Football and the climate crisis: does the game really want to tackle it? | Football

Football and the climate crisis: does the game really want to tackle it? | Football

About three years ago, in the midst of a League Two promotion campaign, Michael Doughty started noticing something. An unusually wet winter had flooded the Swindon Town training grounds, forcing them to scour the country in search of a usable facility. Reports piled up. “It was exceptionally hot, then super cold, which made the performance more difficult,” the midfielder recalled. “The effect was really tangible. And I didn’t understand why there was no discussion.

For Doughty, it was a realization that would trigger an unusual chain of events. After retiring from the game, he created a sustainable sportswear brand, but soon realized he wanted to work in football again. And so, at just 30, he returned to his former club, not as a coach, scout or ambassador, but as director of sustainability: the first former player to hold such a position at a club in the English league.

There are big plans. Swindon are set to secure the county land purchase from the local council for the first time, allowing them to redevelop the land with environmental concerns in mind. A new roof over the Stratton Bank stand will be fitted with solar panels, and there will be electric charging points in the car park. But first, there are small projects: the job of convincing supporters and sponsors that a 144-year-old football club can and must play a role in the future of the planet.

This is where Doughty comes in. He struggles to point out that he is neither a scientist nor a climate expert. But he’s a club legend, part of their 2020 Ligue 2 title-winning side, and when you try to change your mind, that counts for something. “I can relate to the fans,” he says. “I didn’t retire 50 years ago. I was part of the good times at the club. And making the world of sustainability a little more emotional will help people travel with us. »

And it’s a journey, one that English football is slowly setting in motion, albeit at wildly varying speeds. Not every club can be a Forest Green, with its wooden stadium and all-vegan menu. This weekend is Green Football Weekend, one of those initiatives with a brilliant website and a hashtag and a mix of good intentions and gimmicks. Middlesbrough plants a tree for every goal scored against Blackpool. Wolves wear green armbands against Liverpool. It’s that kind of atmosphere.

“I didn’t understand why there was no discussion.” Michael Doughty, Sustainable Development Manager of Swindon Town. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

Which seems like a good time to ask some questions. Given what we know about the climate emergency, its scale and its urgency, what evidence is there that English football is taking this seriously from a distance? What would it take for the nation’s biggest sport to move beyond green armbands and hashtags, and start moving with real speed and real ambition? And what would that action even begin to look like?

“At the risk of sounding very critical, clubs are not taking this seriously enough,” says Dr Madeleine Orr, an environmentalist who has written extensively on sport and climate breakdown. “It’s standard for teams to fly into matches that could be covered in three hours on land. Many doubt there will be any regulation from the Premier League or the FA anytime soon, and I would tend to agree as there has been no evidence of serious concern at this level.

Unlike the EFL, the Premier League doesn’t even take part in Green Football Weekend. Its environmental sustainability strategy, due to launch in 2022, has yet to materialize. And while he has his own goals – to halve emissions by 2030, to become net zero by 2040 – perhaps the reason he’s been so taciturn on the subject is the kind of questions he asks. it could arouse. Questions about short-haul flights. About its official oil partner. About airline sponsorships, cryptocurrency partnerships, clubs funded by some of the largest fossil fuel producers in the world. Awkward questions.

“Organizations that talk big about climate while supporting or backing highly extractive industries are hypocritical,” says Dr Orr. “If a club is promoting their green sports day, or their bike-to-game program, or vegan food at the stadium, and then I come in and there are advertisements for an airline or an oil company, I’m put off. There has to be authenticity in the message. And for the most part, supporters expect their clubs to engage in environmental action.

Naturally, individual clubs will put forward their own initiatives. Arsenal offers fans their own green energy tariff. Manchester City has a club car sharing system. Liverpool have planted hedges in their academy. And yet, individual actions are by definition just that. Virtually every expert on the matter agrees that tackling the climate emergency requires a huge coordinated effort: between national and local governments, business and community enterprises, large corporations and individuals. It necessitates, in short, the one thing that football has proven completely useless for for many years.

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Swindon Town’s Michael Doughty, in action against Mansfield Town in November 2019. Photograph: Kieran McManus/BPI/Shutterstock

“My personal view is that we need an independent regulator,” says Rob Angus, Managing Director of Swindon. “Football running itself is not the right direction. The EFL is trying. But having standards and expectations that come together across the pyramid, from the Premier League down, should be an important part of the future of the game.”

For Dr. Orr, the impetus for change could come from the game itself. “Sports leagues are very good at self-regulating when they want to,” she says. “I expect as the public grows increasingly disgruntled, there will be pressure for greater sustainability. It might look like regulating ground transportation as the norm for distances less than, say, 300 miles. Or requiring fossil fuel divestment.The other trend I’m noticing is that brands that sponsor clubs are raising their expectations.These sponsors don’t want to be affiliated with an unviable club.

What about the players themselves? Héctor Bellerín and Eric Dier are among those who have spoken out on environmental issues in recent years, and according to Doughty, it is increasingly becoming a topic of conversation in the locker room. “It became more of a talking point,” he says. “What excites me – and the pandemic has been a factor in that – is that the context of the athlete has changed quite seismically over the last couple of years. Athletes are much more engaging and the things they find important come to the fore.

Swindon Stadium, the County Ground. The club plans to redevelop the land with an environmental perspective. Photography: Pete Norton/Getty Images

All of this, of course, remains optimism for the future rather than action in the present. And the present is rapidly encroaching. After the wet winter of 2019-20, Swindon covered their training grounds with gravel to improve drainage. Then came the drought last summer, which made them unusable for the pre-season. This is the new reality for those caught in the laser hairs of the climate crisis: a constant and often exorbitant process of adaptation that, as always, will hit those at the bottom first and hardest.

What will it take to propel football to the next stage of its journey? For Doughty, that probably means talking to football authorities in the only language they understand. “Football is money driven to a certain extent,” he says. “Once people realize that the product is under threat and you start seeing shitty football matches in 40C heat, there will be a lot more momentum behind that. And it’s only a matter of time. Because the science is unequivocal.

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