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Feet of clay: European soccer's carbon footprint problem
As Europe rallies against global warming, its biggest sport is an increasing problem
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By Justin Sharon
(Justin Sharon is a longtime freelance writer. After working at Merrill Lynch for many years, he transitioned to financial journalism. Among other subjects, he also authors a monthly column about British soccer.)
NEW YORK (Callaway Climate Insights) — The Maccabi Tel-Aviv soccer side, currently a distant fourth in Israeli’s Premier League, recently embarked upon a long-haul flight to Armenia’s capital city of Yerevan to take on FC Alashkert, which occupies an even lowlier position in their own domestic championship. Thus did the team from the Middle East travel some 677 nautical miles, or 1,254 kilometers, to face off against the side from the Highlands of Western Asia.
This, despite their UEFA Europa Conference League encounter being a meaningless ‘dead rubber’ match, with Maccabi having already qualified for the competition’s next phase irrespective of the result, and Alashkert long since eliminated from contention following five straight losses. (Adding insult to injury, and notwithstanding that UEFA is an acronym for ‘Union of European Football Associations,’ sticklers for geography will point out that neither team technically even resides on the continent in question).
It was one of some 16 games kicking off that day in the third-tier tournament’s inaugural season. The UEFA Europa Conference League may allow all manner of minnows from Azerbaijan to Kazakhstan their time to shine. Yet, a world away from the glitz and glamor of UEFA’s marquee event in the Champions League, it has been greeted by predictably sparse crowds and anemic TV audiences.
Worse still, from a climate change perspective, is the negative impact of all those additional air miles on the environment. It adds to accumulating evidence that the global game — planet Earth’s most popular sport — has thus far demonstrated feet of clay when it comes to combating its growing carbon footprint.
A recent report by British-based wagering website Freebets.com puts the extra CO₂ emissions in perspective. The research reveals that, for just the opening group stage of what will ultimately be a lengthy round-robin competition, the Europa Conference League generated 183 tonnes of CO₂. (For context, it is estimated that to make meaningful headway against climate change, the maximum amount of CO₂ that can be produced by a single person is 0.6 tonnes).
Earlier this year UEFA launched a much-ballyhooed Cleaner Air, Better Game campaign aimed at alleviating greenhouse gas emissions and promoting carbon neutrality at select youth soccer tournaments.
Yet Freebets.com spokesperson Ben Smith tells Callaway Climate Insights that, “While it’s admirable that they have recognized the need for such endeavors, the introduction of the Europa Conference League doesn’t square with this initiative. Clearly, there is still some way to go to ensure it is not merely a box-ticking exercise, and that UEFA are instead genuinely serious about climate change. Both it and [world soccer’s governing body] FIFA must do more to address climate issues if they are going to affect real change in the long-term.”
Given that the fossil fuel behemoth Gazprom has been a lucrative UEFA sponsor since 2012, cynics will say that the soccer federation’s tough talk around global warming amounts to little more than hot air. Indeed, a study by The Rapid Transition Alliance found that no fewer than 57 of the sport’s advertising and promotional partners are in industries considered to be high-carbon polluters.
To be sure, prodded by ESG activist investors, some soccer clubs whose shares trade on public stock exchanges have taken tentative steps to acknowledge the climate crisis. In its Form 20-F filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, NYSE-listed Manchester United (MANU) admitted that, “We are subject to risks relating to weather and climate change. Extreme weather conditions may cause property damage or interrupt our match day operations both at [our stadium] and at other away match locations, which could harm our business and results of operations. Climate change may affect the frequency or severity of these conditions.”
The English team recently touted its new joint venture with NASDAQ’s Renewable Energy Group (REGI) aimed at “encouraging positive environmental change among [the club’s] global fanbase and beyond.” Yet such lofty rhetoric didn’t survive a public relations debacle at cruising altitude in October, when the club was accused of committing “climate vandalism” after opting to take a 10-minute private jet flight for a match located a mere 100 miles away.
Meanwhile the annual report of London Stock Exchange-listed Glasgow Celtic, based in the host city of COP26, highlights its decision to install energy efficient LED floodlights at considerable cost. It goes on to add that “The Group is cognizant of its carbon footprint and in response to this switched its electricity contracts to a supply derived entirely from renewable wind sources.” That both these passing references were buried in boilerplate on page 19, however, indicates that ESG is still far from a priority.
Elsewhere Italy’s Juventus, whose shares trade in Milan, is a signatory to the United Nations Climate Action Framework. For its part, members-owned FC Barcelona plans an increased parking allocation for electric vehicles as part of its proposed stadium revamp. The Catalan club is also encouraging more spectators to arrive at matches by bicycle.
The feeling remains, however, that many of these measures are merely fig leaf gestures from the continent’s fútbol giants. Especially given the potentially existential threat outlined in an analysis published this autumn by the journal Environmental Research Letters. It noted that rising sea levels could see some 23 soccer stadiums in the U.K. alone experience annual flooding by the year 2050. Among the high-profile venues deemed at risk is the London arena of current European champions, Chelsea.
On the eve of 2022, then, soccer clearly has much work to do on the climate front. And here’s the kicker: next year’s quadrennial World Cup will take place in none other than Qatar, a country with the dubious distinction of being the highest per capita carbon emitter on Earth.