How fans can be the voice that football needs to tackle climate change

The World Cup in Qatar
The World Cup in Qatar / Clive Brunskill/GettyImages

There are many reasons to be critical of FIFA World Cup being hosted by Qatar. From the thousands of deaths of migrant workers who built the infrastructure, to the exclusion of LGBTQ+ people, through the corrupt circumstances of the winning bid.

Yet there is one issue that, whilst mentioned, has not been given the coverage that you’d expect of something that threatens the existence of World Cups as we know them: climate change.

The fact that the FIFA World Cup is being hosted by a petrostate is symbolic of football’s contradictory relationship with climate change. The football industry makes certain statements and pronouncements, but this is rarely backed up with what could be pioneering and hugely impactful action. 

FIFA, like many governing bodies and clubs, has showcased how it is taking environmental sustainability seriously. It even proudly declared that: “FIFA measured, took steps to reduce and then offset the unavoidable greenhouse gas emissions related to the FIFA World Cu tournaments of Brazil 2014 and Russia 2018, and will do so for the upcoming edition in Qatar”.

The 2014 men’s World Cup was held in Brazil, a country with some of the worst deforestation rates in the world. At the time of the tournament Brazil was presided over by Dilma Rousseff who used to be a director of Petrobras, Brazil’s state-owned petroleum industry. Rousseff became embroiled in a corruption scandal involving Petrobras which eventually led to her downfall.

The subsequent tournament was held by Russia in 2018, who not only had invaded Ukraine in 2014, they have subsequently escalated their war with Ukraine. Russia is also an energy superpower and therefore has a major impact on climate emissions. Qatar are also one of the world’s leading petrostates and income from fossil fuels is funding the current tournament. 

Holding a football tournament in a desert is not easy. In order to maintain the high quality turf required for the World Cup, Qatar flew 140 tonnes of grass seed from the US on climate-controlled aircraft and uses 10,000 litres of desalinated water daily in winter and 50,000 litres in the summer on the pitches. All of which have an environmental impact.

FIFA controversially claims the Qatar tournament will be carbon-neutral and have sustainable stadiums, low emission transport and sustainable waste management. Whilst some of the initiatives are worthy and help raise awareness, it all amounts to rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic 

For this reason, and many more, football is currently a problematic ally in the fight against climate change.

David Goldblatt & Katie Rood join Shebahn Aherne to have football's climate conversation about the World Cup in Qatar!

First Chelsea, then Manchester City, and now Newcastle United are owned by petrostates or individuals who made their money from fossil fuels, a fact which is not going to accelerate any moves to genuinely addressing environmental sustainability. Alongside this there is the encouragement of continuous consumption, particularly around football kits. Meanwhile match-going fans in England emit over 125,000 tonnes of carbon just through transportation. As with the World Cup, it symbolises the wider political economy outside football. Many stadiums are built outside of densely populated areas and away from good public transport, if this even exists in these towns and cities. 

Football needs to take action. If the world continues to heat up as it is currently doing, a quarter of football grounds in the UK will be regularly flooded. We are already seeing the impact of climate change on other sports, from insufficient snow to wildfires. Some football clubs are making small changes, like Reading FC incorporating the increasing temperatures into their shirt design. But with the continuing push for not only a new kit each year, but a new away and third kit as well, millions of football kits end up in landfill.

This synonymises football’s start to addressing what will be a crisis for football: mostly paying lip-service to sustainability when the unique position that they hold makes them potential game-changers in a much wider sense. 

Addressing climate change requires significant structural change as well as individual change: fans can drive both of these, mobilising to force clubs, governing bodies and the government to enact the required change and instigating a social shift.

Tackling climate change requires collective action, and for this, fans are the best in the business. Whether it is campaigning to remove a manager, stopping the Super League or collecting for foodbanks, fans regularly mobilise to bring about change - whether it’s in football, or outside of it. Collective action requires lots of people doing an activity on a regular basis. Fans do this every weekend. Adjusting our matchday rituals to include a greener form of transport or pledging to wash clothes at 30 degrees can showcase our collective action for the world. 

Football fans are starting to campaign and raise awareness to try and change the industry. Campaigns such as Pledgeball, Kick Fossil Fuels Out of Football, Zukunft Profifußball, and club specific campaigns like Huddersfield Town Supporters Association’s Sustainable Stadiums are rallying fans and trying to push the clubs and governing bodies to introduce the structural changes required.

In February, the first Green Football Weekend will be an opportunity to bring together the fans, players and clubs to start acting collectively for the planet.

The Qatar World Cup symbolises how the football industry pays lip service to sustainability while continuing with the structural practices that have got us into the climate crisis. Fans, players and all those involved in the game need to push for actual, ambitious change to ensure that we can to continue to enjoy the beautiful game as we know it. 

Article by Dr Mark Doidge, University of Brighton