On Sunday, the Premier League will host what’s billed as the world’s first net-zero game. Do its eco credentials stack up? And how are clubs tackling climate change?
This weekend, Tottenham Hotspur v Chelsea has been billed as the world’s first major net-zero carbon football match and broadcasters Sky has hyped the London derby with the usual big game pizzazz.
There are bombastic graphics and behind-the-scenes interviews – except with more talk of biofuel buses and bicycle lockups. So can the game kick off a conversation about sustainability in the sport?
“I think it’s fab that it’s happening,” says Forest Green Rovers chairman, Dale Vince. Since taking over the Gloucestershire-based team in 2010, Vince has become something of a pioneer in the sport – the Pep Guardiola of sustainable football.
As well as being entire vegan – including all food sold at the stadium – Rovers is run exclusively on green energy and carbon-neutral gas. Even the pitch is organic. Fifa heralded the League Two side as the greenest in the world. The UN certified them as carbon-neutral. When it comes to sustainability, Rovers are way out in front.
“By setting out to achieve a low carbon game, at the elite level, Spurs, Chelsea and Sky have done a good thing, set the bar somewhere – and others will surely follow,” says Vince.
Spurs have home advantage too. According to Sport Positive Leagues, which monitor the sustainability initiatives implemented by top-flight clubs, Tottenham Hotspur is currently the greenest club in the Premier League.
Their new £850m stadium runs on carbon-neutral gas and 100 per cent renewable energy. Beetroot burgers and tofu katsu curry are available as low-carbon alternatives to meat pies and beef burgers. They also have waterless urinals, a reusable cup scheme, and a ‘zero to landfill’ waste management scheme – in short, it’s a worthy highlights package.
But can Sunday’s game really be net-zero?
A 2019 study found that 61 per cent of Premier League club’s total emissions were caused by travel to and from games. Despite excellent public transport links and free match-day shuttle buses, Tottenham still expects 14,250 people to drive to the game.
Sky says that it will offset any carbon emissions they cannot cut. “We won’t know until after the game, but we will work closely with organisations to offset whatever that figure is,” the broadcaster told Positive News. Offsetting is considered a poor substitute for cutting emissions in the first place, but proponents argue that it is better than nothing.
In Germany, Borussia Mönchengladbach are trying something different: all ticket-holders get free public transport use within a 300km radius of the stadium.
“It is a huge challenge to get people using more public transport,” admits the club’s head of corporate social responsibility, Markus Frieben. Having just overseen the team’s first carbon footprint assessment, he confirms that fan travel is Mönchengladbach’s highest emissions driver.
Around 37 per cent of fans arrive at Mönchengladbach by train or bus – a figure the club is working hard to improve. Eighteen per cent still drive to matches.
Car-sharing incentives, linked to better or cheaper parking, are being considered as one carbon-cutting measure, but Frieben hopes to go beyond that and is negotiating with the German railway companies to expand train capacity on match days.
Cycling is a popular alternative and the ground now has space for 1,000 bicycles. Many fans lock up their wheels away from the stadium too and walk the last mile. For context, Tottenham has 180 bike spaces available this weekend.
The most fruitful progress being made by Mönchengladbach, however, is their work with the top German division, the Bundesliga, which is proposing a joint framework for all clubs to reduce emissions.
Details are scant, but Frieben says any agreement is likely to be based on the UN’s sustainable development goals. “The plan is that the clubs will elect to make it mandatory for the upcoming seasons,” he says.
Thom Rawson, the first chief sustainability officer in English football, believes a binding solution could be key to success. Employed by non-league Hanwell Town on a voluntary basis, Rawson has released a strategy to make the club carbon neutral by 2030, and has already reduced its carbon emission by 45 per cent through measures like changing the floodlights bulbs to LEDs.
“[Clubs] need something that gives us clear steps of what should be done,” says Rawson, “but also something that has teeth.” He believes that to ensure adherence, any framework should be tied to a team’s operating license, or similar.
Currently, each club is taking their own approach with some eye-catching results. Manchester City now have edible coffee cups; Liverpool have a new veggie pie stand at Anfield; and in Italy, Juventus plant 200 trees for each goal they score.
Dutch title winners, Ajax, are looking to go beyond all that and make a positive impact on the environment at their ground, the Johan Cruijff ArenA.
“Our ambition is to be the most innovative stadium in the world,” says Henk van Raan, the ground’s chief innovation officer. “We are not focusing on expanding our stadium, which is the norm, but on innovation.”
Spurs, Chelsea and Sky have done a good thing, set the bar somewhere – and others will surely follow
Having installed more than 4,200 solar panels on the stadium roof and linked their energy supply to a wind turbine in the nearby village of Oudendijk, the Johan Cruijff ArenA has enough power for matches and sends any excess to the national grid.
Ajax is embracing the circular economy too. The stadium’s energy storage system makes good use of batteries from used Nissan Leaf cars, and grass cuttings from the pitch are fed to local goats, who in turn provide the milk used to make the stadium’s own cheese.
Match commentators often bark that football is a game of two halves, but when it comes to finding the right tactics to beat the climate emergency, every team will need the backing of their fans.
“The power of football is that it has the capacity to engage such a huge audience on these [types of] messages,” says Rawson. “[Spurs v Chelsea] is a great indication that league football is at least starting out on that journey towards serious climate action and towards a net-zero football industry.”
Novel ideas for fan involvement are starting to appear. Competitions like CUP26 pits supporters against each other in a bid to make them change their habits. A team scores a goal each time a fan completes a green action like eating a meat-free meal or enjoying a screen-free evening.
In CUP26, Spurs are currently beating Chelsea 51-9, a scoreline its supporters would love to see this weekend. But ultimately, football remains a team sport. “Clubs have the ability to influence and encourage fans,” says Rawson. “I think that’s why football’s wider societal role is so important: it’s not only what the clubs can do directly… you can’t reach net-zero football if the society around you isn’t moving towards net-zero too. It is a challenge that football needs to take together with fans.”
Image: Old Trafford, home of Manchester United. Credit: Alex Motoc