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Floods, fires and why football can play a big role in tackling climate change


By 2050, Stamford Bridge will be underwater. As will West Ham’s London Stadium and Fulham’s Craven Cottage.

Grimsby Town’s Blundell Park will be consumed by the North Sea. Hull City’s MKM Stadium will be submerged, as will the Cardiff City Stadium. Southampton’s St Mary’s Stadium will succumb to the River Itchen.

They are not alone. According to a 2020 report Playing Against the Clock: Global Sport, the Climate Emergency and the Case for Rapid Change, published by the Rapid Transition Alliance and Play the Game, in the next 30 years almost one in four of the 92 teams in the Premier League and EFL will suffer partial or total flooding of their stadiums.

In France, Bordeaux’s Matmut Atlantique stadium will be completely flooded every year. In Germany, Werder Bremen’s Weserstadion can expect to be partially flooded every year. As can Toronto FC’s BMO Field in Canada.

In the Netherlands Alkmaar, Den Haag, Groningen, Heerenveen and Utrecht will face total annual flooding with Ajax and Feyenoord partially flooded. Other grounds, such as Middlesbrough’s Riverside, may not suffer the same fate, but accessing them would require a boat.

Last week, fires raged across England on the hottest day ever recorded. The London Fire Brigade said it had its busiest day since World War II. Pre-season friendlies took place in extreme temperatures, even in the late evening. Overnight temperature records were smashed. The Met Office issued its first ever red warning for extreme heat — indicating a danger to life.

February saw Storm Eunice batter football stadiums. Eight EFL fixtures, four National league fixtures and the Scottish Championship fixture between Dunfermline and Partick Thistle were all postponed.

Storm Ciara resulted in the postponement of Manchester City’s Premier League clash with West Ham United in 2020. It led to the cancellation of five Women’s Super League fixtures, including the north London derby between Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur.

Carlisle United were forced out of their Brunton Park home for seven weeks at a cost of almost £1 million ($1.22m) in 2015 by flooding in Cumbria which studies found was 59 per cent more likely to have happened as a result of human-induced climate change.

Last month’s heatwave, which saw temperatures in the UK reach 40 degrees, would have been “almost impossible” without human-induced climate change, scientists from the World Weather Attribution group said.

The world has warmed by about 1.1C since the industrial revolution around 200 years ago. Greenhouse gases have been pumped into the atmosphere by activities such as burning fuels, which have heated up Earth’s atmosphere. Last month’s heatwave is a taste of what is to come.

Without immediate and deep emissions reductions, limiting global warming to the 1.5C target agreed to by 192 counties and the European Union at COP 21 in 2015 and known as the Paris Agreement — the point at which climate change will accelerate and some aspects of it will become irreversible — is beyond reach, the latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns.

Football has a significant role to play in that.


The Premier League told The Athletic it is “in the process of developing an environmental sustainability strategy, which will set out plans to deliver climate action and address other priority issues including biodiversity and managing resources sustainably.”

As those fires raged in the UK, Europe and the US, almost half of the Premier League’s football clubs flew out on long-distance pre-season tours, while new signings were flying in on private jets to complete transfers.

Crystal Palace, Leeds United and Aston Villa toured Australia. Liverpool played in Thailand and Singapore, Manchester United in Thailand and Australia, Chelsea and Everton in the US, and Tottenham Hotspur travelled to South Korea.

In doing so, they emitted thousands of tonnes of carbon dioxide between them. Man United’s pre-season flights alone emitted approximately 1,800 tonnes, the equivalent of around 350 homes’ electricity usage per year, or nearly 400 cars driven for a year. This accounts only for the flights, not including accommodation, food, or other factors.

If that figure was the same for all eight clubs making long-distance trips for pre-season it would be the equivalent to just over 3,000 cars driven for a year, or the electricity consumption of almost 3,000 homes for a year.

In October, Man United flew to Leicester, a journey of just 100 miles, while Leeds took a flight to Norwich City despite the home club designating the fixture as one to champion sustainability. In 2015, Arsenal chartered a flight to Norwich, taking 14 minutes. That same season Tottenham took a 20-minute flight to Bournemouth.

