Can football deliver a class act on climate action for 2022?

EXCLUSIVE: Record attendance at the UEFA Women’s Championship re-ignited debates about how best to make sport more accessible. Is now the right moment, also, for football to take environmental sustainability efforts to the next level?

Can football deliver a class act on climate action for 2022?

The UEFA Women's Euro 2022 final between England and Germany was the most watched women's match in UK history

Cast your mind back to football in 2018. The World Cup was dominating the TV schedules and was watched by more than 3.5 billion people, breaking records. France may have taken the title, but the impact was global.

With the Lionesses storming to victory in the UEFA Women’s Championships, the new Premier League season beginning and the winter World Cup on the horizon, the hype around football is comparable at the moment, in the UK at least. There is also, now, an increased focus on how this hype can be harnessed to make the game more accessible, especially to women discouraged from playing.

Could this moment in time also be right for football organisations to advance efforts on environmental sustainability?

2018 wasn’t just a World Cup Year, it also marked the launch of the UNFCCC’s Sports for Climate Action Framework. The Framework is open to support from stakeholders in all sports, globally, with football well-represented among its ever-growing list of participants. Signatories include Liverpool FC, Arsenal, England’s Junior Premier League, Tottenham Hotspur, Juventus and FC Koln.

Speaking to edie at Envision Racing’s Race Against Climate Change event in partnership with COP26 in London this month, the UNFCCC’s sector engagement lead for sport, Lindita Xhaferi-Salihu, said that the initial aim of the Framework was to “give signatories set principles, encouraging them to create their own sustainability strategies and embed environmental considerations in decisions.”

Now, the Framework is more prescriptive on climate. It has been updated with commitments to halve emissions across all scopes by 2030, on the road to net-zero by 2040. There was always a top-level intent statement of alignment to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), but the updated framework is much more specific on Goal 13: Climate Action.

“The narrative has now changed,” said Xhaferi-Salihu. “Taking action on climate is clearly more urgent. There were discussions about whether signatories should need to set targets in line with climate science, for a consistent approach across the sports community. The conclusion was a ‘yes’.

“We need to coordinate action. It cannot be random. There needs to be a common journey, and we need global institutions with us to guide us, to make sure we include everything important.”

So, why weren’t football clubs setting out credible climate commitments before this point?

Also speaking at the Envision event was UEFA’s director of football and social responsibility, Michele Uva. In his opinion, the football space has been taking a “passive, reactive” approach to sustainability in the past, implementing one-off interventions but not making it a strategic priority.

A range of factors has now prompted, in Uva’s view, the adoption of an “active approach” These include better climate science, changing regulation and legislation, and pressure from civil society. Uva said: “All our policies need to talk to each other. Our strategy needs to relate to football and its role within civil society.”

The former UEFA vice-president’s role is new and was created in 2021. The organisation has launched its first sustainability strategy through to 2030 (understandably choosing to lead with human rights, an issue which would warrant its own long-read) and will soon unveil an action plan for delivery on emissions specifically.

Uva admitted that action to date from UEFA has been “late, probably” and that there is not yet a complete picture of UEFA’s emissions footprint, but said that it “did not want to wait for final measurement before it takes any action”. It has begun testing a Sustainable Event Management System (SEMS) to assess the impact of singular events and will add this to all events next year. It will also be making new environmental requirements for those bidding to host UEFA events mandatory.

This “late, probably” prioritisation of sustainability is not just a UEFA problem. After the event, edie dialled Football for Future’s (FFF) head of sustainability Thom Rawson. FFF is a non-profit dedicated to building a more sustainable culture in football, perhaps best known for partnering with Wolves.

Rawson, who has been involved in this space full-time since 2020, said: “It is still the case that most clubs don’t have sustainability managers. The responsibility generally sits with facilities management or operations, meaning that person may have very little view of how the communications team are responding to the climate crisis, or how they can go about looking at things like catering or products in the club shop.

