“It’s not a perfect solution”
A transparent look at the complexities of creating a sustainable game
As of now, 44 players heading to Australia and New Zealand for the 2023 World Cup have committed to taking climate action.
To help compensate for their flights to and from the tournament, players are supporting a combination of climate resilience and carbon offsetting and adaptation initiatives. Spearheaded by Denmark midfielder Sofie Junge Pedersen, Canadian midfielder Jessie Fleming, and Italian defender Elena Linari, it’s the biggest player-led climate action in football history and comes at a crucial time.
As the women's game is rapidly growing, the question arises of how it can do so without a price for the planet. This campaign is an example of how women's football is progressive at its core and takes the environment into consideration.
But these players know supporting climate resilience and carbon offsetting and adaptation initiatives to take responsibility for their emissions isn’t the perfect solution.
Below Elliot Arthur-Worsop, Founder and Co-Director at Football For Future, and Jérémy Houssin, Common Goal’s Environmental Lead share more insight into the complexities of environmental efforts and how football tournaments can become more sustainable.
If flying to Australia and New Zealand has such a significant carbon footprint, how are the players using this moment to create a positive environmental legacy?
(Elliot) These players have dedicated their entire lives to representing their nations at the highest level, and with this year's World Cup being hosted in Australia and New Zealand, they have no choice but to fly there. But they also understand the environmental impact that comes with this lifestyle.
Given that there is currently no carbon-neutral way to travel to Australia and/or New Zealand, the players have decided to use this opportunity of playing at a World Cup to create a positive environmental legacy.
What does this legacy look like?
Firstly, acknowledging the limitations of offsetting, many players are instead combining this with donating to climate-resilience initiatives, which enhance ecosystem resilience to the impacts of climate change through the restoration of key habitats and natural flood defences.
Secondly, they are using their platforms to accelerate the climate conversation in football.
And thirdly, this group is shining a light on the longer-term solution which is that governing bodies need to introduce carbon as a key consideration in the bidding process for hosting tournaments.
You mention the limitations of offsetting... can you explain these in more detail?
(Elliot) The most important thing to highlight is that any methodology to compensate for the emission of greenhouse gases is only a temporary solution, while we must urgently focus on reducing all emissions at their source.
In the ideation process of this project, we encountered challenges due to the limitations and controversies surrounding calculating the environmental impact of flying. Firstly, calculating aviation emissions is complex due to variables such as cruising altitude, plane model, number of passengers, additional greenhouse gas emissions, fuel type, seating class, and more. This complexity has implications for the amount to donate to climate resilience and offsetting and adaptation initiatives.
When considering the offsetting and adaptation initiatives in particular, a lack of standardisation and verification mechanisms can also make it challenging to ensure the integrity and transparency of different initiatives, in addition to considerations about the indirect ecological impact on local biodiversity affected through the same initiatives.
For these reasons, participating players are not claiming their flights to be carbon-neutral, but are now focusing on the wider ecological benefits that their donations can have (e.g. by making the climate-vulnerable host nations more resilient in the face of future extreme weather events), and by using this moment to shine a spotlight on the long-term solution that is for football’s governing bodies to include carbon as a key criterion in the bidding process for the hosting of future tournaments.
This is the biggest player-led climate initiative of its kind. Can you tell me how Football For Future and Common Goal are supporting players?
(Jérémy) Our role is to support the players to carry out their initiative and deliver their message. We ensured that players have the necessary tools and knowledge to create a lasting and positive impact on the environment, both through their individual actions and as part of this collective effort.
We did our best to advise Sofie Junge Pedersen, who inspired this action, and all the players on relevant solutions to take responsibility for their flights and provide educational material and training around the key topics linked to this initiative.
In terms of practical support, we have identified two reliable climate-resilience projects, such as WWF Australia's Koalas Forever, WWF New Zealand's Pauanui Dune Protection, and one strong offsetting and adaptation initiative - DanChurchAid's Uganda Tree Planting where their funds will go to. We used the US Government’s social cost of carbon ($51 per tonne) to calculate the size of the donation to support WWF’s climate-resilience projects, and $34 per tonne to compensate through the certified offsetting project of DanChurchAid, for which Sofie was already an ambassador.
By providing players with guidance, educational resources, and supporting them in selecting impactful projects, we aim to empower them to make informed decisions and take meaningful action in their climate initiatives.
Do you think an environmentally-friendly tournament is possible?
(Jérémy) In many ways, the very nature of international football is problematic for the environment. The way it’s set up involves significant travel for teams and fans by carbon-guzzling planes, and tournaments often result in the construction of new stadiums. However, there are important steps that organisers can take to make tournaments as climate-friendly as possible.
We believe a key step in the right direction would be that governing bodies set carbon as a strong key criterion in the bidding process for tournaments.
The football calendar should be organised in a way that discourages excessive travel and reduces dependency on planes as much as possible. The current expansion of the football calendar leads to unsustainable team and fan travel to attend competitions, with heavy reliance on air travel.
At the tournament level, building new infrastructure should be avoided by organisers as much as possible. If new construction is necessary, all efforts should be made to utilise low-carbon techniques and retrofit existing structures with sustainable solutions.
Providing low-emission and affordable transportation options for teams is another important aspect. This could include supporting public transportation systems, encouraging carpooling, and exploring innovative green transportation solutions to facilitate efficient and environmentally friendly travel to stadiums and cities.
Creating an environmentally-friendly tournament requires a comprehensive and holistic approach. Efforts should always aim at reducing and mitigating its environmental impacts. Though, there will still be a cost to the environment, such as unavoidable emissions. To acknowledge this negative impact, offsetting or supporting climate-resilience initiatives, if done in the right way, can make sense and contribute to a positive environmental legacy.