“It is not a good message,” David Goldblatt, author of the Rapid Transition Alliance report and chair of Football For Future — a football sustainability charity — tells The Athletic. “There are some really simple wins that can start to diminish the most egregious forms of carbon emissions.

“The movement of players and athletes is minimal, however, in the overall carbon footprint of football. Compared to the global manufacturing of football boots, not just for professional footballers, or the carbon emissions of fans going to see games and the carbon to create concrete for the stadiums. That’s much more important.”

The 2018 Russia World Cup is estimated to have emitted 2.16 million tonnes of carbon dioxide — the equivalent of almost half a million cars driven for a year. That is likely to be a cautious estimate according to the United Nations as “these assessments often underestimate the real impact of sport’s carbon footprint, not including the impact of the construction of new stadiums, the water and energy consumed to support events and the food, plastic and other waste produced during events.”

This year’s tournament in Qatar, controversial for the reasons outlined in this article, is expected to produce 3.6 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, although the organisers have claimed it will be carbon-neutral — a statement which is disputed.

There is also the issue of football’s ‘fast fashion’, with kits changing every season, being manufactured mostly in China and Vietnam and shipped across the world.

Emissions, as Goldblatt says, come from building infrastructure, and from supporters using less sustainable methods of travel. The latter is hindered by the rescheduling of fixtures to timeslots which make public transport inaccessible or more challenging.

Many clubs are sponsored by companies that source their money from fossil fuels. Energy intensive cryptocurrency is also an increasingly common form of sponsorship.

“There is no solution to the climate crisis that does not include the end of the fossil fuel industry,” says Goldblatt.


As Juventus prepared for the 2019-20 season, Sofie Junge Pedersen suddenly found it difficult to continue during pre-season training. Temperatures had reached 36 degrees celsius, and Junge Pedersen — a Denmark international — began to feel dizzy, her vision blurred by black spots. Moments later, she cut short the session and ice cubes were required to cool down. Team-mates endured a similar experience, failing to complete the session due to the extreme heat.

During Nigeria’s preparation shortly before the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations began in Egypt, winger Samuel Kalu was taken to hospital after collapsing in training because of dehydration. The Uganda goalkeeper Denis Onyango was taken off on a stretcher after temperatures of up to 36 degrees exacerbated the effects of earlier illness.

“It’s annoying”, says Junge Pedersen of her experiences, which have included blisters from playing on particularly hot surfaces. The 30-year-old is one of a growing number of footballers signed up with Common Goal, a movement to unite the football community in tackling social challenges. Those involved pledge 1 per cent of their earnings to a collective fund which supports football charities across the world.

“It was the first training session of the new season and I was angry I couldn’t train,” she tells The Athletic. “I could see the bigger perspective that this is how it will be not just for a couple of days in July but many more days in the future. It made me sad. When I go back to Italy, I will be very motivated to do something because I will feel the heat again and it’s not nice to play.”

The headline figures, the warnings of catastrophic and irreversible climate change centre on the broader impact. But sport, and football in particular, faces an equally uncertain future as a result of human-induced climate change.

In 2019 and 2020, FIFPRO’s affiliated player associations in Colombia and Cyprus raised concerns about domestic league matches going ahead in extreme heat.

But, the United Nations notes, those examples of stadiums being underwater or damaged by high winds are only examples of the catastrophic effects of climate change on football at a professional level. At amateur level, many grassroots clubs are and will continue to suffer. It is estimated that on average, five weeks per season are lost due to climate change.

“The impact on smaller, more local events is potentially far greater,” the UN’s Addressing Climate Change Through Sport policy brief, published in February, said. “From youth leagues to collegiate teams, millions of athletes have already confronted some climate disruptions, and these will only magnify with time.”

Pitches at a grassroots level will become increasingly poor quality due to extreme weather. That impact will be felt disproportionately by those in the least developed countries.

“Climate policy failure means no one is playing football and surviving in 45-degree heat,” Tom Burke, E3G Third Generation Environmentalism co-founder and a former special advisor to three UK Environment secretaries, tells The Athletic.

