What is football’s carbon footprint?
General view of Arsenal's Gabriel Martinelli's boot and the ball, at Arsenal v Brighton & Hove Albion - Emirates Stadium, London, Britain - December 17, 2023. Action Images via Reuters/John Sibley
What’s the context?
As British football fans are urged to make green choices for a weekend climate campaign, how else can soccer cut its emissions?
- Most emissions come from fan and player travel
- FIFA expanding World Cup tournaments despite green pledges
- International bodies urged to hold clubs to account
LONDON – With a fan base of 3.5 billion – nearly half the global population – football is the world's most popular sport and its carbon footprint is huge.
With emissions created by energy use in stadiums, travel by fans and teams, broadcasting, the multibillion-dollar market for kits and other merchandise and even matchday meals, the beautiful game takes a not-so-beautiful toll on the planet's climate.
This weekend, thousands of football fans across Britain are being urged to make climate-conscious choices – from opting for plant-based meals to switching to green energy providers – as part of Green Football Weekend, a campaign to engage fans and clubs in climate action.
But with international competitions set to get even bigger - the 2026 and 2030 FIFA World Cups are to be hosted across multiple continents with more teams – what more is football doing to slash its emissions and reduce its carbon footprint?
What is football's carbon footprint?
Estimates of football's overall impact on emissions are often too low as they tend not to count vital activities like stadium construction. Meanwhile, clubs' emissions are hard to calculate as they vary depending on size and location.
The one thing experts agree on is that travel – by spectators and the teams - is the biggest contributor.
During the 2016-2017 season, travel accounted for 61% of the English Premier League's carbon footprint, according to a 2019 study.
Analysis of German Bundesliga team VfL Wolfsburg's carbon output shows that 60% of its emissions come from fan travel, with just 20% considered "direct" emissions, from activities like heating facilities.
Even when data is available, experts say clubs and event organisers often fail to produce accurate estimates, while their efforts to cut emissions often take the form of offsetting.
This is a controversial practice that allows a nation or company to buy carbon credits to pay for actions to cut emissions elsewhere, like buying and maintaining a forest or planting trees.
Climate analysts say carbon offsets are being overused as the primary basis of net-zero claims for sporting events.
For example, governing body FIFA estimated emissions from the 2022 World Cup in Qatar would reach around 3.6 million tonnes but still promoted the competition as the first completely carbon-neutral tournament because of offsets.
A Swiss independent regulator later ruled that the claims were false and misleading.
What are clubs doing to shrink their carbon footprint?
Efforts vary across the world but arguably one of the pioneers in this field is fourth-tier English club Forest Green Rovers, described by FIFA as the "the world's greenest football club".
Since 2010, it has been working towards becoming the first carbon-neutral club in the world. It has switched to 100% renewable energy, introduced a fully vegan menu for staff and fans, and brought in rainwater recycling, EV charging points and a chemical-free pitch.
European clubs have followed suit, investing in renewables to power stadiums, using biofuels in buses and holding training sessions on environmental best practice for their players.
Teams from AC Milan to Liverpool now have kits that include items made from recycled plastics.
"Clubs are well engaged on the elements that are in their control, like saving energy and managing waste," said Thom Rawson, founder of advisory organisation Sustainable Football.
"There's a massive need for football to work collaboratively with partners in travel and merchandise," he added.
In 2016, the United Nations launched the Sports for Climate Action Framework, requiring signatories to slash their emissions and reach net zero by 2040.
The Premier League signed up in 2021 while Tottenham, Arsenal, Liverpool and Southampton have also joined, alongside a handful of non-league and European teams.
The Bundesliga is yet to sign but clubs have to meet minimum sustainability criteria to be licensed to play in the league.
As part of its climate strategy, FIFA has said it aims to reduce emissions at the events it organises and plans to be carbon neutral as an organisation by 2040.
How does football compare to other sports on emissions?
While air travel ramps up football’s carbon output, skydivers have the highest individual carbon footprint in sport with golfers next, if you include the manufacture and use of pesticides and fertilisers to maintain courses as well as travel.
Formula One estimates a race season emits around 256,000 tonnes of CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent), roughly the same as the annual emissions of 55,000 normal cars, according to a calculator from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The sport is exploring new fuels to help reduce emissions from the cars themselves and also cut logistical and freight emissions, which make up the majority of F1's carbon output.
As for major international competitions, the organisers of the 2024 Olympics in Paris aim to keep emissions below 1.5 million tonnes of CO2, less than half the carbon output of the last summer games, after the International Olympic Committee committed to halving its emissions by 2030.
Is football doing enough?
While individual clubs have started to make changes, there is no mass momentum to decarbonise football, said Rawson, who would like regulatory bodies to standardise carbon reporting and set minimum standards to hold clubs to account.
European football's governing body UEFA joined the UN Race to Zero campaign in 2022, pledging to halve emissions across its events by 2030. It also launched sustainability guidelines to help clubs improve water and energy consumption, food and apparel manufacturing, and building infrastructure.
British sports writer and researcher David Goldblatt said football also needs to "draw the line" at sponsorship from fossil fuel companies.
High-carbon sponsors from car manufacturers to airlines are common in sport, but are becoming more controversial, with firms accused by environmental groups of "sportswashing" tarnished images.
FIFA has also been criticised for not prioritising the environment in its bidding process, with oil giant Saudi Arabia set to host the 2034 World Cup.
Goldblatt also questioned the logic of expanding competitions or hosting them in multiple locations, although reserving some tickets for locals could help cut emissions, he noted.
The 2026 men's World Cup will be held in the United States, Mexico and Canada while the 2030 event was awarded to Spain, Portugal and Morocco with Uruguay, Argentina and Paraguay also hosting matches to mark the tournament's centenary.
FIFA has also increased the number of teams in the men’s World Cup from 32 to 48 while the women's tournament saw 32 teams take part this year, up from 24.
There is an upside though: experts say the enormous popularity of football offers a real opportunity to educate and mobilise people around actions to tackle climate change.
"If (football) could be mobilised in service of climate action, that could make a really significant contribution," said Goldblatt.
This article was updated on Feb. 1 ahead of Green Football Weekend.
(Reporting by Beatrice Tridimas; editing by Clar Ni Chonghaile and Laurie Goering)
- Carbon offsetting