Emerging out of the 2020 pandemic lockdown, international sport is set to dominate the popular imagination once again. It is a massive global industry valued at $471 billion in 2018 and is projected to be worth over $600 billion by 2022. A single cricket match in 2015 between India and Pakistan is estimated to have been watched by around one in seven of the world’s population. More than half the world’s population, 3.6 billion people, are estimated to have seen at least some of the 2012 Olympics.
And the international football body, FIFA, claims a virtually identical figure, 3.57 billion, watched some of the 2018 World Cup. But with the Olympics only once every four years, it is football, played all year with only a short break in the season that claims the crown of most-watched, and hence most influential sport. The audience and the demonstration effect of what sport does to reduce its impact on the climate (and protect itself from locked-in changes) is huge. Far away from the bright lights of the global game, it is a small, local English club sparking a revolution in the game and pointing the way for a rapid, low carbon transition in the sport.
Based in the small town of Nailsworth in West of England, and in the fourth tier of the sport, League Two football team of Forest Green Rovers is surprisingly famous – perhaps not for their success on the field, but for being vegan at a time when this was extremely unusual. It is all part of the team’s ethos as the most environmentally friendly club and is worth examining in detail in light of the recent Rapid Transition Alliance report into the sustainability of sport globally
Forest Green Rovers is the first UN certified carbon zero football club in the world and there are lessons to be learned from it’s example about sponsorship, community involvement and taking sustainability seriously in all areas. This will be vital for the future, since global sport is currently estimated to contribute around 30 million tonnes of CO2 emissions – approximately the same as the whole of Denmark.
In 2010, the struggling club turned to the large, local employer and green energy supplier, Ecotricity, for help. The company’s founder, Dale Vince, was personally interested and became chairman of the club. Then, with Ecotricity as the majority owner, main sponsor and the driving force, Forest Green Rovers set about developing the greenest football club in the world. To date, the club boasts solar panels on its roof (the rest of the purchased energy used is 100% renewable), a solar-powered robot lawnmower, recycled rainwater systems to irrigate the pitch (which uses no pesticides and is organic), electric vehicle charging points, and homemade vegan food for visitors and players. They also plan to build the first new wooden stadium in Britain for over a century, and the first carbon zero stadium ever – to be called the Eco Park. Designed by world renowned architects Zaha Hadid and made almost entirely out of wood, it will be the first of its kind in the world. With a capacity of 5,000, Eco Park, will be sited in parkland with five hundred new trees and 1.8km of new hedgerows.
These aspects of the club make great headlines, but its commitment to ongoing processes for improvement are perhaps more impressive. Building and maintaining standards across an industry is the way to establish new norms and to inspire others to change their way of operating. The club state that they worked hard to gain Eco-Management and Audit Scheme (EMAS) qualification – the gold standard for environmental performance – and Dale Vince is behind the launch of Sustainability in Sport with ex-footballer Gary Neville to promote the issue more widely. There are some signs that this is starting to work, as other clubs begin to follow suit. Real Betis from Sevilla in Spain have recently made a commitment to carbon neutrality and other leading clubs are upping their efforts to reduce their carbon footprints. Nevertheless, sport continues to sit in a strange and often contradictory place that is simultaneously about health and wellbeing, community and activity, while also being a huge global industry dependent on sponsorship from fossil fuel companies, carbon-intensive forms of travel and purveyors of fast fashion aimed at selling new merchandising to fans every season.
Examining the impact a single sports club has on the environment provides an example of what you can do with a clear aim and a strong ethos that enables longer-term planning and decision-making. Forest Green Rovers set out clear aims early on that included becoming a zero carbon club; reducing resource consumption, including energy and water; reducing waste and emissions from operations; and reducing the environmental impact of their grounds’ maintenance and stadium management. This helped to ensure that an incremental effort could continue long-term: rainwater harvesting for pitch watering can, for example, be extended to include exploration of sinking a borehole to manage the entire water supply. Ongoing efforts include investigating the most efficient way to floodlight the pitch, as even more efficient LEDs are still too energy intensive, working with local suppliers to offer locally sourced, predominantly vegetarian and eco-friendly food, and finding local ways to reuse waste products: grass cuttings are collected by a local farmer who uses them to improve his soil and waste cooking oil is collected for biofuel.
