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Sunday, May 19, 2024

Green Football Weekend is well-intentioned but full of hypocrisy

This weekend clubs will take part in Green Football Weekend (GFW), dedicating their matches to the fight to tackle climate change.

The initiative, which began in 2021, is laudable. It seeks to utilise the power of football to encourage and empower people to make sustainable changes to their lives. That is sensible and logical given the reach football has and the number of people consuming games every week.

The focus of GFW this year is on encouraging fans to eat more plant-based meals in order to reduce the emissions produced by eating meat. But clubs are still flying short distances across the country and bringing players in on chartered planes for transfers. Owners use private jets to travel and broadcasters are moving matches to times that are inaccessible for fans to travel using public transport.

Goalkeeper David Raya boards a plane on December 11 ahead of their UEFA Champions League Group Stage match against PSV Eindhoven (David Price/Arsenal FC via Getty Images)

All of this sends mixed messages so it is difficult to see how those involved in GFW have the authority to persuade fans to make sustainable choices.

It is a well-meaning campaign but, until football takes sustainability and the climate crisis seriously, this risks becoming little more than a PR exercise aimed at climate-conscious supporters. If clubs genuinely cared about making a difference then they would use less carbon-intensive methods of transport and make more sustainable choices.

Before their fixture against Brighton on January 22, Wolverhampton Wanderers travelled by coach to Birmingham Airport before flying to Gatwick and picking up a coach to the Amex stadium. Wolves, though, along with Manchester City, are one of the few clubs to publish reports on travel and sustainability. They flew to five domestic fixtures last season and took three international flights (during pre-season and the mid-season winter break), with the majority of travel by coach.

Before the FA Cup fourth round last weekend, Brighton — who say they implement sustainable practices at their training ground and have subsidised public transport for games at the Amex stadium — took a coach to Gatwick before flying to East Midlands Airport and taking a coach to their game against Sheffield United. Manchester United flew to Cardiff airport before taking a coach to Newport County’s Rodney Parade stadium. Newcastle United flew to London when they faced Fulham and Plymouth Argyle took a coach to Exeter before flying to Leeds.

Manchester United say, among other things, they have reduced their reliance on domestic air travel and their accommodation usage for home and away fixtures, as well as purchasing several electric vehicles and reducing emissions from their food supply chain. 

Last season, a BBC study revealed that Wrexham travelled by plane to matches at Eastleigh, Maidstone, Gateshead, Maidenhead, Dagenham & Redbridge, Bromley, Barnet and Torquay en route to winning promotion from the National League (English football’s fifth tier) in May.

Premier League players wore a sustainable green arm band for last year’s GFW (Naomi Baker/Getty Images)

Newcastle, Plymouth, Brighton and Wrexham are geographical outliers that offer an element of mitigation. Clubs have pointed to the unreliability of public transport, including the frequent strikes by the ASLEF and RMT unions and the impact of extreme weather on the railways.

Crystal Palace have a policy of only flying to domestic fixtures where absolutely necessary. 

“We have to and everyone needs to start taking responsibility,” said Palace manager Roy Hodgson when asked how important it is that clubs take their responsibility seriously. “The messages we’re getting from environmentalists are frightening, about how much damage has been done. You can’t do enough.

“I’m not an expert and it’s the club’s remit but we’re doing a good job, we take it seriously. (When redeveloping) the academy they made a lot of decisions based on what the most sustainable option would be. 

“Air travel is tricky. Unfortunately all modes of transport damage the environment in some way. If clubs are saying you should only fly when absolutely necessary, I agree with that. You can count on one hand the number of times we’ve flown when I’ve been here.

“But I don’t blame clubs for flying and it’s not as simple as all or nothing. I’m glad there’s a GFW. I’m absolutely in favour of all that is being done to keep the planet as green as it can be.”

Hodgson is an advocate of only flying to games when ‘absolutely necessary’ (Sebastian Frej/MB Media/Getty Images)

Research by the climate action charity Possible found that Manchester City flew to 10 of their 19 Premier League away games last season, emitting over 56 tonnes of CO2, more in one season than 21 years worth of travel if they used an electric coach. 

It also found an average journey by private jet produces 40 times more emissions than using a coach (2.8 tonnes vs 0.07 tonnes of emissions). In many cases the time saving is limited. 

Luke Anthony, the former head of sports medicine at Reading and injury prevention specialist at Norwich City, previously told The Athletic there is “no hard research” that shows taking a flight is better than a coach.

“There is no evidence to suggest it has an impact on your performance or injury risk, but there is probably a perception that it’s poor preparation,” he said. “There’s no cumulative effect physically. It is more the fatigue of spending a long time on the coach and getting back late.”

Clubs might suggest they have no choice but to travel by the quickest method of transport with the need to optimise player recovery amid a tight schedule. That would place some responsibility at the door of broadcasters.

Both Sky Sports and TNT Sports are GFW participants, with Sky claiming the ‘first net-zero game’ in 2021 — Tottenham Hotspur’s home game against Chelsea. But their continued expansion of broadcasting rights, moving games into slots that are difficult or impossible to travel to by sustainable methods for clubs and fans, at least without significant expense, is problematic.

Fan travel and accommodation contributes to an estimated 85 per cent of emissions. Sky says it aims for fans to commit to taking 1 million more green journeys to future sporting events. 

Broadcasters and match scheduling are making sustainable travel more difficult (Robbie Jay Barratt – AMA/Getty Images)

Then there is the question of ownership and sponsorship. Arsenal and City’s primary shirt and stadium sponsors are airlines. Several Premier League clubs have owners with questionable environmental records. 

Everton manager Sean Dyche recently appeared to suggest that winger Arnaut Danjuma flew from Manchester to Liverpool for training every day. Regular observers of Dyche’s press conferences quickly realised he was joking but others did not. The response to the clip was for many to believe it was possible, demonstrating how normalised flying has become in football.

In January last year, Nottingham Forest manager Steve Cooper defended his team’s decision to take a 20-minute flight to Blackpool — a journey of just over 135 miles — instead of driving under three hours. “It’s pretty normal,” Cooper said.

Achieving social change using the influence of sport and high-profile individuals is not impossible. Football’s platform to influence behaviour is almost unparalleled. Manchester United forward Marcus Rashford’s free school meals campaign prompted a change in government policy.

All stakeholders have a role to play. 

The House of Lords Environment and Climate Change Committee says that a third of emissions cuts must come from behaviour change in order to meet the UK’s target of reaching net-zero emissions by 2050. Football has the power to help, but a one-off mid-season weekend without little follow-up from clubs is not enough.

Football is uniquely placed to show leadership in tackling the climate crisis, which is already dramatically affecting the game and continues to threaten its future. Without significant changes in behaviour, it will only open up accusations of hypocrisy and fail to convert that opportunity to encourage change.

GFW will only be successful if it helps to establish meaningful, lasting change in football. The game has yet to show enough appetite for it.

(Top photo: Darren Walsh/Chelsea FC via Getty Images)

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