Stadiums are a great environment in which to trial sustainability measures because of the number of people who regularly attend sporting and entertainment events, according to those involved in their day-to-day running.
Plastic-free football matches, ample bike-parking facilities, clean energy and water-recycling systems are just some of the environmental ideas football grounds around Europe are looking to roll out.
Fans and the wider general public are more and more concerned with green issues – be they climate change, plastic litter or air pollution – and sport is looking to tap into the new-found appreciation for sustainability.
The EU-funded Life TACKLE project is one initiative that wants to kick green issues up a notch when it comes to football in particular. It brings together a number of the sport’s national associations and will run until 2021.
At an event in Brussels on 3 March, stadium managers, EU officials, civil society and football fans came together to discuss the project – now in its third year – and suggest where the sport can go from here.
Andrea Santini, manager of Rome’s Stadio Olimpico – the Italian football team’s home ground – and the larger Foro Italico site, pointed out how such large facilities can be an ideal environment in which to trial new ideas.
“Stadio Olimpico is acting as an incubator and testing ground for environmental solutions that can be rolled out outside the stadium if they work well,” Santini said.
The stadium has a capacity of more than 70,000 spectators and Foro Italico also boasts a running track, tennis courts and a swimming pool. Santini admitted that running such a large complex presents a number of challenges.
But he added that factors like public transport – the stadium is outside of Rome’s historic centre and is normally reached by tram – and providing fans the option of coming by bicycle are also considerations organisers have to keep in mind.
Florin Sari, who is involved with organising Romania’s contribution to the Euro 2020 football tournament – now likely to be postponed until 2021 because of the coronavirus outbreak – said sustainability policies can build real momentum.
“Smaller, football-related issues such as improving transportation to stadiums can pave the way for bigger discussions like quality and accessibility of public transport,” he suggested.
Santini’s idea of taking initiatives proven and tested in stadiums to the outside world is a philosophy shared in Belgium too. Hedeli Sassi of the country’s football association said “we are glad to learn from and share with partners who are already leading the way and have tested changes.”
But – as with many things in the notoriously complex Belgian system – the ownership structure of stadiums, particularly the King Baudouin national ground, means changes cannot be implemented on a whim.
The delicate situation is made easier because the Belgian FA works closely with the city authorities that actually own the ground. Benoit Hellings, who is alderman of climate and sports for Brussels, noted that the stadium is moving in the right direction.
“I have cleaned the Brussels football stadium and seen the mountains of plastic. We cannot do that in 2020,” he said, adding that the city’s annual 20km run will go plastic-free this year. It is unclear at the time of publishing if the May event will also fall victim to coronavirus cancellation.
“According to a survey in Brussels, people are starting to expect football matches to be greener and stated that they would enjoy the game more if greener practices were adopted”, said Erneszt Kovács, of ACR+, which is heavily involved in the Life TACKLE project.
Civil society activist James Ogilvie, affiliated to the Rethink Plastic group, said that sport’s new foray into an area previously only given attention by NGOs and green politicians was a welcome development.
“I think you have a unique responsibility to harness the power of sports for change,” Ogilvie said, agreeing that stadiums can test positive changes that can then be scaled up. “You essentially have mini cities to test things out on.”
But he also said that moves to ban single-use plastics by stadium managers are a “no-brainer”, as new EU rules on the throwaway materials mean that regulation will force their hands sooner or later anyway.
One aspect of sport’s carbon footprint that stadium managers and owners have less control over are the greenhouse gas emissions linked to thousands of people descending on a location for one or several events.
UEFA’s Euro tournament has faced criticism in that regard, given that the forthcoming edition is a pan-European affair for the first time, rather than confined to one or two countries.
“We are aware of the impact of mega sports events, particularly the emissions from travel, said Valerio Giovannini of UEFA. “We will try to reduce the impact as much as possible.”
The chair of the European Parliament’s transport committee, Karima Delli, is on a quest to rid the world of needless travel and has recently criticised Lyon’s football club for taking a private jet to a game in Paris rather than the train.
According to the French lawmaker, football players could set a powerful example to their millions of fans by committing to train travel when the journey can take under six hours. Delli is also a firm advocate of night trains, which are making a comeback in Europe.
One audience member suggested that overnight travel could present an attractive marketing opportunity for savvy football clubs: tickets could be sold for special trains on which the team is travelling to fans ready to pay extra to travel with their favourite players.
Travel emissions are a tricky issue for all sports to counter though. Formula One recently committed itself to carbon-neutrality by 2030 and wants to use carbon offsets to counterbalance the greenhouse gas emissions generated by travel to several continents over the course of a season.