What is a net zero carbon football match?

Illustration by Sofia Hadjiosif (@sofia.theartivist)

This weekend, Tottenham Hotspur will host Chelsea in #GameZero, which claims to be the world’s first net zero carbon football match.

In this article, I’ll do my best to explain #GameZero and what a net zero carbon football match actually is.

The game represents another inspiring sustainability milestone for football and demonstrates talismanic leadership from Sky Sports and Tottenham Hotspur to have made it happen.

I’m looking forward to this one! 

What is #GameZero?

It’s Sky Sports partnering up with Tottenham Hotspur for their Super Sunday fixture against Chelsea, to show the world what climate leadership in football looks like.

They’re using the popularity of the Premier League to give viewers a team talk on climate change, in the run up to COP26.

The objective of the campaign is to bring ‘net zero’ into the football vocabulary, and get fans hyped to make more sustainable choices, such as using public transport or cycling, choosing vegan food and recycling waste.

The other big focus is on club travel. Players will pull up to the stadium on biofuel coaches, and staff will be asked to travel across London sustainably.

Spurs are the title holders when it comes to top-flight sustainability, making them the perfect hosts for such an event.

What does net zero carbon mean?

Net zero means:

  1. Reducing carbon emissions as much as possible, in line with the latest climate change science.
  2. Balancing remaining emissions by removing carbon from the atmosphere.

For an organisation, this applies to the emissions caused by all of its activities, including everything it buys and sells.

Net zero is an ambitious challenge, but the science is clear: the world must reach net zero before 2050 in order to avoid a climate disaster.

What is a net zero carbon football match?

In line with the definition of net zero, #GameZero will aim to reduce matchday emissions as much as possible, and balance the remainder through reforestation projects.

Usually, the concept of net zero refers to a long-term ambition to reduce emissions, rather than a one-off event.

A single football match won’t deliver any net zero targets, and while Sky have pledged to reach net zero by 2030, Tottenham have not yet published a clear commitment to achieving net zero. I suspect this might change soon.

Nevertheless, the game is another necessary step towards net zero football clubs, net zero football leagues and a net zero football industry.

What might we learn from #GameZero?

1. The carbon footprint of a Premier League football match

On any matchday, things like fan travel, team travel and energy usage at the stadium will create carbon emissions. The total amount of emissions is referred to as a ‘carbon footprint’.

The carbon footprint of Tottenham’s first game of the season was calculated through data collection and surveys, and the process will be repeated for #GameZero at the weekend.

This will establish a more comprehensive view than we’ve ever had before of how much carbon a Premier League football match emits.

Comparing the 2 games will also tell us whether the #GameZero campaign worked, in terms of changing fan behaviours and reducing carbon emissions.

Still, the carbon emissions associated with things like food, equipment and club shop sales are notoriously difficult to calculate, and so may not be included.

2. The carbon emissions in football that are most challenging to reduce

For this fixture, it is claimed that carbon emissions will be reduced “as much as possible”. What sort of carbon emissions are impossible to reduce?

Impossible may mean that the technology doesn’t exist yet, or is too expensive to consider investing in.

Some emissions reductions would be technically possible, such as closing all the catering, but are unthinkable due to the negative impact they have on the matchday experience.

Further emissions are simply outside of the control or influence of the match organisers. Public transport and vegan food still emit carbon, albeit much less than the alternatives, and Tottenham Hotspur have no ability to change that.

3. How reliant the game is on carbon offsetting

Like with any net zero target, those difficult remaining emissions need to be offset. The #GameZero approach is to do so through restoration of natural carbon sinks, supporting community reforestation in East Africa and the creation of new UK native woodlands. 

These offsets are intended to have the effect of actually removing an equivalent amount of carbon emissions from the atmosphere as those emitted by the match.

Until we know how much carbon needs to be offset, it’s hard to judge how realistic it might be to scale up this approach to more than 1 of the 380 Premier League football matches per season.

An Oxfam report ‘Tightening the Net’ calls out the tendency to fall back on offset projects, which are often reliant on vast swathes of land in low-income countries in ways that might lead to displacement and hunger.

It makes clear that offsets are no substitute for “immediate, dramatic and irreversible” reductions in carbon emissions.

Article originally published by Thom Rawson (@thomraws) on susfootball.com