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Our Common Future: On Football and Climate Change

In October-November 2021, the 26th Conference of the Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was held in the city of Glasgow and resulted in an agreement known as the Glasgow Climate Pact.

This agreement reaffirmed a commitment to climate finance and support for the developing world; the COP26 website notes, as a key outcome of the conference, the “commitments to significantly increase financial support through the Adaptation Fund as developed countries were urged to double their support to developing countries by 2025.”

That the conference was held in Glasgow, a major footballing city, is an apt way to enter the discussion on football and climate change. Partly because of the symbolism. But also because some of the key themes from COP26 will play a significant role in global football’s climate policies going forward.

Broader context

There are a couple of broader contextual issues to consider. First, in the COP26 discussions, the dependence of the global south on the global north for climate mitigation is a recurring motif. The explicit delineation of a relationship between countries is hardly surprising; given the global nature of the existential threat of climate change, cooperation is imperative to any significant and sustained mitigation effort.

However, the associated costs for the global south are undoubtedly higher. Both in terms of the severity of environmental effects and the conflict of climate action with development goals. This is a point that some countries have argued in the past as part of their case for exemption from meeting climate targets.

This is the uneven terrain on which the future of football will play out worldwide. The world’s most popular sport also must re-evaluate its ambitions for further growth, particularly in the global south. While an increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events and flooding of low-lying areas due to climate change are hardly unique to the developing world, the health risks of playing in extreme heat already pose a significant threat to football in many parts of the global south.

Secondly, the specific climate policies of each sector are a reflection of wider national and international agreed-upon climate goals and mitigation strategies. No discussion of football’s climate response is, therefore, complete without an understanding of the bigger picture. This typically consists of guiding principles enshrined in initiatives for climate action concerning the reduction of emissions, curbing waste, increasing awareness, switching to renewable energy, and so on.

For instance, the Sports for Climate Action programme is a UNFCCC initiative aimed at reducing the ecological footprint of sport and integrating it into a larger, global push towards a low-carbon economy. Its signatories – among them, FIFA and UEFA – agree to commit to cutting emissions in half by 2030 and reaching net-zero by 2040.

These are concrete climate goals explicitly directed towards staying on course for the 1.5°C threshold (established in the long-term goals of the Paris Agreement and upheld at COP26) and bringing football (and other sports) in line with net-zero targets that are now a common feature of climate policies worldwide. According to the COP26 website, “when the UK took on the COP26 mantle, in partnership with Italy, nearly two years ago [2019], only 30% of the world was covered by net zero targets. This figure is now at around 90%.”

It seems that, on the surface, football marches in step with global climate action. But when it comes to climate action, skepticism (or even distrust) is not only warranted, it is necessary. In the week that this piece was written, a report was published by the not-for-profit association Carbon Market Watch casting “serious doubts” over the branding of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar as ‘carbon neutral’, instead suggesting that “the event will have a large carbon footprint” and the claim of being carbon neutral is “not credible.”

It is this that reinforces the need for scepticism when it comes to climate action. Too often goals like net-zero are just words. Even the words themselves are uninspiring, flimsy and ineffectual; that the signatories to the Sports for Climate Action initiative are “requested to commit to” reducing emissions is too many degrees separated from concrete action.

(Incidentally, the word ‘press’ in the above paragraph is carefully chosen; there is a significant informational component to climate action as well, mostly concerning things like awareness, misinformation, exaggerated or misleading claims, messaging on climate policy, dissemination of mitigation strategies and best practices, and so on. Regarding the carbon neutrality claims of the Qatar World Cup, the Carbon Market Watch report “aims to identify elements which may mislead the public.

As such, it is a fact-checking exercise rather than a quality assessment” – and the report notes among the dangers of misleading claims the possibility that individuals will believe their actions to be environmentally responsible when they are, in fact, the opposite. In some ways, environmental impact is just the latest respect in which World Cups have proven to be more hype than substance.)

Furthermore, no matter the agreements signed by clubs and governing bodies, the current general trend of global football is towards expansion – the recent major moves (or planned moves) in football including the expanded World Cup, expanded European Championship, European Super League, games overseas, and expanded Champions League brokered as a compromise for the Super League have shown that the priority is exactly the opposite of fewer games, less travel, and a diminished ecological footprint.

Given this resolute opposition to environmentally responsible behaviour, instances of what professional football, especially at the higher levels, might look like reorganised in an ecologically sustainable fashion are uncommon – but there are glimpses.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced the final stages of the 2019-20 UEFA Champions League behind closed doors, the participants from the quarterfinals and onwards restricted to single-leg ties and two venues in Lisbon.

