Illustration by May Moorwood.

Rising temperatures, prolonged periods of drought, new patterns of precipitation, destructive storms and rising sea levels – these are the extreme climate conditions in which our future lies. By 2050, a quarter the 92 English Football League teams can expect partial or total flooding of their stadiums every single year; this would be absolutely disastrous. Tennis, rugby, athletics and winter sports also face serious challenges from the impacts of rising temperatures, according to a report called ‘Playing Against the Clock’ by academic and sportswriter David Goldblatt.

Using mapping technology combined with mainstream climate change and sea level models, Goldblatt showed that, by 2050, Werder Bremen’s Weserstadion and Toronto FC’s BMO Field will be partially flooded every year, and Bordeaux’s Matmut Atlantiq stadium will be completely flooded annually. At least 23 teams in the English Football League system also face the immense threat of climate disaster. Middlesbrough’s Riverside will probably avoid most of the flooding, but nonetheless require a flotilla of boats to get fans to the ground across the wide-flooded plains of the city. League Two will also see five clubs flooded out, including Grimsby Town’s Blundell Park, which will sit beneath the new North Sea. Similar fates await coastal and estuarine stadiums everywhere, including four in the Premier League.

This extreme weather doesn’t only affect professional sport, but amateur and grassroots sport as well. Anyone reading that has played or watched football at a lower level can testify that, in the sunny UK climate, pitches become untenable rather quickly – meaning postponements and cancellations come too often.

In the torrid winter of 2015, we got a glimpse of the future when the torrential rain accompanying ‘Storm Desmond’ reduced Carlisle United’s Brunton Park stadium to a river, literally only traversable by water transport, forcing the club out of the stadium for seven weeks. “When we were able to access our stadium about three days later, office desks had been turned over by the force of the water, which had risen to a height of nearly ten feet on the lower concourses.” Operations Manager and Supporters Liaison Officer, Nigel Dickenson told Planet Football, “besides clearing the mess, we also needed to think about fulfilling first-team home fixtures.”

Following this, Carlisle eventually arranged to play two league games and a tough third round cup FA tie against Yeovil in various stadiums across Lancashire. With enormous effort, the club was able to beat their cup tie on away goals, bringing relative powerhouse Everton back to Brunton Park for the Fourth round.

However, there are limits to fairy tales and their happy endings. Everton won that game dominantly; Carlisle sustained huge costs over nine months of renovation, and now, as a result, pay massively increased insurance premiums. On the further risks of flooding at Brunton Park, Dickinson added: “We really are at the mercy of the elements with three rivers merging in Carlisle and two close nearby. Our training pitch and car parks are regularly flooded.” Sure enough, in December 2017, their training grounds and car park flooded all over again; thankfully less seriously. Storm Desmond is just one part of a wider pattern of extreme weather events produced by global climate change. In the last year alone:

  • The 2019 Australian Tennis Open was disrupted by the smoke blowing in from the country’s devastating bush fires.
  • The 2019 Rugby World Cup was disrupted by unprecedented, havoc-inducing pacific typhoons.
  • The Tokyo 2020 Olympics were forced to move long distance running events 1000km north of the capital, as the city’s sweltering summer weather, with temperatures now often reaching the 40’s, now makes them impossible to run. According to a study commissioned by The Meteorological Society of Japan, the record-breaking 2018 Japanese summer heatwave, in which more than 1,000 people died “could not have happened without human-induced global warming.”

Across the sporting world, very hot weather is going to be a problem for spectators and players alike. The physiology of overheating is complex, but once you start hitting 33 to 35 centigrade and you are playing a high-octane, extremely intense sport like tennis and football, it’s bad news. And there are going to be a lot more days like that in the next few decades. Memory, hand-eye coordination, and concentration all start suffering – then there’s heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke. The 2019 Women’s World Cup and African Cup of Nations were played in conditions like this, and hotter. FIFA introduced extra water breaks for players, but this and more extreme measures will have to become the norm in many parts of the world.

It is only a matter of time until, like the Austrian Tennis Open of 2014, we are medically treating thousands of spectators for heat exhaustion. Summers will be hotter in many places, but winter football will be wetter and wilder, and coastal stadiums will be confronted by facing rising sea levels.

