Football and the climate crisis: does the game really want to tackle it?

About three years ago, in the thick of a League Two promotion campaign, Michael Doughty began to notice something. An unusually wet winter had flooded Swindon Town’s training pitches, forcing them to trek up and down the country in search of a usable facility. The postponements were piling up. “It would be unseasonably warm, then super-cold, which made performance more difficult,” the midfielder remembers. “The effect was really tangible. And I couldn’t understand why there wasn’t a discussion.”

For Doughty it was a realisation that would set off an unusual chain of events. After retiring from the game he set up a sustainable sportswear brand, but soon realised that he wanted to work in football again. And so, aged just 30, he has returned to his old club, not as a coach or a scout or an ambassador, but as their chief sustainability officer: the first former player to take such a position at an English league club.

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There are big plans. Swindon are about to secure the purchase of the County Ground from the local council for the first time, allowing them to redevelop the ground with an environmental focus. A new roof on the Stratton Bank stand will be fitted with solar panels, and there will be electric charging points in the car park. But first, there are small plans: the job of convincing supporters and sponsors that a 144-year-old football club can and must play a role in the future of the planet.

This is where Doughty comes in. He’s at pains to stress that he’s not a scientist or a climate expert. But he is a club legend, part of their League Two title-winning side of 2020, and when you’re trying to change minds that counts for something. “I can relate to the fans,” he says. “I didn’t retire 50 years ago. I was part of good times at the club. And making the world of sustainability slightly more emotional will help people come on the journey with us.”

And it is a journey, one that English football is slowly setting in motion, albeit at wildly varying speeds. Not every club can be a Forest Green, with its wooden stadium and all-vegan menu. This weekend is Green Football Weekend, one of those initiatives with a shiny website and a hashtag and a mixture of the well-meaning and faintly gimmicky. Middlesbrough are planting a tree for every goal they score against Blackpool. Wolves are wearing green armbands against Liverpool. It’s that sort of vibe.

Michael Doughty, Swindon Town’s chief sustainability officer, in front of a river.
‘I couldn’t understand why there wasn’t a discussion.’ Michael Doughty, Swindon Town’s chief sustainability officer. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

Which feels like a good moment to ask a few questions. Given what we know about the climate emergency, its scale and its urgency, what evidence is there that English football is taking this remotely seriously? What would it take for the country’s biggest sport to move beyond green armbands and hashtags, and start acting with genuine speed and genuine ambition? And what would that action even begin to look like?

“At the risk of sounding very critical, clubs aren’t taking it nearly seriously enough,” says Dr Madeleine Orr, an ecologist who has written extensively on sport and climate breakdown. “It’s the norm for teams to take flights to games that could be travelled in three hours on land. Many are doubtful that there will be any kind of regulation coming from the Premier League or the FA any time soon, and I would tend to agree because there’s been no evidence of serious concern at that level.”

Unlike the EFL, the Premier League isn’t even taking part in Green Football Weekend. Its environmental sustainability strategy, scheduled to launch in 2022, is yet to materialise. And while it has its own goals – halving emissions by 2030, going net zero by 2040 – perhaps the reason it has been so taciturn on the subject is the sort of questions it might invite. Questions about short-haul flights. About its official oil partner. About airline sponsorships, cryptocurrency partnerships, clubs funded by some of the world’s biggest fossil fuel producers. Awkward questions.

“Organisations that simultaneously talk a big talk on climate while supporting or propping up highly extractive industries are hypocritical,” says Dr Orr. “If a club promotes their green sports day, or their bike-to-the-match programme, or vegan food at the stadium, and then I arrive and there’s adverts for an airline or an oil company, I’m put off. There needs to be authenticity in the messaging. And for the most part, fans expect their clubs to get on board with environmental action.”

Naturally individual clubs will point to their own initiatives. Arsenal offer fans their own green energy tariff. Manchester City have a club car-sharing scheme. Liverpool have planted some hedges at their academy. And yet individual actions are by definition just that. Virtually every expert on the issue agrees that tackling the climate emergency requires a huge coordinated effort: across national and local government, business and community enterprises, big corporations and private individuals. It requires, in short, the one thing at which football has proven itself over many years to be utterly useless.

“My personal view is that we need an independent regulator,” says Rob Angus, Swindon’s chief executive. “Football managing itself isn’t the right direction. The EFL are trying. But having some standards and expectations that are joined up through the pyramid, from the Premier League down, should be an important part of the future of the game.”

For Dr Orr, the impetus for change could come from within the game itself. “Sport leagues are very good at self-regulating when they choose to,” she says. “I expect that as the public grows increasingly unhappy, there will be a push for greater sustainability. That might look like regulating ground transport as the norm for distances shorter than, say, 300 miles. Or requiring divestment from fossil fuels. The other trend I’m noticing is that brands who sponsor clubs are raising their expectations. These sponsors don’t want to be affiliated with an unsustainable club.”

What about players themselves? Héctor Bellerín and Eric Dier are among those to have spoken out on environmental issues in recent years, and according to Doughty it is increasingly becoming a topic of conversation in dressing rooms. “It has become more of a talking point,” he says. “What I’m excited about – and the pandemic was a factor in this – is that the context of the athlete has shifted quite seismically in the last couple of years. Athletes are far more engaging, and the things they find important are coming to the fore.”

Swindon’s stadium, the County Ground. The club is planning to redevelop the ground with an environmental focus.
Swindon’s stadium, the County Ground. The club is planning to redevelop the ground with an environmental focus. Photograph: Pete Norton/Getty Images

All of this, of course, remains optimism for the future rather than action in the present. And the present is rapidly encroaching. After the wet winter of 2019-20, Swindon gravel-banded their training pitches to improve drainage. Then came last summer’s drought, which rendered them unusable for pre-season. This is the new reality for those caught in the laser-hairs of the climate crisis: a constant and often exorbitant process of adaptation that, as ever, will hit those at the bottom first and hardest.

What will it take to punt football on to the next stage of its journey? For Doughty, it probably means talking to football’s authorities in the only language they understand. “Football is dictated by money to a certain degree,” he says. “Once people realise that the product is under threat, and you start seeing crappy football matches in 40C heat, there will be much more momentum behind it. And that’s only a matter of time. Because the science is unequivocal.”