These conditions gave spectators at home a glimpse of life with reduced travel (a significant contributor to football’s emissions) and fewer games, with the final eleven days of the tournament a decent impression of the more contained ‘bubble life’ that sports such as cricket have utilised extensively for conducting series and tournaments throughout the pandemic.

There are several reasons why a wholesale switch to this model is not imminent. But these experiences, however resistant to extrapolation at present, offer a vision of an alternative. Similarly, the sustainable practices of England’s Forest Green Rovers have won much publicity, but their value as a tangible example of environmentally conscious behaviour to emulate might come to outweigh their efficacy at reducing the club’s ecological footprint.

Football’s response to climate change

While viewing football’s climate response through the lens of broad, agreed-upon goals is certainly useful – especially given the sport’s institutional commitment to debates, priorities, and targets derived from international climate agreements – the unique environmental conditions and challenges of each country make a one-size-fits-all approach to climate action practically impossible – even when narrowing down to a specific sector such as football.

With this backdrop in mind, it is worth considering an individual case that will help bring some of these issues into sharper focus – and hopefully shed a little light on what climate action in football entails and what it can do for the sport and for society at large.

In this discussion, particularly interesting is the case of Bhutan, a small, developing country in South Asia especially vulnerable to climate change, as ecologically sensitive as it is rich and diverse. Landlocked and heavily forested (around 70%), the varying elevations and topography of Bhutan result in a few different climatic and micro-climatic zones.

In some respects, the country is a global pacesetter when it comes to climate action. The forest cover is sufficient for Bhutan’s tiny pollution levels (a constitutional provision mandates a minimum of 60% forest cover at all times), most of its power requirements are met by hydroelectricity (which is also a major export), and there are efforts to control vehicular emissions via restrictions on the use of existing cars and switching to electric vehicles.

However, Bhutan is also a member of the Climate Vulnerable Forum, a group of countries disproportionately vulnerable to climate change – a sobering reminder (if one was needed) that the heaviest costs of climate change are often borne by minimal contributors.

The 2019 report “Analysis of Historical Climate and Climate Projection for Bhutan” prepared by the government’s National Center for Hydrology and Meteorology (NCHM) highlights some of these disproportionate costs, pointing out that “Bhutan’s economy is highly dependent on climate-sensitive sectors such as agriculture, hydropower, and forestry.”

The 2020 Climate Change Policy document drafted by the National Environment Commission confirms this, explaining that “in addition to being a land locked and least developed country with a fragile mountainous environment, high dependence of the population on agriculture and the significant role of hydropower for economic development increase the vulnerability. Bhutan also faces increasing threats from climate hazards and extreme events such as flash floods, glacial lake outburst floods, windstorms, forest fires and landslides.”

Pressing issues

These melting glaciers are a particularly pressing issue for Bhutan. Increases in both temperature (depending on the projection, up to 2.8oC by 2050 and 3.2oC by 2100) and mean annual rainfall (particularly summer rainfall) in Bhutan are projected over the remainder of this century. These rising temperatures have increased the pace of melting, threatening people, and infrastructure in the river valleys, downstream from glaciers in the mountains.

Combined with heavy rains, melting glaciers can cause floods and landslides. The NCHM report further notes that “landslides are a major problem for the roads sector, the only transport and a lifeline for Bhutan, during the summer monsoon. With most of the rivers confined in narrow gorges, blockage of rivers by landslides risks the formation of artificial dams that pose a great danger to downstream settlements and assets such as hydropower due to landslide dam outburst flood (LDOF).”

The knock-on effects will be significant. As mentioned earlier, much of Bhutan’s electricity comes from hydropower, and significant damage to these hydroelectric resources could spell an energy crisis, as well as an impact on economic performance – according to the statistical yearbook of the National Statistical Bureau, notes the NCHM report, electricity, and water supply account for 13.38% of Bhutan’s GDP.

Furthermore, wealthier countries have better informational, as well as technological, resources to tackle climate change; the NCHM report notes that “unlike most of the developed countries, climate sciences and climate research remains a challenge for Bhutan. It is limited by lack of available historical climate data, dense and robust observational network, resources, model and computational facilities, technology and capacity to undertake climate research.” It is also worth noting that this lack of information likely hinders assessing precisely how much each climatic event (drought, flooding) will affect Bhutan which turn hinders the precise calculation of resources necessary to tackle a particular problem.

