, and if you’re going to do something about it, let’s do it now, not ten years down the line… let’s apply that to climate change and sport.”   

So, taking that message, what is the relationship between football and climate change? And how can those of us who love sport and are committed to taking the climate crisis seriously balance between the 2?

football match with stadium full of people
photo credit: Vienna Reyes / Unsplash

Football’s Carbon Footprint

It is estimated that football contributes about 0.3% – 0.4% of global emissions. This is far from the insubstantial figure. As Goldbatt says, football’s carbon footprint is of a similar size to Tunisia’s. 

Most of this carbon footprint, about 60% – 70% comes from travel to and from games. This isn’t players, but fans. In 2018, 7.7 million fans traveled to Russia to watch the World Cup. And they came from absolutely everywhere: Peru, Columbia, England, Croatia, Japan. 

The problem is, in a world of carbon-intensive transport, such a global festival of sport takes its toll on the environment. The aviation industry contributes 2% of global emissions, in total, transport is responsible for a quarter of direct CO2 emissions from fuel combustion.  

Football’s global reach is what can it a powerful agent for positive change

At the minute, however – whilst we rely on carbon-intensive modes of transport – that same global nature is a massive problem when it comes to football’s carbon footprint.  

Advertising is another stain on the game. UEFA, the governing body of European Football, has pledged to offset the estimated 405,000 tonnes of carbon that will be produced at this summer’s European Championship.

On the face of it, this is fantastic news. But UEFA’s Champions League remains sponsored by Gazprom, the Russian energy company. Needless to say, Gazprom’s emissions are substantial.

Taking money from a fossil fuel company is never a good look if you want to talk about saving the environment.

Forest Green Rovers v Cambridge UnitedEFL Sky Bet League
photo credit: Forest Green Rovers

Forest Green Rovers: Fighting Football’s Carbon Footprint

There are football clubs out there doing things differently. Forest Green Rovers F.C. take their carbon footprint very seriously indeed. In fact, they’re carbon neutral and are officially the world’s greenest football club.

They play in a wooden stadium, where you will only find vegan food, on a pesticide-free pitch, and in a kit made from recycled coffee beans. And they’re actually good players. After years in non-league, they now play professionally in League Two- the fourth tier of English football. 

“It’s all about energy, transport, and food” 

Forest Green was bought by the green industrialist, and the man behind the Netflix hit ‘Seaspiracy,’ Dale Vince in 2010. “Climate change looks difficult and complicated and you don’t know where to start,” Vince told the podcast, but really: “it’s all about energy, transport, and food.” 

What powers you, where you go, and what you eat – tackling these issues forms the basis of Forest Green Rovers’ sustainability: “80% of everyone’s carbon footprint, more or less, and every organization, is just in those three things.”

The Forest Green Rovers story is one of hope. They are a leader in sustainable sport, and they even play half-decent football. 

Ecological stadium made of wood from Forest Green Rovers
photo credit: Forest Green Rovers

Other major clubs are following

Arsenal defender Hector Bellerin invested in Forest Green last year, and German club Wolfsburg has become one of the first to publish analysis into their carbon footprint.

Wolfsburg is, admittedly, owned by Volkswagen. Whilst the car manufacturer has pledged to be carbon neutral by 2050, building cars remains a hugely carbon-intensive process. When it comes to tackling football’s carbon footprint, however, it’s a step in the right direction.  

At least there is a growing movement, led for the large part by Forest Green. Forest Green was also instrumental in getting together with the UN to create the Sports For Climate Action Framework. A pact that commits 200 signatories from across the sporting world to climate neutrality by 2050. Notable signatories include Arsenal, Tottenham, Southampton, and Liverpool.

A Conclusion: Sports For Climate Action 

According to the UN: “sports organizations can display climate leadership by engaging actively and collectively in the climate neutrality journey, in turn helping to differentiate from competitors, build brand reputation and engage their sports personnel, employees and members on environmental issues.”

“This can be achieved by taking responsibility for their climate footprint, helping global ambition step up and incentivizing action beyond sports to take meaningful and transformative climate action.”

Forest Green is clearly taking that responsibility and it is something that the rest of the football world is slowly coming round to. Sport can be a vehicle for positive change. Look at Marcus Rashford’s campaign for free school meals. The man single-handedly forced u-turn after u-turn from the UK government.  

Children together with the Forest Green Rovers football team mascot
photo credit: Forest Green Rovers

Without green transport, there can be no green football 

Football does not exist in a vacuum. The sport, like our society, continues to grapple with problems of racism.

Ultimately though, as society changes sport will too. If the sporting world is to get serious about football’s carbon footprint, so too must society. Because without green transport there can be no green football. Not football as we know it, anyway.  

But, true as this might be, football can still be a leader. Football has a platform. Football is absolutely central to the lives of millions of people across the globe. It has an emotional connection that little else can rival.

And, slowly but surely, there are signs, just maybe, that it can be a force for good in the victory over climate change.

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