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Euro 2024 fails to score its most important climate goal

As Euro 2024 kicks off, the tournament has been caught offside with some of its climate claims. UEFA must do better to tackle its carbon footprint.

The Euro 2024 men’s football tournament, the world’s third largest sporting event, kicks off today (Friday 14 June) in Munich, as the Tartan Army of Scotland attempt to defeat tournament hosts Germany.

Two dozen teams from across Europe will compete in 10 German cities and an estimated 12 million people (including myself) will attend fan zones and a further 2.7 million will show their support in the stadiums

Whilst the tournament undoubtedly raises excitement levels (mine too, until Germany demolishes Scotland five nil, or something, in the opening match) it is classified as a mega event which imposes a hefty penalty on the environment: with far less thrilling outcomes than a penalty shootout.

Not only does the European championship affect the climate, the climate crisis is also affecting Euro 2024. Flooding cancelled proposed fan parks in Köln, and four died as floods hit southern Germany ahead of the tournament.

Offside claim

It is de rigueur for mega events such as the Euros to establish a sustainability strategy as an attempt to manage the environmental overload caused by masses of people arriving at one location all at the same time. 

For context, it is reported that an estimated 200,000 Scots (1 in 25 from a population of 5 million) with Euros fever will make the journey to Germany. And those are the fans of just one team. This doesn’t only put pressure on the beer and pretzel supplies but also on infrastructure and the transport networks.

Sporting mega events such as the FIFA World Cup in Qatar boasted falsely of being a “carbon neutral” tournament, while the Paris Olympics originally proclaimed that it would be “climate positive” before climbing down from that projection. Such claims do not stand up to scrutiny. 

Regrettably, UEFA in its Euro 2024 strategy has followed this trend with its opening gambit that, in an echo of the Paris Olympic games, it will hold “the most sustainable European Championship of all time”, though this is a vast improvement on its original plan to label Euro 2024 as “carbon neutral”.

Good tactics, bad strategy

For Euro 2024, UEFA has made meaningful efforts to reduce the carbon impact of spectators, organisers and the teams, and principled decisions taken to optimise waste, maximise the life cycle of products and to minimise water consumption.

However, too many questions remain unanswered and, as is the case with the Paris Olympics, size is the biggest hurdle to sustainability.

Benja Faecks, co-author of the Carbon Market Watch and éclaircies report ‘Going for green’, which assessed the sustainability strategy of this year’s Olympics explained: “It is clear that big events cause greenhouse gas emissions that are not in line with the 1.5°C Paris Agreement temperature threshold. While we applaud the organisers for the backtracking on the misleading carbon neutrality claim, the exaggerated ‘most sustainable ever’ message of Euro 2024 organisers still gives the unhelpful impression that the impact of the event on the climate is negligible.”

However, tournament organisers do deserve some credit for thinking sustainably. Benja continued, “Some of what UEFA is implementing looks good on the tactics board, but it will not overcome the sheer scale of the event that gathers huge amounts of spectators at the host location.”

Getting on the plane

In an effort to curb transport emissions – responsible for a whopping 80% of the tournament’s total emissions, according to UEFA – a popular policy is to provide each match ticket holder with a 36 hour local transport pass, as well as a discount on long-distance train tickets.

While this has scored some easy goals for the climate, it cannot defend against the stream of own goals from the biggest striker on the field, air travel by players and fans. For example, bookings for flights to the German cities hosting Euro 2024 have skyrocketed by 39%, with an over 200% rise from England, compared to the same period last year, according to one survey.

With some footballers flying 140,000km in one season it is clear that the sport’s gruelling schedule demands for elite players is a serious cause for climate alarm. Tournament organisers have encouraged teams to play their part by pledging to opt out of flying. Only Germany, Portugal and Switzerland have signed up.

In the build-up to the tournament, English football fans debated who of the players is getting on the plane. The unfortunate answer is all of them. England have based their training camp in Blankenhain in the east of Germany, yet will fly cross-country to both Gelsenkirchen and Cologne for their matches against Serbia and Slovenia. This attitude undermines UEFA’s climate strategy. 

At the launch of his Sport England’s sustainability strategy, chair Chris Boardman was highly critical of the lack of leadership shown by his footballing counterparts saying, “Football is huge and they’re punching below their weight at the moment. I wish they’d act more.”

Whilst rules remain non compulsory, teams will fly over best advice.

UEFA has embarked on a longer term project to better understand football’s emissions through the development of a carbon footprint calculator. However, there are outstanding questions over its confused methodology that does not address non-CO2 effects for aviation and spectator travel that fall outside the scope of greenhouse gas emissions.

Carbon Market Watch policy expert on the decarbonisation of aviation and shipping Bastien Bonnet-Cantalloube expressed his concerns. “While UEFA introducing this calculator is a step in a welcome direction, it is missing important details on how the most impactful of aviation emissions will be recorded. It also does not tell us what action UEFA will take to shrink its oversized footprint,” he noted. “Football remains a team sport and it needs everyone, from players to fans, to play ball if climate goals are to be scored.”

Pass it forward

UEFA may now be extolling strong sustainability ideals but it continues to play in its own half and has failed to tackle the greatest component of its carbon footprint, the flights taken by fans and players. Clearly including these climate impacts within UEFA’s own sustainability strategy and outlining measures to address them would be a first, essential step.

But the ground is shifting in terms of attitudes. For example, a survey conducted by women’s footballer Amy James-Turner discovered that 65% of players agree or strongly agree that climate change is affecting football both on and off the pitch, and 70% feel that climate change has affected playing conditions during their career.

For the beautiful game to score its Paris Agreement goals requires footballing associations, teams, players and fans to up their game and play together before the final whistle blows on the 1.5°C target. Failure to do so would be the biggest own goal of all.

Author

  • Gavin Mair

    Gavin is a member of the communications team. He formerly supported the work of MSPs in the Scottish Parliament, and held responsibility for media output and office management for two MEPs prior to Brexit. He is an experienced campaigner, relishing the challenge of communicating for causes that have a social and environmental impact and is motivated by CMW’s mission of holding businesses and governments to account as they move towards essential environmental ambitions and transitions. When not fighting the good fight Gavin can typically be found enjoying live music or attending to his houseplants.

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