“That comprehensive view is still, broadly absent – but lots of clubs are now trying to get the right expertise to reach that point… I think that the fact that many clubs, over the past years, have put out environmental strategies or sustainability identities, shows a recognition that clubs have a huge potential role to play.”

Getting those strategies from development to implementation, however, and making sure that good governance is in place, is, in Rawson’s opinion, “one or more steps up the ladder”.

Fan engagement

As well as ‘getting their own house in order’ on climate, football organisations have the opportunity to create ripple effects and drive climate action elsewhere. The opportunity to communicate with fans, in particular, cannot be understated. FIFA estimates that there are 3.5 billion football fans in the world. In the UK alone, more than 11 million people attended a Premier League match in the 2018-19 season.

Of course, it is important to get the communications right – but we may well be at a moment in time where this will become easier. YouGov’s global sports fan report for 2022 revealed that 53% of global sports fans would class themselves as environmentally-minded. A similar BBC Sport poll of UK-based football fans found that 58% care about how their club impacts the environment.

Reflecting on the launch of the UNFCCC Framework in 2018, Xhaferi-Salihu said that many clubs “didn’t want to talk about climate before doing something at home, proving they could walk the talk”.

Yet some clubs and other football organisations have made headlines with fan engagement initiatives recently, despite work still being underway in-house on measuring emissions. Indeed, some sustainability professionals will likely be reading this and noting that their own sectors were at this point a few years ago.

Fan engagement initiatives to have garnered great interest in recent times includes the Planet Super League, a digital platform whereby fans can log the team they support and score ‘goals’ for them by taking actions to reduce their impact. More than 70 clubs are signed up. Fans may also have spotted Sky Sports’ partnership with Count Us In, or PledgeBall, which are similar in that they offer a gamified approach. And, a more specific initiative to have made news this summer was Reading FC’s new kit design featuring Professor Ed Hawkins’ ‘climate stripes’.

Journeys ahead

But, of course, clubs have to be careful when asking fans to change their behaviour when they’re still developing and changing their own strategies.

And, all three experts edie spoke to for this feature acknowledged that fans can only do so much to reduce their environmental impact in current systems – the obvious example being transport. Clubs may well be accused of hypocrisy if they ask fans to take public transport, but don’t make it available, and are then seen having their squads taking short-haul flights.

Unless clubs work with local authorities, the transport sector and even national governments in some cases, the infrastructure may not be there to get staff, players and fans to and from events using low-impact options. Yet, with transport accounting for 60-70% of football’s emissions footprint by some estimates, this will be a crucial part of any credible climate plan.

“I don’t think we’ve fully leveraged the power of sport to influence change, and collective calls to governments, regional authorities and so on is something we’re looking at now,” said , Xhaferi-Salihu. “These conversations need to be had about needs regarding public and active transportation, and innovative approaches that require us to use less transportation.”

Uva noted that similar work is underway at UEFA. Going forward, clubs or venues looking to bid to host will need to commit to ensuring that most fan journeys can be made using public transport, and will need to prove these plans are credible and supported by stakeholders like local councils and transport operators. UEFA operates in 55 countries so the ripple effect from this could be significant.

As for the role of fans themselves in changing systems, Rawson added: “We certainly don’t want to be in a space where football fans are seen as consumers only. The onus can only be on fans to some extent, or it would be unfair. It shows a lack of leadership from football itself.

“Fans have a bigger role as citizens. This is, perhaps, more important. They already work within communities and supporters Trusts to use their collective power to put pressure on clubs to clarify what they’re doing and to ask them to do more.”

These sorts of organisations have existed for decades. Over the past two years, they have played an instrumental role in getting clubs to protect staff incomes amid Covid-19 and to end plans for a European Super League.

So, could the time come for them to begin pushing clubs for credible, joined-up, science-based climate leadership? In some cases, they already are. The Wolves 1877 Trust tabled a motion at the Football Supporters’ Association’s 2021 AGM, calling for an increased focus on the net-zero transition. It passed. Elsewhere, a group of Burnley’s Trust members have founded a specific ‘Sustainable Clarats’ initiative.

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