Given the disproportionate stakes involved – disruption to major sectors of the economy and the production of food and power – every activity in Bhutanese society and economy must be (and in many instances, has already been) mobilised for climate action. In the case of football, the Bhutan Football Federation’s commitment is expressed in the Football For Climate Action programme.

Bhutan’s football team, incidentally, was the subject of the 2003 documentary The Other Final, a charming film about their game with Montserrat – at the time, the bottom two teams in the FIFA rankings – played on the same day as the 2002 World Cup final. Bhutan won that game 4-0, registering their first ever win and clean sheet. Two decades on, they have hardly

established themselves as giants; as of this writing, the men are ranked 187th in the world and the women 169th.

But this is a country that doesn’t let its underdog status hinder its pioneering environmental efforts – and football takes its cue from national mitigation efforts.

The Federation’s website expresses Bhutan’s unique need for a broad scope in football climate action efforts and their integration with the broader climate goals of society, but the lesson is vital for all communities drawn together by football: “Bhutan Football will undertake systematic efforts to promote greater environmental responsibility, reduce overall climate impact, educate for climate action, promote sustainable and responsible consumption and advocate for climate action through communication. Initially the climate action was part of our social responsibility but looking at the magnitude of its impact in our backyard in terms of forestry and biodiversity, agriculture, natural disaster and infrastructure, water (and energy) and human health which is the future of our country’s livelihood.”

Much of Football for Climate Action is centred around education, awareness, promotion, and visibility, as evinced by a glance at the seven-point plan on the Federation website. These include climate-focused outreach programmes at the grassroots level, promotion at all levels of the football pyramid in Bhutan and at the Changlimithang, the picturesque national stadium, and enlisting Chencho Gyeltshen, Bhutan’s most capped player and top goal scorer, as an ambassador for climate action.

These informational efforts are complemented by infrastructural enhancements. “The current Chanjiji football stadium will be converted into a green stadium,” stated Phuntsho Wangdi, Head Communication and Commercial, and International Relations at the Bhutan Football Federation, to FTF over email. “Bhutan Football Federation will plant 200 trees in and around the stadium making it one of the greenest and environmentally friendly stadiums and making it [sic] one of the most beautiful stadiums surrounded by trees and plants.”

An obvious response to such efforts is cynicism i.e. will slapping a logo on promotional material really achieve anything? There is a paradox to football – hardly a major industry in terms of contributing to emissions (indeed, hardly a major industry full stop) but absolutely a major industry in terms of visibility and popularity among millions across the world, uniquely in possession of a ubiquity thoroughly disproportionate to its pollution. While the cynic might say that its frivolity makes it an easy place to begin reducing waste, its ability to bind people across cultures can make it the vanguard of a country’s climate action.

This is not to say that ‘raising awareness’ alone is sufficient but given a mass appeal that exceeds its economic or ecological footprint, football has the potential to be the most prominent domain of a national climate response, sparking climate action in other sectors. The UNFCCC Sports for Climate Action initiative acknowledges as much when saying that when sports organisations get the ball rolling (pun mildly intended) with respect to their own ecological footprint, this “in turn will incentivize climate action beyond the sports sector, and therefore help global ambition step-up in the face of the threat posed by climate change.”

Think about how many people know precisely what their country is doing about climate change – specific programmes, laws, goals, priorities, campaigns, figureheads, and so on. Climate change still suffers from a lack of articulate discourse pathetically unworthy of the scale of the problem. Mobilised effectively, Chencho Gyeltshen could be the figurehead everyone knows before long.

The required speed of transition to carbon neutrality, to take an example, and the culling of current practices that would involve would be painful. But not all of it would be equally painful because not all components of human activity have an equal climate footprint. More importantly, not all components are strategically important to the functioning of society – and it can be easily argued that football is one of the strategically less important components.

It is tempting to say, to return to the voice of the cynic, that this is reason enough to clamp down on football. But to acknowledge the merit in the cynic’s argument is not to trivialise football – it was, for instance, a great comfort to many in lockdown, and any pieces on football and climate change, including this one, are written by people interested in football and read by people equally interested in football.

Neither is it to suggest that football is the biggest unnecessarily polluting industry – one that we’d be better off without – or to paint the sudden transition to carbon neutrality and other climate goals as undesirable. The point, rather, of climate responses is to transform every aspect of society for our common future and the efforts of Bhutan and others constitute football’s response.

Changes can be made here, if you are looking for them, and could potentially have a domino effect.

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