Sci&Tech Writer Alexandra Reilly questions the responsibility of UEFA, teams and fans when it comes to the carbon footprint of football

Written by Alexandra Reilly

With its perfectly manicured pitches, plastic pint pots and disposable merchandise, it is almost indisputable that football has a negative impact on the environment. UEFA has made a promise to reduce carbon emissions by 50% before 2030, however they have scheduled an additional 177 fixtures for the 2024-25 season. Must more matches mean more emissions? Is it solely UEFA’s burden to bear?

Must more matches mean more emissions? Is it solely UEFA’s burden to bear?

While the things listed above do indeed have a negative environmental impact, it is completely overshadowed by that of travel. It is estimated that travel alone contributes upwards of 80% of the sport’s overall emissions. The Euro 2020 tournament had games staged in a record 11 countries, seeing both players and fans travelling more than ever before to make their fixtures. This contributed to a mammoth 1,524,586,342 air miles for fans and players combined for the 2022-23 season. According to BBC predictions, this figure will rise to almost 2 billion miles for the next season. So, how have UEFA attempted to justify this, given their promise?

To counteract the consequential environmental impact, UEFA made efforts to offset the transport emissions of fans and players alike. However, climate scientists have long been sceptical of this approach, stating it is more of a PR move than an act of environmentalism. According to experts, carbon offsetting is no substitution for an actual reduction of the amount of carbon dioxide emitted. 

Unfortunately, the 50% reduction in emissions promised by UEFA does not include travel, rather it focuses exclusively on the carbon footprint of the event itself. If UEFA can shirk the responsibility of combating these travel emissions, it leaves it to the fans and players to travel great distances in a more environmentally friendly way. Luckily, most teams in UEFA leagues have their own environmental mission statements that detail how they are implementing their own eco-friendly strategies. Unfortunately, when it comes to travel, these statements become less and less convincing.

Many teams turn to carbon offsetting to justify their travels and relieve the burden of guilt. UEFA cannot take the blame for the indifference some teams appear to have for reducing their emissions. Premier League players have been seen taking domestic flights to get to and from their matches, with some as short as 27 minutes. With this level of flippancy toward green domestic travel, it is hard to believe that teams are taking their environmental pledges seriously, and even harder to believe they will travel to international events by rail.

According to experts, carbon offsetting is no substitution for an actual reduction of the amount of carbon dioxide emitted

Some solutions that have been proposed are quite radical. Patrick Gasser, former head of UEFA’s social responsibility unit, advocates for a reduction in ticket sales for away fans, or even extreme restrictions on travelling supporters, like those during the pandemic. Many would contest this idea, claiming that the fan rivalry on match day is what makes the game, and the atmosphere would be lacking without fans from both sides. Gasser, however, stands firm in his recommendation.

A large and fundamental change is needed to reduce the carbon emissions surrounding football quickly, and Gasser’s proposed strategy would do just that. Ultimately, the carbon emissions associated with football are going to rise as a result of scheduling more games in more countries, no matter who we try to blame. A game-changing leap like this might be just what UEFA needs to meet its green promises.

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