Football must do more to tackle climate change: this is how clubs and fans can help | Barney Weston

Climate change is a defining global issue, and football is not exempt. Roughly a quarter of England’s 92 league clubs could be regularly flooded within the next three decades, and the average grassroots pitch in England already loses five weeks a season to bad weather. Sport is also a significant contributor to climate change, with an estimated global carbon footprint the equivalent size of Tunisia’s – and that is at the low end of estimates.

It’s tempting to ask fans to reduce our carbon bootprint – but how can we use public transport on matchdays, when it’s often too expensive and sometimes unavailable? There were no trains running from the north-west to Wembley when Liverpool and Manchester City competed in the FA Cup semi-final. The FA provided 100 buses, enough for 5,000 fans.

There is merit to meat-free food options, but it’s a half-baked solution when the energy used to heat pies and light stadiums isn’t even from a renewable source. It’s unhelpful to expect perfection – but we must push for better.

When the government announced a fan-led review of English football governance, “securing the game’s future”, colleagues and I expected environmental sustainability to be acknowledged. While awareness of the link between football and climate change is low, a recent YouGov survey found concern for the environment is at an all-time high among the British public.

The fan-led review references financial sustainability as “clearly the single most important factor” in the context of the challenges facing English football – but does not make a single reference to environmental sustainability or climate change.

Climate change poses a serious financial risk to English football. Just ask Carlisle, who were forced out of their stadium by Storm Desmond for seven weeks at a cost of almost £3m. The club’s chief executive, Nigel Clibbens, has since become an active advocate for action, recently quoting scientific studies that Desmond was 59% more likely to occur because of climate change.

However, environmental sustainability in English football presents a great opportunity. Clubs can make financial savings by eliminating energy inefficiencies and upgrading to environmentally sustainable infrastructure. They can also attract unique sponsors – another attractive form of income. For evidence, look no further than Forest Green Rovers, verified by the UN as “the world’s most sustainable club” and recently promoted to League One.

Forest Green have combined being the world’s most sustainable football club with success on the pitch. Photograph: Shane Healey/ProSports/Shutterstock

The government has now committed to publishing a white paper in the summer – this will be their plan for how to implement the 10 recommendations set out in the fan-led review. The white paper must address the link between financial and environmental sustainability. As the review states, EDI (equality, diversity and inclusion) “should form a strong pillar of good corporate governance”.

Why can’t we take the same attitude with environmental sustainability? Let’s ask clubs to develop environmental sustainability action plans – and ask an independent football regulator to supervise and educate clubs on how to become more environmentally sustainable.

It would be in line with another of the fan-led review’s recommendations, “improving supporter engagement in the running of their clubs”. A recent survey of 1,400 football fans revealed over 90% agreed on the importance of protecting the environment and fighting climate change.

The Football Supporters Association (FSA) – a key contributor to the fan-led review – have acted with this in mind. They are partnered with Pledgeball, which rallies football fans to tackle climate change. At their recent AGM the FSA set an aim for all clubs to develop and publish sustainability policies, and for all clubs to invite external assessors to measure their environmental performance by the start of next season. Could the government help make club sustainability policies and detailed carbon bootprints publicly available? Fans cannot hold their clubs accountable without public records.

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Owners and directors can also help tackle climate change. A new owners’ and directors’ test not only has the chance to identify unsuitable individuals, but also to identify more-than-suitable individuals with experience embedding environmental sustainability in organisational culture. A top-down approach could combat the risk climate change poses to English football, and meet the bottom-up efforts of club staff who are already concerned about climate change and attempting to tackle it in their day-to-day work.

Combined, these efforts could unlock the potential of English football tackling climate change: our national game trailblazing an environmentally sustainable transition to global net zero, supporting other sports and industries to follow suit. Let’s apply the fan-led review’s recommendations to climate change and build them into the white paper. When it comes to taking the necessary steps we’re in “Fergie time”, but it’s not too late.

Barney Weston is co-director of Football For Future, a new non-profit organisation with a mission to build a more environmentally sustainable culture in football

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