How to become a net zero carbon football club

The science shows us that the world must reach net zero before 2050, in order to avoid a climate disaster.

Urgent action is required to tackle climate change and decarbonise. Football clubs, at all levels, have an important role to play.

This guide explains how football clubs can become net zero carbon.



Part 1: What is a net zero football club?

What does net zero mean?

Net zero means:

  1. Reducing carbon emissions 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 everything it does, everything it buys and everything it sells.

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

  • Climate neutral is an alternative term which means the same as net zero.
  • Carbon neutral is slightly different. It can be simpler to achieve, by purchasing carbon credits before carbon emissions have actually been reduced. It is an important marker of progress, but the goal is net zero.
  • Greenhouse gas, carbon and carbon dioxide are used interchangeably, even though carbon dioxide is just 1 of 6 different greenhouse gases.

Which clubs have committed to net zero?

Forest Green Rovers were the first football club to commit to achieving net zero.

They have been described by FIFA as the “greenest football club in the world”, and their chairman Dale Vince has been appointed a Climate Champion by the UN.

A handful of clubs including Juventus, VfL Wolfsburg and Hibernian have since made the same commitment, and in November 2020, Arsenal became the first Premier League club to sign up. Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur and Southampton have all now added their signatures.

Non-league Shoreham FC and Hanwell Town FC have also signed the pledge, showing that climate action is possible throughout the football pyramid.

Any football club can commit to net zero by signing the UN Sports for Climate Action Framework.

What is the UN Sports for Climate Action Framework?

The UN Sports for Climate Action Framework was established in recognition of the role that sport can play to combat climate change.

It invites sports organisations to voluntarily sign-up to the framework, take climate action and get on track for net zero 2050. 

It sets out 5 principles for signatories to commit to:

  1. Promote environmental responsibility
  2. Reduce overall climate impact
  3. Educate for climate action
  4. Promote sustainable consumption
  5. Advocate for climate action

Who else has committed to net zero?

The goal to achieve net zero globally was first established through the 2015 Paris Agreement. The EU has agreed to the net zero target and in 2019, the UK government made a legally-binding commitment to net zero.

Leading organisations are also rapidly embracing the transition to net zero, in recognition of the positive role they can play and the business benefits it can deliver.

The Business Ambition for 1.5°C programme calls on business leaders to set net zero targets which are in line with the latest climate science.

By the end of 2020, over 360 businesses had done so, including Microsoft, Nestlé, GSK, Unilever, L’Oréal, Ikea, BT and Tesco.

Part 2: How does a football club become net zero?

Step 1: Commit to net zero

Football clubs should first sign and submit a letter of commitment to the UN Sports for Climate Action Framework.

The invitation is open to all clubs, even those at the very beginning of their sustainability journeys, and is a perfect way to initiate momentum.

Once committed, clubs should tell the world. The support of partners, suppliers, colleagues and fans will be integral to success.

Step 2: Measure your carbon footprint

It is important for a club to understand which of its activities cause carbon emissions, and how much. Emissions are categorised into 3 groups.

  • Scope 1: Emissions from operations that are directly owned or controlled, such as fuel burn in gas boilers, vehicles and generators.
  • Scope 2: Emissions that come from purchased electricity.
  • Scope 3: All other indirect emissions, also called value-chain emissions. This might include business travel, waste generated and the carbon associated with everything a club purchases and sells.

By collecting the data, understanding the full picture and establishing a baseline, it becomes clear where the opportunities to eliminate carbon are.

Step 3: Create a roadmap to net zero

A roadmap to net zero is the plan that shows how a club will progress from it’s starting point, the current carbon footprint, to the end goal of net zero carbon.

Reductions you can control

This plan, or roadmap, will firstly consist of carbon reduction projects.

It is a good idea to start with what you can most easily control, such as energy used in stadiums and facilities, vehicles, and other equipment that uses petrol or diesel (Scope 1 & 2 emissions).

Prioritise the actions that will deliver the most significant carbon reductions. It can be helpful to scope projects using the “eliminate, reduce, substitute” hierarchy.

  • Eliminate: What can we stop doing, get rid of or close down?
  • Reduce: How can we use less? For example, are lights turned off when not in use?
  • Substitute: What technologies or products can we upgrade to? Low-energy lighting, electric vehicles and a renewable electricity supplier are key examples.
Reductions you can influence

The value-chain is complex and a club’s understanding of its Scope 3 emissions is likely to improve and evolve over the course of the decarbonisation journey.

There is no standard definition of what a club’s Scope 3 emissions should include. It is important to find the right balance between level of influence, scale of emissions and what stakeholders might expect to find included.

Initially seek to address emissions in business travel and commuting, water consumption and waste generated.

Beyond this, supplier engagement is essential. Explore opportunities to collaborate with suppliers and challenge them to come up with solutions that will deliver the most significant carbon reductions.

Removing carbon from the atmosphere

Once reduction opportunities are planned, the extent of carbon removals required to reach ‘net zero’ can be understood. Removals should only be used to offset remaining emissions, where no viable decarbonisation options exist.

Carbon removals can be achieved by investing in high-quality projects delivered by others, known as carbon credits, or directly delivering projects which increase the quantity of carbon locked into the ground.

Part 3: Why become a net zero football club?

What is climate change and the climate emergency?

The science is clear: climate change is happening, and human activities are the main cause. A warming planet causes climate patterns to change, making extreme weather events more common and more dangerous.

In 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report showing that global temperature increase must be limited to 1.5°C, if we are to avoid the most devastating impacts of climate change. 

Global average temperature has already increased by more than 1°C. Achieving the 1.5°C target means global emissions must reach net-zero by 2050, at the very latest.

The climate emergency is a concept that highlights this stark choice that confronts us: take climate action now, or risk the most disastrous impacts of climate change.

How does climate change impact football?

It is not difficult to imagine how increasingly extreme weather events could disrupt football, from elite levels through to grassroots. 

Unbearable heat waves will put players and supporters at risk, while violent storms and rising sea-levels will lead to increasing postponements and cancellations

Carlisle United’s home ground Brunton Park was caught up in the extensive flooding caused by Storm Desmond in 2015. It was almost two months later before football could return to the stadium, and club staff were forced to work in temporary portacabins for nine months. 

In Playing Against the Clock, it is shown that almost 1 in 4 men’s league teams in England “can expect total or partial flooding in their stadiums by 2050.”

How does football contribute to climate change?

While the total carbon footprint of football is not known, it is undoubtedly significant. 

Think about the carbon impact of:

  • Energy required to power football stadiums, club facilities and equipment. 
  • Everything a club purchases and sells, including food and merchandise.
  • Teams and supporters travelling in their thousands by road and air. 
  • Waste created on match days.
  • Construction projects for new stadia and facilities.
  • Football’s links to other industries, through sponsorship, broadcasting and club ownership.

In 2014, Brazilian club Fluminese quantified and published their greenhouse gas emissions, giving an insight into the carbon footprint of an individual football club.

What are the benefits of becoming net zero?

A commitment to net zero demonstrates that an organisation, or football club, is aware of the environmental and social challenges the world faces and recognises that it has a role to play.

It generates a sense of purpose that inspires colleagues and customers, both present and future, to feel part of something meaningful.

It also sparks innovation, presents new opportunities and prepares the business to thrive in a low carbon future.

Thom Rawson is a sustainability leader and football fan.

He founded Sustainable Football in 2020, on a mission to help make football more sustainable.