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The footballers advancing Australian sport’s stance on climate change

March 28 2024

‘Australians all let us rejoice, for we are young and free. We’ve golden soil and wealth for toil. Our home is girt by sea. Our land abounds in nature's gifts. Of beauty, rich and rare. In history's page let every stage, Advance Australia fair.’

The footballers advancing Australian sport’s stance on climate change

The world’s sixth largest country celebrates its own glorious natural attributes in its national anthem. However, Australia has historically lagged behind in addressing the climate change that wreaks havoc on its lands.

The landscape began to change when Prime Minister Anthony Albanese took the reins in 2022.

Following the election that year, the new Australian Government enshrined into law a target of cutting emissions by 43% by 2030, compared to 2005 base levels. Additionally, the government made a commitment to develop a plan to reach Net Zero by 2050.

The country is also a party to the Paris Agreement, which means it is required to update its Nationally Determined Contribution every five years. For Australia, this means developing a new medium-term emissions reduction target for 2035.

While Australia has long suffered from its sometimes harsh environment, the more recent bushfires have highlighted the need for action.

According to WWF Australia, the 2019-20 bushfires saw up to 19 million hectares burned, with 12.6 million hectares primarily forests and woodlands. Nearly three billion animals were impacted by the fires.

While climate change does not directly cause the bushfires, prolonged dry spells and high temperatures create the perfect conditions for disaster to strike.

Bushfires in Tasmania

Bushfires in Tasmania

The WWF adds that Australia is home to some of the most incredible biodiversity that is found nowhere else on the planet. However, more than 1,700 species of plants, animals and ecological communities are listed as threatened, exacerbated by climate change and the increasingly occurring bushfires.

Temperatures reached a record 41.9 degrees Celsius in January 2020 across central and eastern Australia. It was also a particularly dry winter in southeast Australia in 2019, according to NASA, building on the dry winters of 2017 and 2018.

Not only do bushfires have an effect on nature, land and animals, but the 2019-20 fires saw carbon emissions reach an estimated 715 million tonnes.

Elsewhere, according to the Australian Government’s Bureau of Meteorology, the 2023-24 summer was the third-warmest summer since records began in 1910, 1.62 degrees Celsius above the average from 1961 to 1990.

Summer rainfall was also high during the 2023-24 summer – some 18.9% above the 1961-1990 average for Australia as a whole, in fact. Summer rainfall was above average for large parts of the eastern two-thirds of the mainland, but western and central Western Australia, southern Northern Territory and Tasmania experienced a drier than average summer.

The country also witnessed significant flooding thanks to tropical storms, which affected large areas of northern Australia, while severe thunderstorms also saw extensive flooding in parts of the eastern and southeastern mainland.

It is no surprise then, that the physical effects of harsh weather have impacted professional sportspeople and have spurred them into action.

Sporting heroes unite

Unlike football in Europe and the UK which is played largely across the autumn, winter and spring, football in Australia (or soccer depending on your preference) is played during the summer.

This means that sport is often in the firing line when it comes to facing the extremes of climate change.

During the time of the 2019-20 bushfires, Professional Footballers Australia (PFA) received feedback from its players about the effects; from training in some pretty poor conditions with smoke inhalation risks to playing in smoke-affected games.

With a push from players in the A-League and A-League Women – the top tiers of men’s and women’s football in Australia, respectively – as well as those in the national teams, the PFA wanted to make sure it was also doing the right thing in the sustainability space. This included getting its own house in order, and adopting and implementing sustainable practices within its organisation.

“The players encounter the impacts of climate regularly in our seasons,” Julius Ross, Head of Communications at the PFA, explains to Global Sustainable Sport.

“They know that it’s having increasing effects and a direct impact on how they train and play. So we formed this group of players called ‘Our Greener Pitch’ in 2021. From there, we handed it over to them, to come back to us with their views around what they would like to see implemented in the league and at the clubs.”

Having established the ‘Our Greener Pitch’ group, the PFA saw this very much as an opportunity to allow sustainability initiatives to be led by the players.

Ross continues: “I think, in some respects, it’s slightly different and a bit more unique compared to what is happening at other big clubs in Europe or England, where sustainability is at the forefront of how a club operates.

“This may be in the infrastructure build space, or how they implement activations on match days, but in Australia, the players have this great opportunity to lead the clubs and the leagues. We are finding that the players are the ones who want to hurry up these outcomes, which is where we want to support them and help elevate their voices.”

More than 60,000 koalas were impacted during the 2019-2020 bushfires

More than 60,000 koalas were impacted during the 2019-2020 bushfires

The power of players coming together to advocate for sustainability was witnessed last year, when 44 international female footballers came together from four different countries to take responsibility for the environmental impact of their flights for the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand.

Players donated money to several climate and carbon offsetting initiatives, and were supported by Football For Future, a UK-based climate advocacy football non-profit, and Common Goal, who facilitated the campaign.

Building on this collective action, last weekend boasted the first of the ‘Green Games’ – an initiative that saw an A-League Women’s game demonstrate ways in which to host a sustainable matchday.

