Soccer fandom is spilling into the net-zero movement! Following the release of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report in August, the scale and depth of the challenge facing the future of the world’s climate was clearly shown. The IPCC indicated that our world is on course to reach 1.5°C above pre-industrial atmospheric temperature in the next two decades, the implications of which is consequential. Based on that, it reiterated its call for a multifaceted approach to managing climate change.
The 2021 report adds to the science of climate change in substantial ways, but the problem with managing climate change has never really been due to a lack of knowledge about its dangers, but more so about finding solutions that bridge our collective action problem. The collective action problem facing climate change is not simple, and there is no illusion that designing plans and strategies to bridge it would be easy or straightforward, but the idea of #GameZero[i] is a demonstration of what is possible if we challenge ourselves to be transformational enough.
#GameZero is the world’s first soccer match aimed at achieving a net-zero carbon footprint. It is meant to demonstrate the role that sports, and its associated industries (e.g., broadcast and media) can play in driving the net-zero agenda. For the match to meet its net-zero goal, key partners will take critical steps to minimise carbon emissions from matchday activities such as energy used to power the game, travel to and from the stadium (this will be for fans and club players and staff), a zero-to-landfill waste policy, and the range of dietary options at the stadium that include plant-based diets. And after this, the remaining carbon footprint will be offset through other green initiatives.
There are key questions that emerge from thinking about this initiative:
- What is the carbon footprint of professional sports, and how can the sports sector be decarbonized? How difficult would that be?
- What role can sports play in the overall efforts to mitigate climate change?
On the first question, the current state of the science is not altogether clear – this is an emerging field of research. What is clear however, is that professional sports are bad news for the climate. Available estimates indicate that key sporting events like the summer and winter Olympics have contributed about 10.56 MT (Million Tonnes) of carbon into the atmosphere since 2008, of which the emissions for Beijing 2008 and Vancouver 2010 Olympics were calculated “without including spectator travel and accommodation”. The FIFA World Cup since 2010 is estimated to have a carbon footprint of about 7.18 MT (Million Tonnes), even though the Brazil (2014) and Russia (2018) estimates did not include stadium construction in its calculations. These events occur every four years, but with such carbon footprint, one wonders what the contribution of seasonal sporting events from major leagues and sports like soccer, baseball, hockey, football, and basketball would be. According to one report, emissions from the global sports industry could, “at the low end of estimates, equal those of a nation like Bolivia, but could reasonably also match those of nations like Spain or Poland”. In 2019, the estimated carbon footprint for Spain was about 250 MT (Million Tonnes). Considering the potential emissions from sports, and its complexities, it is safe to say that it is one of several ‘hard-to-abate sectors’.
The politics of climate change, at international, national, and local levels reflect a lack of collective will, borne out of the underlying socio-cultural dimension of the climate change issue. Often plans to mitigate climate change succeed or fail depending on local actions by people, both in their collective and individual capacities. As researchers have found, changing people’s behaviours regarding climate change is difficult and challenging, especially in times when people are contesting the institutional systems that society typically mandate to help drive the change. In that case, applying some soft power that touches people’s cultural sensitivities might be a useful option and with its passion, sports can be such a power. Sports can be a useful vehicle for communicating, channelling, and influencing attitudes and actions regarding the environment and climate change if properly harnessed. Although the sports sector has a huge carbon footprint, the point here is that it may also be a good vehicle for driving the transformational change that the IPCC report calls for. #GameZero is a good starting point in how to operationalize such an idea.
#GameZero was a single game, but its impact would likely go beyond game day. It is unclear at this point how close to net-zero the game did get, but its value in educating soccer fans on what or how they can contribute to addressing climate change is without question. If properly delivered, #GameZero could become a model for other clubs, leagues, and sports in delivering their environmental, social, and governance (ESG) commitments. Another policy implication of the #GameZero initiative is that carbon accounting instruments and frameworks will need to be strengthened to manage the complex carbon accounting in sectors such as sports in which carbon draw-down by organizations is tracked through a wide and long chain of partners and activities at different operational levels. With #GameZero in mind, it is worth asking what impact climate change will have on professional sports? What is the state of the science and research in this emerging field? These are interesting research questions I am willing to collaborate on in the future.
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. (IPCC). 2020. “Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis”. IPCC. Available at: https://www.ipcc.ch/report/sixth-assessment-report-working-group-i/
 David Goldblatt. 2020. “Playing Against the Clock: Global Sport, the Climate Emergency and the Case for Rapid Change”. Rapid Transition Alliance. Available at: https://www.rapidtransition.org/resources/playing-against-the-clock/
 Alex Kirby. 2020. “Sport’s carbon footprint is global bad news”. Climate News Network. Available at: https://climatenewsnetwork.net/sports-carbon-footprint-is-global-bad-news/
 Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser. 2020. “CO₂ and Greenhouse Gas Emissions”. University of Oxford Martin School. Available at: https://ourworldindata.org/co2/country/spain
[i] On September 19, 2021, Tottenham Hotspur FC played its home game against Chelsea FC. In partnership with Sky Sports, the game was planned to be the world’s first net-zero soccer match at the elite level. The game was named #GameZero. To get updates on this initiative and the results, follow #GameZero.
Mac Osazuwa-Peters (PhD) is Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Science and Innovation Policy (CSIP). He is also a Senior Planning and Performance Improvement Consultant with the Government of Saskatchewan.
Dr. Osazuwa-Peters earned his PhD at the Johnson Shoyama School of Public Policy, studying risk governance in innovative technologies for transitioning Saskatchewan’s power generation grid. He is the recipient of the Dr. Bev Robertson Fellowship at the Centre for Science and Innovation Policy (CSIP), the MITACS Accelerate Research Fellowship by MITACS Canada, and other awards. Dr. Osazuwa-Peters’ academic background is in the social sciences and his research focuses on the human dimensions of climate change and energy policy, socio-technical systems transition, risk governance, innovation policy, and food/climate change interphase. He has authored several journal articles on these subjects in top journals in his field and continues to support and engage in research in these areas. Dr. Osazuwa-Peters is a member of the Sustainability Transitions Research Network, the Canadian Public Policy Network, the International Public Policy Association, and many other research and academic groups.