Tottenham to host world’s first net zero carbon elite football game — but is a carbon-neutral match possible?

World leaders are meeting at the international COP26 climate talks in Glasgow in November, where they will discuss how to make the whole world net zero, which is when the amount of greenhouse gas emitted is no greater that that removed from the atmosphere. That will require entire countries making that pledge, and for businesses and events like big sports matches to go carbon neutral too.

Fans are being encouraged to cycle or use public transport to get to the match, while all food served inside the stadium will be sustainably sourced with plant-based options also available.

Sky says the remaining emissions will be offset through its reforestation projects in East Africa and the creation of new UK woodlands. Tottenham and Sky have also pledged to plant trees near Tottenham Hotspur Stadium later this year.

But does the math add up?

Tottenham's Lucas Moura dribbles against Crystal Palace in the two teams' Premier League game on September 11.

Adding it up to zero

Climate experts say while the message and the goal to reach net zero is a worthy one, using biofuels, switching from plastic to cardboard and offsetting are largely band-aid solutions to a much larger political and business crisis around the world’s unfettered use of fossil fuels.

“We know the sport at the highest level is profoundly influential on people’s behaviors,” Andrew Simms, coordinator of the Rapid Transition Alliance and co-director of the New Weather Institute, tells CNN Sport.

“The fact that they’re talking about these issues around diet, around food, around putting an emphasis on using buses rather than private cars is an incredibly important signal about the kinds of behavioral change that we need to make.”

But there are growing concerns about the practice of offsetting, particularly in industries like aviation, where studies show that passengers offsetting their flights often don’t really neutralize their emissions.

“It often promises to remove the emissions from that once-stable store of carbon by planting trees. But as we’ve seen even in the last year, some of those trees that were planted may just simply die as a natural process; they may not grow to maturity; they may catch fire and burn down, as has happened with some offsetting schemes.”

“So they’re unreliable, the calculus is very shaky in terms of the way that they might potentially remove carbon from the atmosphere, and it hasn’t solved the problem that you put the pollution into the atmosphere in the first place. It’s kind of like a kind of carbon laundering rather than actually a solution to the problem.”

Sky told CNN that it had measured the baseline emissions for a Premier League game and then looked at ways to cut emissions through travel, energy and fuel consumption, and food. It is working with Natural Capital Partners and RSK to gather and verify their data.

But when asked if Sky would make its findings public or share them with CNN after the match, they said they wouldn’t.

And that’s where half the problem lies. Offsetting can be effective, depending on how many trees are planted, what type and where they are. And there has to be some role for offsetting to achieve net zero, according to forestry scientist Louis Verchot, who heads the Land Restoration Group at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture.

“Leadership like this is required and the efforts by Tottenham to reduce their environmental impacts are laudable. It’s great that Tottenham Hotspur and Sky are working to make the match with Chelsea a net zero emission match. We need more initiatives like this to show what is possible,” he told CNN.

“Hopefully, they will make their actions transparent and the offsetting results traceable. One match being net zero is a great start, but it is only one match and so it is only a start. The latest results from the IPCC make it clear that we need to make entire economic enterprises net zero in the coming decade.”

Calls to scrap emissions-heavy sponsors

Spurs has already been named the Premier League’s greenest team, a title it earned in January which recognizes sustainable measures implemented around the club: a stadium powered by 100 percent renewable energy, player shirts made from recycled plastic bottles and limitations on single-use plastic.

As for Sky, the #GameZero initiative sits in line with a commitment announced last year to go carbon neutral by 2030.

#GameZero is also part of an eight-week fan challenge dubbed CUP26 — playing off the name of the global climate summit — developed by Planet Super League, a group that says it wants “to do something about climate change, pollution and the destruction of natural habitat” combined with football.

CUP26 will see fans of 49 professional clubs — including Tottenham, Chelsea and West Ham — earn points for their teams through various activities designed to cut their carbon footprint, including eating meat-free meals or having a screen-free evening, with the highest-scoring team winning the CUP26 trophy the first week of the COP26 summit.

CUP26 highlights perhaps one of the most important aims of #GameZero: to encourage fans to reduce their carbon footprint — a responsibility that many other sports teams have also undertaken.

In the United States, the MLB’s Seattle Mariners have previously run a “Sustainable Saturdays” program to educate fans on their carbon footprint, while the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles encourage recycling and water conservation around Lincoln Financial Field.
“The ability for sports to connect with people across so many different demographics makes it really unique, as this vehicle to bring people together in a united fight for something [is one] that very few, potentially no industry, is able to do,” Kristin Hanczor, senior partnership manager at the Green Sports Alliance, which champions sustainable approaches within professional sport, told CNN Sport.

“I think that platform is just completely unmatched, the attentiveness of the audience is completely unmatched.”

According to Hanczor, there are still barriers preventing sports teams from going green, including access to clean energy grids, the need to warm or cool indoor venues and the ever-present hurdle of air travel.

A big question mark over the Qatar World Cup in 2022 is how the country will keep everyone in its cavernous stadiums cool. Organizers have said the event is to be air conditioned, though its organizers say it will be a net zero tournament — a huge challenge considering the scale of the World Cup.

“We don’t have an option right now to take a fully renewable powered flight — that’s just not realistic,” Hanczor said.

“Because there’s no option to make that switch, it becomes really hard for people to cut emissions in that sense, and so then you look at the offsetting side or you look at reducing flying.”

And as far as football in Europe is concerned, Simms notes that the sport can do more from a sponsorship perspective.

“I think one of the other issues for the game, which is a bit of a blind spot at the moment, is the huge number of sponsors and advertisers who represent high-carbon goods and services … the airlines and the big SUV car manufacturers who sponsor the game,” he said.

“I would say that that’s a place that football has to look to. It has to look to getting major polluters out of advertising and sponsorship within the game.”

Football goes vegan

Tottenham isn’t the only team looking at reducing emissions and sustainability.

Fourth-tier English football club Forest Green Rovers has taken it a step further and, in the process, become the only UN-recognized carbon neutral sports team in the world.

At Forest Green, the team bus and lawn mower are both fully electric, which is a cleaner option than biofuels, as long as the electricity is renewable. The grass on the pitch is free from pesticides, the players’ shirts and shin pads are made from biodegradable bamboo, and food served on match days is completely free from animal products.

It’s an approach that has led to derisive chants from opponents and resistance from fans — one said that the club “pushes the vegan agenda too much” — but also a swell of support from within the club and the local community.

“We’re conscious not to wag our fingers at anyone. We don’t want to be preachy,” Forest Green owner Dale Vince told CNN in 2019.

“All we can do is live our lives and educate people who want to be educated. For every fan we lose, we’ve gained 10. Our attendances are at an all-time high.”

And footballers have as much reason as anyone to care about the climate crisis. New research by The Climate Coalition has revealed that extreme weather related to climate change, such as heavy rain, impacts 62,500 grassroots football matches in the UK each year. According to the group, it could lead to plummeting participation levels within 60 years.
Around the world, extreme weather continues to impact major sporting events, be it heavy rainfall at the US Open, typhoons at the Rugby World Cup, poor air quality at the Australian Open or searing heat at the Tokyo Olympics.

“Sometimes, it can only take a single individual who’s got a profile and a following among the young to shift expectations, or to introduce new ideas to make something that once seemed the preserve of some scientists and policy nerds, something that we should all be thinking about,” Simms said.

“I think sport has a huge role to play in this.”

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