“It disrupts people’s ability to enjoy football — equally kids aren’t going to be allowed out to play football if we don’t deal with this problem. There won’t be much grass to play on. Those impacts haven’t been thought through. It’s not just what sports people and fans can do to help, but what happens if organisations and governments don’t get this right.”

Even if the threat is startling, clubs, supporters and organisations are beginning to appreciate the scale of the crisis — and their role in making a difference.

“Football can engage a lot of people, then that can affect politicians,” says Junge Pedersen. “Football has a voice and a platform to make changes.”

The Premier League told The Athletic that it “recognises the need to take action on climate change and is committed to reducing its overall climate impact.”

In November 2021 it was one of several sports organisations, including FIFA and UEFA, which signed up to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Sports for Climate Action Framework. This includes aims to achieve net-zero emissions by 2040.

“Clubs have demonstrated their commitment to positive change in this area and continue to play an important role in raising awareness of the issue among fans, while also working on policies to improve their environmental sustainability across their business operations,” the Premier League said.

“This includes improvements around sustainable transport options, the provision of plant-based foods, the use of renewable energy, reduction of single-use plastics, saving water, biodiversity conservation efforts and more. The League continues to work with host broadcast partners to ensure all match coverage is Albert certified, working together for a more sustainable future.” Albert is an environmental organisation that encourages the TV and film production industry to reduce waste and its carbon footprint.

In October last year the EFL launched its “EFL Green Clubs” initiative to help support clubs to improve their environmental practices.

“Sport binds people together,” says Burke. “Sport coming out with a unified voice about the importance of dealing with climate change to make sure it continues to be possible will be enormously potent. Football can play the lead role in that.

“I don’t know if the world of sport has begun to understand the impact of a changing climate on its future. On a sporting impact and economics. By the mid 2030s, if we don’t get a grip on this problem, large parts of southern Europe in the summer will not be attracting a lot of tourists.

“You can only sustain sport if you can sustain the whole infrastructure that supports it. You won’t necessarily get young people coming into the sport to sustain it. All the good things about sport get damaged by a failure to deal with climate change.”

However there is some good news.

Conversations between players, clubs and executives that were not being held 10 years ago are now far more prominent, according to Dale Vince, Forest Green Rovers owner.


Forest Green Rovers’ stadium is powered entirely by renewable energy and the grass on their pitch is sustainable (Photo: Nigel French/PA Images via Getty Images)

“From the beginning, 10 years ago, the conversations might have been a bit wide-eyed and weary. People thought we were quirky. Today it’s about what those clubs are doing and what more they can do, asking questions.

“I had to make changes to the club and in effect had to create a green club which would be taking the message to an audience that was relatively untouched,” the environmentalist and green-energy company owner tells The Athletic.

“We have billions of sports fans and we’ve shown we can reach them with an environmental message and can make them fans of the environment as well.

“I have the same message for everyone. Focus on three things: energy, transport and food — 80 per cent of everyone’s carbon footprint is in those things which we spend money on every day.

“Companies are very good at understanding what their customers want and adapting quickly. If we change what we buy, they change what they make. Governments are less good but adapt a bit later.”

In 2017, Forest Green were designated the “greenest club in the world” by FIFA, and are certified as carbon neutral by the UN. Their stadium is powered entirely by renewable energy, the grass on their pitch is sustainable, and it is the world’s first vegan football club.

“As a younger player I can’t remember anyone being too concerned about climate change but that is changing fast,” former Real Madrid, Chelsea and Manchester United midfielder Juan Mata, a co-founder of Common Goal tells The Athletic. “It’s impossible to ignore the challenges facing people and the planet as they are becoming so critical.

“Many younger athletes are increasingly aware of the challenges resulting from climate change and other social issues Common Goal empowers people in football to tackle. This is at a moment in which footballers are aware of the platform they have and are motivated to use it to create value beyond performance or monetary gain.”

In the Championship, Reading recently brought the climate crisis to the forefront of people’s minds with their kit launch. “We can’t do everything, but we can’t do nothing,” the club said. Stripes on the home shirt sleeves “specifically track climate change in Reading across the full 151-year existence of Reading Football Club.” The shirt itself is made entirely of recycled plastic bottles.