It also shows the need for overall standards and a system against which to measure environmental achievement. The UN Sport for Climate Action Framework is designed specifically to enable organisations to sign-up and align with other global efforts to reduce the emissions pushing climate breakdown. The aim is for global sporting federations and their national members, and all professional sports leagues and tours to sign up, but the response has been patchy. The Bundesliga itself has not yet signed up to the UN Sports for Climate Action Framework, although some individual German teams are taking steps to improve their green credentials. VfL Wolfsburg has signed up to the UN Framework, and, almost uniquely in the world game, calculated its carbon footprint. Both Mainz FC and SC Freiburg have almost a decade of environmental work behind them, pioneering recycling, green waste management and the use of renewable energy in football. The club Werder Bremen has built one of the largest solar panel arrays in football, cut down on car use by introducing ferry services to the stadium, and has banned car parking around the stadium on match days. All three clubs encouraged their staff to take part in the Friday for Future climate strikes. Augsburg FC invested heavily in a geothermal energy system to make their new stadium carbon neutral, and TSG Hoffenheim, has invested in international sustainability projects in forestry, textiles and environmental education. English Premiership team, Brighton, includes the cost of a bus or train fare in the ticket price to games so that supporters can travel free on public transport to matches by showing their ticket. The French authorities have responded by recently launching their own collective effort – the NGO Football Ecologie France, to make French football carbon zero.
Forest Green Rovers’s forward-thinking stance has given them a place at the table they would otherwise not have; chairman Dale Vince was among a group of international sustainability-conscious sports executives who advised on the Sport for Climate Action Framework. Although Forest Green Rovers is the only football club to be part of the UNFCCC’s Climate Neutral Now project, football’s international governing body FIFA has been involved since 2016. However, much of its efforts have been put into offsetting programs for travel and hosting tournaments, which are often criticised for being scientifically flawed in theory, poorly implemented in practice, and hence a sticking plaster on the issue of climate change, failing to address the need for fundamental system and behaviour change. FIFA has now committed to become greenhouse gas emissions-neutral by 2050.
Whether or not the other clubs will ever admit they are following a trend, a recent BBC survey in collaboration with the United Nations-backed Sport Positive Summit, unearthed interesting innovations in the top English clubs. Manchester United claim their annual carbon emissions have been reduced by more than 2,000 tonnes – equivalent to emissions produced by 400 homes for a year, while Arsenal, who switched to renewable electricity in 2017, claim to be the first club in Europe to install a battery storage system that can power the 60,000-capacity Emirates Stadium for a 90-minute match. As the name indicates, their stadium however remains sponsored by a heavily polluting airline.
They created wildlife corridors at Manchester City’s Football Academy that are now home to various types of moths, butterflies and bats while also providing nesting places for birds including kestrels. Tottenham installed a ‘green roof’ of flowering sedum plants at its training centre to enable the capture and re-harvesting of rainwater across the site, and Norwich’s Carrow Road pitch is watered via a bore hole, and their training ground recycles the water from the pitches. Southampton’s St Mary’s stadium was the first LED-lit stadium in Europe, while Liverpool FC boast no single-use plastic food packaging; instead using trays made out of compostable palm leaf and maize. West Ham claims zero waste, sending all plastic, cardboard, wood, paper, aluminium, pallets and ink cartridges for recycling and all food waste to an anaerobic digester. Burnley graduated from an informal ‘car share scheme’ to buying a minibus and sharing the driving.