Football is not just a victim of change, but an important contributor to global warming. But just how much carbon is it responsible for? As a measure, the 2010 World Cup in South Africa produced 2.75 Million tonnes, Brazil in 2014 produced 2.27 Million tonnes and, most recently, the 2018 tournament, hosted in Russia, produced 2.16 Million tonnes. Of those figures, on average, around three quarters is attributable to fans travelling to the tournaments. And, on the basis of spectator attendance, World Cups are around a fifth to a quarter of all of international football over a four-year cycle, meaning that the game is racking up around 10 million tonnes of carbon a year, an output roughly equivalent to the whole of Bolivia.

By the time you’ve added up the world’s more than two hundred leagues with back-of-the-envelope calculations, added all the intentional club competitions in, accounted for the huge aviation consumption of the football business itself and factored in a football-sized chunk of the carbon footprint of the sportswear industry, that’s a carbon footprint the size of another small nation.

Some parts of the football world have been acting on this. However, the biggest challenge for global sport is dealing with the carbon emissions from spectator attendance, especially at international events, which generate huge amounts of air traffic.

UEFA experimented at the 2016 European Championships with a campaign and app that would allow fans to offset their own carbon emissions when attending the tournament, but the take up was very low. Consequently, UEFA decided to absorb the entire costs of offsetting the aviation emissions for EURO 2020 themselves. If international football is to continue in anything close to its current form, this must, at the minimum, be the default model for every single international sporting event.

Best in class has been Forest Green Rovers, in Nailsworth in the west of England, who play in League 2, the fourth level of English professional football, but who are the first UN certified carbon zero football club in the world. The club uses 100 per cent renewable energy, has switched to vegan food for staff and fans, installed extensive rainwater recycling, a solar powered lawn mower and plenty of electric vehicle charging points. It now has planning permission to build the first new wooden stadium in Britain for over a century, and the first carbon zero stadium ever. Many German and Dutch teams have also led the way, in regard to climate action.

While these initiatives have been a useful start, they are not the solution. In an effort to bring some political urgency to the problem, the UN and some of the leading world sports organisations including FIFA and UEFA, in 2016, launched the UN Sport for Climate Action Framework and invited the sporting world to sign up. It requires organisations to take systematic measures to reduce their carbon emissions and reach climate neutrality by 2050. Along the way, they are asked to educate their athletes, clubs and spectators on climate change issues, and advocate for sustainable solutions.

There are, however, no real targets in the framework, and no mechanisms of control. Above all, there is no sense of the urgency of our predicament. The climate science is increasingly clear: the ‘limit temperature rises to 1.5C by 2050’ model will be pretty catastrophic in its own right, and that, to even match that level, we have to do the vast majority of our decarbonisation in the next decade. Which means:

  • Progress on carbon reduction should be part of the annual financial audit that teams undergo and a precondition of their participation in competitions.
  • The same rules should be applied to any company that wants to be a sponsor or broadcaster.
  • Every sporting federation, league, and club needs to sign the UN Sport for Climate Action Framework.
  • They should commit, within one year of signing, to draw up and publish a comprehensive ten-year plan that will ensure that their own operations and that of their sport, including spectator travel, are carbon zero by 2030.
  • After 2030, all national sporting federations that are not carbon zero should be excluded from international competition.
  • Further, any events that are not carbon zero should be cancelled or postponed until they are.
  • Finally, the wider sporting world – especially football – needs to wean itself of petro-chemical and aviation sponsorships as soon as possible.

Football, from the pavement to the penalty box, generates hope. Hope that hard work yields results; that no cause is lost until the game is actually at an end; that miraculous recoveries, turnovers and rallies are possible; and that human beings, individually and as a group, have the power, when the time comes, to make anything happen. Here’s hoping that we can. If not, we’re fucked.

Chris ONeil

Chris O'Neil is a columnist for the Blue. He's going into his second year at Brasenose College, studying History and Politics. With special interests in sports and pertinent socio-political issues, he'll be writing his column throughout the late summer and into Michaelmas Term 2020.