COP26 took place from 31st October to 12th November this yearEden Keily-Thurstain

The opening statement of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) technical report, published back in August, is: “It is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land”. For a report written exclusively by scientists, the use of the word ‘unequivocal’ should be surprising to us all. It’s a decisive term that tends to be avoided in the scientific community because it leaves little room for doubt. The report was prepared in time for COP26, which began at the end of last month (31/10) - a summit where world leaders come together to discuss the damaging effects of the climate crisis and what must be done to reverse the seemingly irreparable damage done to our planet.

But this summit is not only for world leaders - every commercial industry that is directly affected by climate change is being represented, and that includes sport. Extreme weather and rises in temperature are making outdoor sports increasingly dangerous, particularly in tropical countries. This year’s Tokyo Olympics was a prime example of a sporting event that was hugely governed by the heat. Athletes complained about the sweltering conditions, in what went down as the hottest Olympics Games in recent history. For the tennis tournaments in Tokyo, the times of matches were moved to the evening and night-time to accommodate players, while the marathon was changed to a cooler time, aiming to avoid the hot conditions.

“What we need is more than just Adidas and Paul Pogba releasing the first vegan boot”

Elsewhere, matches in the 2019 Rugby World Cup were postponed due to Typhoon Hagibis in India, and earlier droughts in the country rendered Indian Premier League cricket impossible to continue due to a scorched playing surface back in 2016. In the United Kingdom, the main issue is flooding, and this has already become a concern in football with the growing frequency of flooding in stadiums. By 2050, it’s estimated that almost one in four English football league grounds can expect flooding every year.

It would be naive to think that sport is simply a victim of the climate crisis – sport is a minor contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. When looking at the effects that sport has on the environment, it’s easy to target the behaviour of football, as it’s the largest sport in the world and, consequently, is responsible for about half of the industry’s emissions. More generally, commercial sport contributes approximately 0.8% of the world’s carbon emissions. That 0.8% may not seem like much, but it’s similar to the overall emissions of countries like Poland, Thailand, and Spain, and these nations are by no means getting a free pass when it comes to exacerbating the climate crisis.

Football, as the world’s biggest and arguably most influential sport, has the ability to set an example to its fans and other sports. Approximately 60% of football’s carbon footprint comes from spectators travelling to matches. Taking this into account, FIFA plans to make next year’s Qatar World Cup carbon neutral, primarily by offsetting fan travel . Although offsetting has its own issues, FIFA should take a look inwards at its own hypocrisy, given that Qatar is the most polluting nation per capita in the world.

“It would be naive to think that sport is simply a victim of the climate crisis”

No discussion about football and climate change is complete without an examination of Forest Green Rovers, the most eco-friendly football club in the world. The League Two club are unique in a number of ways, transforming into an excellent case study on how an organisation can be successful whilst putting sustainability front and centre. It is the only fully vegan football club to currently exist. 100% of their energy usage is from renewables – 20% from solar panels and 80% from the grid, specifically a nearby windmill.

Most of their players drive electric cars, while the car park at the stadium is fitted with charging points to increase accessibility for fans. The material for their shirts is made from sustainable resources, such as bamboo and coffee grounds. Even the pitch is organic, as they do not use chemical pesticides or synthetic fertilisers, while water drained from the ground is captured and reused. The next plan: an all-wooden stadium. Every single aspect of this football club has been geared towards lowering its carbon footprint. Forest Green Chairman Dale Vince has been widely praised for these initiatives, which he started after taking over the struggling club back in 2010.

Recently speaking to The Athletic, Vince discovered during the early years of his tenure that supporters were the hardest to convince, being somewhat resistant to change. This was particularly the case with the transition to being a vegan club. Food was an emotional issue for the fans, but over time people grew to like it and take pride in it. The initiative has even influenced some other clubs to now provide more vegan options on match days, largely due to pressure from fans to imitate the Forest Green system. Vince recently explained that, when it comes to running a sustainable club, there are two factors to consider in addition to food: transport and energy. As a result, his club is now targeting the final part of their transformation: the use of an electric bus.


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Taking inspiration from Forest Green, German top-flight club Wolfsburg undertook a staggeringly in-depth analysis of their carbon footprint back in 2018. They found that 60% of their carbon footprint was associated with fan travel, and that about 18.8% is down to energy usage and heating. Only 2.9% of their emissions were attributed to ‘employee movement’, which mostly represents travel for the players. This report has outlined that the way to lower football’s carbon footprint is to adjust the fans’ patterns of behaviour, which is where the influence of football’s ruling organisations must come into play.

Sport is not like the concrete industry. In absolute terms, it’s a fairly small contributor to the planet’s greenhouse gas emissions. However, sport has extraordinary power over vast swathes of the world’s population. A sport like football has the sizeable platform to genuinely change the world. What will it take for the bigger teams to see past short-term successes and make the sort of changes that Forest Green have done? It will only be when both high-profile clubs and players publicly put forward potential resolutions that we will truly see the huge impact that football can have on altering the course of the climate crisis. What we need is more than just Adidas and Paul Pogba releasing the first vegan boot.