Sport has lagged behind other parts of our global economy in facing up to its carbon footprint and responding to it in innovative ways. The most cited study of carbon emissions for a football club is said to be for Fluminense, from Rio in Brazil, in 2014. This calculated that the club’s activities (all teams and spectator travel included) emitted 2,500 tonnes. However, the Rapid Transition Alliances’s recent report, Playing Against the Clock, believes that even this is a gross underestimate. Research carried out on the lower tiers of English football calculated that spectator transport alone produces, in a season, 55,000 tonnes of carbon from around 11 million spectators. The English Premier League (EPL) has 14.5 million spectators, which would suggest they are emitting at least 72,500 tonnes a year from transport alone.
It still seems true that for many organisations in the sports industry, sustainability is just not a priority. It has become a key focus for the International Olympic Committee (IOC), being included as one of the three strategic priorities of the body’s Agenda 2020 vision. The key message of this document is that sports organisations need to approach sustainability in an integrated way – not by developing individual projects, but by incorporating sustainable practice throughout each organisation. David Stubbs, who has worked on the sustainability programmes for the London 2012 Olympics, UEFA Euro 2016 and the World Economic Forum in Davos, says that there’s an “awareness gap to bridge”.
“Not many people understand sustainability as a way of working,” he tells the Sports Sustainability Journal. “A lot of them think they’re being sustainable by recycling or changing light bulbs or working on some environmental project. All that is fine, but it’s only part of the story. The key part is really understanding what effect your activities are having on the environment, the local community and people more broadly – and then, what decisions you’re making by taking all of those factors into account.”
The Olympics itself as an event is shadowed by repeatedly making bold claims on sustainability that do not then materialise. Any commitments are complicated by the event’s high profile sponsorship from fossil fuel companies, airlines, car makers, chemical and junk food companies.
Whatever the figures, the facts on the ground are harder to ignore: of the 92 football league teams in England, 23 – almost one in four – can expect partial or total annual flooding of their stadiums by 2050. This will be sharpening minds in the boardrooms of football clubs across the country as the reality of climate change and its economic impact hits home. After all, football is sport, but it is also business.
Forest Green Rovers is part of a small community, and this – plus their wider fan base – form a powerful support network and partnership. They have been able to bring together fans, players and the wider community to support their efforts. The greening of the team may not be popular with absolutely everyone, but it has brought huge publicity to the club, which in turn brings an increased likelihood of more resources. It also suggests that a more localised model for sport in which communities have a bigger stake than remote financial outfits points to a brighter, more involved and much lower carbon future.
The potential power of sport – and in particular football – to influence fans and encourage behaviour change is enormous. During the global pandemic, we have seen how sportspeople starting to training online has gathered millions of followers. Similarly, top sports people speaking out on changing their diets in response to climate change has been hugely influential in showing how eating less meat has enhanced their performance . David Haye, the former world heavyweight boxing champion turned to a plant-based diet after three years away from the ring, and since then he says he feels “more energised than ever” and formula one driver Lewis Hamilton switched to a plant-based diet in middle of the 2017 season – a change he believes helped propel him to a fourth world title.
A football team arguably has more control over their staff than most organisations. For example, it might be unusual or impossible for most employers to encourage their employees to become vegans. However, this is possible within a football environment. The close knit nature of a sports team enables actions to be taken up in a shared fashion toward an end goal; it’s something they are used to doing. However, making the whole stadium food offer vegan is a step few would be brave enough to take on.
Forest Green Rovers did not stop just at the impact of the stadium; they looked at transport for the team and for fans. The players organised carpools – sharing lifts to and from training – that cut their carbon emissions straight away and more than halved their fuel costs. A partnership with Nissan has ensured that players have access to a fleet of LEAFs, a 100% electric car, as part of a trial to cut emissions from travel. With players living in Birmingham, the home counties and around the West Country, the playing squad could cover almost 10,000 miles each week travelling to and from training in Gloucestershire. Over the course of a season this commuting added up to almost 430,000 miles and generated more than 135,000 kg of CO2.