Brentford did not release a new home kit this season, citing the need for football to be more sustainable as one of the reasons.

In July 2020, Manchester City, having partnered with global water technology company Xylem, released a video titled “The End Of Football”, in which Phil Foden is preparing to take charge of what could be the club’s last ever game due to a lack of water. It cites UN data estimating that almost 5 billion people globally could be living in areas of water scarcity by 2050.

Their neighbours Manchester United partnered with Carbon Neutral, an Australian company, to offset the impact of those 1,800 tonnes of carbon dioxide from their pre-season flights.

Chelsea’s 3-0 victory over Tottenham last September was the world’s first ever net zero-carbon elite football match. In partnership with broadcaster Sky Sports, supporters were encouraged to make sustainable choices, while reducing as many direct emissions as possible, and offsetting the remainder.

Upon signing for Brentford, defender Ben Mee acknowledged the impact of transfers on carbon footprint, explaining how he will offset the emissions from around his transfer by supporting Carbon Neutral Britain. The former Liverpool and Palace defender Martin Kelly told The Athletic in 2019 of his concerns about climate change.

ben-mee


Ben Mee, who has now joined Brentford, will offset the emissions from around his transfer by supporting Carbon Neutral Britain (Photo: Rob Newell – CameraSport via Getty Images)

“We have to start making a change,” he said. “I’m just trying to do little steps at a time to try to help. We don’t realise what dangers are going to come our way in terms of what we have done for the climate. Changing now is the only thing you can do.”

In the Isthmian League this season, clubs are permitted to bring forward Saturday kick-off times to reduce energy costs, particularly those related to floodlights.

The Chelsea and England midfielder Mason Mount has worked with Football For Future (FFF) to speak about sustainability.

“We support football players to use their platform to talk about these issues,” the charity’s founder, Elliot Arthur-Worsop, tells The Athletic. “Some players are the most powerful media platforms in the world, they have more followers and more people consuming what they say than most newspapers.

“We talk about climate through the language of football to make it more relatable. This is about raising awareness, social change and attitudes.”

Through a new partnership with Common Goal, Hyundai has pledged 1 per cent of its World Cup sponsorship fee and doubled down on its commitment to reach net zero by 2045. “We want organisations to own a Common Goal,” says its co-founder Jurgen Griesbeck.

“We want a football club like Werder Bremen to own it and grow it, to make the 1 per cent approach work and do it in a way that you see it happen as fast as possible.”


Despite the gloomy outlook, those involved in trying to make a difference retain hope that meaningful change can be enacted quickly enough to avoid the very worst effects of climate change.

“We were nowhere two years ago. Loads has changed,” says Goldblatt. “The pace of change is increasing every month. There’s going to be surprisingly big shifts that will change the commercial logic of many football clubs and institutions. FIFA and UEFA are drawing up the most extensive environmental policies of any football organisations. The Bundesliga has introduced environmental licensing under pressure from fans.”

Football has the power to make a difference. In all, 3.57 billion people — more than half the world aged four and over — watched the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Bringing awareness to such a vast audience of their individual agency in the fight against climate change is vital.

“For those who opposed it, the Super League was the end of football,” says Griesbeck. “Climate is the end of football in a certain way. With the Super League there was collective action to avoid something happening. Why wouldn’t we be able to gather the same strength and exercise the same pressure and power on football to do its part (in combatting climate change)?”

Arthur-Worsop uses football analogies to portray the message of hope. We are “deep into extra time”, but “everyone loves an underdog moment and football deals in miracles,” he says. “Football allows us to have that hope and believe that nothing is impossible.”

Katie Cross, founder of Pledgeball, a charity that encourages fans to make sustainable lifestyle choices in support of their team, is similarly positive. “If anything is going to do it, football is going to do it because the reach and emotional identification is huge,” she says.

“The climate crisis is coming home,” Vince adds. “We can’t act fast enough or far enough.”

(Top image: Sam Richardson/Getty Images)





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