The games focused on reducing carbon pollution, offsetting unavoidable emissions, introducing new sustainable practices at clubs, and raising awareness around the relationship between climate change and football.

The match on March 24 between Canberra United and Wellington Phoenix at McKellar Park in the A-League Women was the first of the two games, with Brisbane Roar set to host the second Green Game on April 13 at Suncorp Stadium in the A-League Men.

PFA delegate and Canberra United defender Emma Illijoski was heavily involved in the curation of the Green Games, and has been a key advocate for sustainability.

“I have always felt passionate about climate change and sustainability. The moment I realised I wanted to bring this into my sport and try to make an impact was after meeting other athletes from multiple sports that were making a difference in their own codes,” Illijoski tells Global Sustainable Sport.

“From AFL [Australian Rules Football] to Cricket, I saw the drive they had, it inspired me to find a way to implement it in football. After discussing this with the PFA, they were completely on board and able to help get it off the ground and create a space for fans and players to also be involved. At the Cricket for Climate Summit I attended, I pledged to create a similar initiative in the football world in Australia, and I think we have been able to begin that journey by having the Green Games.

“As the world game, I believe the reach we have is enormous, and something I have been so excited to tap into.”

Alongside the hosting of the Green Games, the PFA published a report on climate change and the A-Leagues.

“This piece of research is really to underpin the player-led initiative of the Green Games,” explains Brett Taylor, Head of Research and Policy at the PFA.

“It is a unique thing where the players are the tail wagging the dog in our industry in this space. These themed rounds are common across the different sports here in Australia, whether that’s a pride round or an indigenous round etc. We’ve started with the two Green Games rather than a full round at this stage, but it’s completely player-led and activated. The clubs are in support, but they’re not doing the heavy lifting.

“The APL – which is the administrator of the leagues – has also agreed to pay for the offsetting of the emissions of flights for the away teams for the two matches, but we are facilitating that.”

Taylor explains that the report also offered the PFA the chance to combine information into one place, for the organisation itself, and for others.

Canberra United captain Michelle Heyman wearing a specially designed ‘Green Games’ captain’s armband

Canberra United captain Michelle Heyman wearing a specially designed ‘Green Games’ captain’s armband

“It’s also for other players that are interested, and clubs in the league that are really trying to nudge along a bit of action here. We’ve seen the climate impact, and what’s projected into the future with extreme weather, and the effects on the player – health and welfare, safety. This includes playing matches in extreme heat or bushfire smoke, or looking at the flooding that we’ve had at some grounds, which is projected to increase. I’ve quantified this as much as possible,” says Taylor.

“Inversely, it includes the A-League’s impact on the climate, including the theory that change in every sector of society needs to undergo its own sort of mini revolution to add up to the outcomes that we need by 2050. So, it’s looking at that stuff with air travel – especially for a league that stretches from Perth [Western Australia] to Wellington [in New Zealand] – which is a big thing. The report looked at fans getting to games, how they meet in stadiums etc.”

Additionally, Taylor explains that many clubs, if not all, have not reported or measured emissions in this way. The PFA hopes that by launching this report, it would encourage them to measure the emissions of their flights as a first step, which can then potentially be used to look at scheduling to reduce this, for example.

“While wanting to inspire clubs, the players’ ambition is to not wait and let the perfect be the enemy of the good in terms of just getting started this year,” says Taylor.

“I think their stated ambition is to scale it up for next towards a full Green Round across all of the teams, but it’s refreshing to see that we’ve got this group of players that are massively energised and passionate around this.”

Ross adds: “One of the really good things about the group is that they’ve said from the outset that they just want to make small, incremental changes, and develop a template that other clubs could follow; something easy and accessible and allows for entry into something meaningful.

“I think that it’s a really good model to look at and adopt for other clubs, post-Green Games. There have been some 11th hour challenges, but that has actually been a good thing to identify where some of the roadblocks are for changes within clubs around match days. Then we can take action over the next 12 months and address those issues, working with the clubs proactively rather than reacting to the issues.

“That way of addressing it has been really effective, and again, it empowers the players to come up with the solutions and guide where possible.”

The importance of players leading the fight against global warming and advocating for more sustainable practices is summed up perfectly by Jackson Irvine, PFA President, Australia midfielder and captain of table-topping FC St. Pauli in the German 2.Bundesliga.

In his opening statement for the PFA’s report, he says: “I think climate change is arguably the most important issue facing our generation. It’s an overwhelming issue and I think a lot of people struggle to grasp the magnitude of what it is we are dealing with, but I think through taking small steps individually, and pushing for collective change and industrial-level change, I think that’s the way forward.

“We need to take immediate action because every day that goes by it becomes a more difficult situation to change.”

Professional Footballers Australia (PFA) is a trade union that represents male, female and junior elite footballers in the country. The PFA recently hosted the first of its ‘Green Games’ and published a report on the A-Leagues and climate change.

Images: Jack Rowley for PFA/Matt Palmer on Unsplash/Perspective Nature on Unsplash

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