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The English Premier League: Time to get green?

June 08, 2023

The combined revenue of English Premier League (EPL) clubs is considered to have exceeded £6bn in the 2022/2023 season. Separately, the EPL itself is understood to have operating profits in the 2020/2021 season of £479m . However, these aren’t the only eye-watering figures currently being published in respect of the EPL. A recent study by InfoGr8 has assessed that the EPL pre-season matches over the coming summer months will result in almost 20,000 tonnes of carbon emissions. This is equivalent to heating 2,400 homes for an entire year. In fact, the single pre-season game of Everton vs Arsenal played in Baltimore on 17 July 2022 is estimated to have resulted in 1,655 tonnes of carbon emissions, which is over 3.5 times the carbon emissions associated with a single EPL season.

The pre-season friendlies played by EPL clubs are now predominantly focused on reaching their overseas fanbase and capitalising on the marketing and advertising opportunities found in destinations such as the US, China and Japan. Last season, 19 out of 20 EPL clubs travelled abroad for their pre-season friendlies. This summer, six different EPL clubs will play nine matches against each other in five different US cities. The EPL pre-season has a global reach. However, its environmental impact is colossal and the inescapable conclusion is that the only way truly to reduce the carbon footprint of the EPL pre-season is to reduce its geographical reach drastically. This may be achieved by restricting games to within Europe or even the UK. Undoubtedly EPL clubs will argue that this will massively impact their international revenue streams and damage the EPL brand, which is currently the most lucrative football league in the world.

This is all set against the wider backdrop of the EPL being a signatory to the UN Sports for Climate Action Framework (the Framework), the goal of which is to “achieve a clear trajectory for the global sports community to combat climate change”. Signatories to the Framework pledge to reduce emissions by 50 per cent by 2023 and to reach a net-zero emissions position by 2040. Clubs, including Tottenham, Arsenal and Liverpool have also signed up individually to the Framework, and various EPL clubs have committed to innovative ways to seek to reduce their individual carbon emissions. For example, Chelsea FC has a 100 per cent recycling initiative at Stamford Bridge and its training facilities at Cobham. The Tottenham Hotspur Stadium runs on carbon neutral gas and 100 per cent renewable energy and also has a zero-to-landfill waste management scheme. It appears that EPL clubs are at least taking preliminary action to seek to become more climate friendly, and there appears to be a focus on ensuring that fixed assets, such as stadiums and training facilities, are run more efficiently and with environmental impacts in mind.

This increased focus on sustainability has also resulted in the publication of the UN-backed Sports Positive “Premier League Sustainability Rankings”. This judges clubs on 12 different metrics relating to sustainability, including clean energy, energy efficiency, sustainable transport, waste and water efficiency and sourcing/procurement. Generally, the BBC commented that whilst there are great individual club initiatives, there is an absence of a co-ordinated approach spearheaded by the EPL . The rankings also do not take into account club sponsors and their environmental impact.

Despite these initiatives, approximately 61 per cent of a football club’s total emissions are accounted for by travel , and with European competitions expanding and scheduling becoming even more difficult for the EPL, clubs often rely on air travel due to time efficiency even where road travel is feasible. By way of example, last season Liverpool FC flew from Newcastle back to Liverpool instead of using road travel. The flight was 33 minutes long with 3,000kg of carbon emissions. The corresponding coach journey would have taken 3 hours with 135kg of carbon emissions. However, Liverpool justified their choice by focusing on the fact they had a very short turnaround to their next game and returning so quickly from their fixture against Newcastle aided their preparation. For those clubs playing in Europe and other international competitions, air travel may be unavoidable.

An estimated 70 per cent of the football industry’s emissions are accounted for by fan travel which means that tackling the true cause of the EPL’s emissions problems may be incredibly difficult. It is notable that, in Germany, Borussia Monchengladbach introduced free public transport use to all match ticket holders within 186 miles to encourage more sustainable travel habits. Clubs may need to think of innovative ways to encourage fans to travel to matches by public transport if they are serious about significantly reducing emissions. For example, Forest Green Rovers, a club in the second tier of English football that is famed for its sustainable approach, relies on park and ride services, as well as bicycle parking facilities and electric vehicle charging points to try and help fans travel in a more environmentally-friendly way.

There is an obvious tension between reducing the carbon impact of the EPL and maintaining its reputation as the world’s foremost football competition. Will limiting pre-season activities result in a waning international presence? Will restricting the method of travel for clubs to and from away games result in scheduling difficulties for the EPL? It is clearly the case that EPL clubs are keen to take action and implement initiatives to ensure that their carbon footprint begins to reduce, but in order to make a meaningful impact, the EPL will need to decide whether it is willing to take action to drastically decrease emissions resulting from team and fan travel. It remains to be seen whether the EPL considers it has the solutions or the tools to force some of football’s largest clubs to change habits and practices that have undoubtedly contributed to the EPL’s status as one of the most exciting and successful sports leagues in the world.