In a sign that climate action is starting to take root in professional sports, some of the world’s greatest football players took the train to work.
FC Barcelona’s players chose the railway over a private jet when traveling to a recent match against Getafe CF, which plays on the outskirts of Spanish capital Madrid. It was the first time the club’s male team rode the rails to a game. They did so to reduce their impact on global warming, the club’s sustainability directory Jordi Portabella said in an interview.
“We decided to do this trip to state that the club wants to be a solution to climate change, and not a problem,” Portabella said. “We want to increase the number of trips we make by train instead of plane.”
Professional football remains a laggard when it comes to taking basic steps to address its climate impact such as systematically calculating its direct greenhouse gas emissions and those of fans traveling to see matches. But over the past few months, dozens of symbolic initiatives have emerged, from clubs serving vegan food in stadiums to players biking to training grounds and wearing climate stripes, a popular data visualization of global warming, on their kits.
Together, these efforts point to a growing awareness by clubs and players that climate change is having an impact on the sport, and that they in turn need to do something to reduce their contribution to heating up the planet.
Barça’s choice of transportation shows some more progress. While the train was chartered — which alone isn’t as green as riding public transport — the club said their deal with Spain’s national railway company Renfe included a request that the trip be powered by renewable energy. Portabella said Barça players and staff actually enjoyed the 2.5-hour ride from Barcelona to Madrid.
Some clubs have come under fire for not appearing to take their climate impact seriously. Paris Saint-Germain faced backlash after coach Christophe Galtier joked last September that his team was looking into the possibility of traveling by a “sand yacht” instead of a private jet. The comment, which sent star forward Kylian Mbappé into a fit of giggles, clashes with France’s efforts to cut back short-haul flights.
“It probably wasn’t their intention,” Portabella said. “But Mbappé’s and the coach’s answer increased awareness of the situation that humanity is facing.”
Over the past year, Barça has been switching to LED lights and began sourcing all of its power from renewables as part of a renewed sustainability push. This season, the club started calculating its own emissions for the first time ever, a necessary step toward reducing its carbon footprint.
Other clubs are taking action, too. Real Betis in the city of Seville signed an agreement with Renfe so now the club’s football and basketball teams travel by high-speed train to matches across the country, and fans are given discounted train tickets, too.
In Germany, many Bundesliga clubs offer fans free public transport to the venue and back to attend matches. Known as KombiTickets, the system provides free transportation across whole regions — not just a city — a few hours before and after the game.
“We all know there’s a lot of money in the football industry, so we certainly have the responsibility to help society with the green transition,” said Sofie Junge Pedersen, a Danish defensive midfielder with Juventus FC who has been speaking publicly about climate change for years. “Football has to contribute to this fight against climate change not only to make the green transition in the football industry, but to help outside.”
Football players face increasingly harsh conditions as the planet warms, from playing in extreme heat to dealing with flooded pitches, she said. These issues impact not just professional players in Europe, but also grassroots teams across the continent and leagues in Africa, Asia and Latin America, some of the regions worst-hit by climate change.
“This is a threat to football,” she said. “If we don’t have a good climate, it won’t be possible to play like we do today.”
While initiatives by individual players and teams matter, ultimately it’s the associations managing the sport and organizing tournaments that can make the most meaningful change. Both FIFA and UEFA have signed the United Nation’s Sports for Climate Action pledge to halve emissions by the end of this decade compared to 2019 levels and eliminate them by 2040. But neither organization has released detailed plans on their path to decarbonization yet.
The most recent edition of the FIFA World Cup emitted about 3.6 million tons of carbon dioxide, according to FIFA. That means the event, held in Qatar in 2022, emitted as much in four weeks as what about 790,000 cars emit in one year.
FIFA is aware of the impacts that mega-events have on the environment, and of the need to tackle climate change, a FIFA spokesperson said in an emailed answer to questions. For the first time, the World Cup was “fully carbon neutral,” FIFA said. Measures implemented to mitigate the tournament’s footprint included building energy-efficient stadiums, using low-emissions transport and sustainable management practices. All remaining emissions were offset through certified carbon credits, FIFA said.
But these claims are misleading, according to several reports, including one by non-profit Carbon Market Watch. FIFA’s calculations don’t include the totality of the event’s emissions, and its compensation program is based on flawed offsets schemes that, Carbon Market Watch said, will make no difference to global emissions.
“The main function of all these offsets is to allow organizations and everybody else to avoid asking the super difficult questions about transport and emissions,” said David Goldblatt, author of several books about football as well as a report on the sport’s carbon footprint and vulnerability to climate change. “We can be hard on football, but this is just not football’s problem. This is a problem of every single cultural and economic institution in the world.”
Travel emissions by fans typically make up at least half of a football tournament’s emissions. Optimizing travel, occasionally playing matches in so-called neutral stadiums and reducing the frequency of plane use would help cut emissions, according to a 2019 study published in the Journal of Cleaner Production.
But that’s not the way tournaments are designed, said Frank Huisingh, the founder of Fossil Free Football, a group of football fans that works to raise climate awareness among the sport’s main stakeholders. In a bid to maximize profits, football associations are designing tournaments that involve playing more matches across larger geographic areas. The 2026 FIFA World Cup, for example, will be jointly-hosted by 16 cities in Canada, the US and Mexico, compared to one small country in 2022.
“There’s a lot of pressure on UEFA and FIFA to limit the amount of games because players are overburdened physically and mentally,” Huisingh said. “But there’s a direct link with climate: If you lower the number of matches, you have less travel by teams and fans.”
By Laura Millan / Bloomberg