The state of sustainable travel in sport: clubs & athletes

February 01 2024

When it comes to carbon emissions, fewer actions have a higher impact than travel.

The state of sustainable travel in sport: clubs & athletes

Athlete flights, business travel, and fan travel to games and tournaments all contribute to sport’s carbon emissions—and some estimate that travel can account for up to 80% of a sports organisation’s carbon footprint.

But, over the past year, a number of high-impact initiatives have emerged across the industry, showing signs that a shift towards greener travel in sport may be on the horizon.

In this two-part investigation, Global Sustainable Sport will take stock of the state of sustainable travel in the sports industry, from high-flying elite athletes and major clubs all the way down to grassroots fan travel to local matches.

Is the sector truly making progress towards making greener transport the norm—or does sport still have a long way to go?

A major challenge

Sport isn’t alone in needing to address the impact of travel on its carbon emissions. Other sectors—including music, art, and TV & film—generate large proportions of their carbon footprints from travel.

Air travel is the biggest culprit when it comes to CO2. UK Charity Flight Free estimates that one return transatlantic flight generates more CO2 per passenger than eating meat or driving a car for a year.

Within sport, athlete flights to matches, games, tournaments and events are a huge contributor, as well as business flights more generally.

While flying to matches, tournaments and training might have been the norm for a long time, over the past year, scrutiny of major clubs and athletes’ behaviour has increased.

In March last year, a BBC investigation revealed that, within a two-month period, Premier League teams took 81 domestic flights. The shortest of these lasted only 27 minutes, while the average flight duration was just three quarters of an hour.

In response, the Premier League pointed out that clubs were working on environmental sustainability policies that included initiatives addressing issues such as sustainable fan travel.

But, while fan travel is a major issue, the problem of frequent, high-impact athlete and player travel remains.

Claire Poole, CEO at Sport Positive, says that issues such as logistics, packed event calendars, and a focus on athlete performance create a ‘challenging landscape’ when it comes to transitioning to more sustainable travel.

“Many professional sports take place over larger domestic distances, or internationally. In some cases, true sustainable travel options aren’t available (yet),” she tells Global Sustainable Sport. “Those responsible for ensuring performance don’t want to compromise on athletes being either slightly less comfortable or having to be in transit for longer.”

Despite these roadblocks, though, a number of initiatives have gained momentum in recent months, suggesting that clubs and athletes are beginning to appreciate the urgency of the climate crisis – and the critical role that travel plays.

Bringing clubs together: The EFL Sustainable Travel Charter

In October last year, a group led by Pledgeball and the Football Supporters’ Association (FSA) launched the Sustainable Travel Charter, in a move that directly addressed the growing controversy over short-haul flights in football.

The Charter supports clubs to make more sustainable decisions when it comes to team travel. Initial signatories included EFL clubs Millwall, Bristol City and Forest Green Rovers.

Katie Cross, CEO at Pledgeball, tells Global Sustainable Sport that a number of factors led to the creation of the Charter.

“A lot of fans have called out clubs on social media when they have promoted sustainability initiatives, openly criticising them for flying to fixtures,” she says.

Cross also found that clubs were keen for support and guidance, while conversations with leading researchers, including Lorraine Whitmarsh, Director of the Centre for Climate Change and Social Transformations at the University of Bath, indicated the huge impact of normalising carbon intensive habits like flying.

Since launching, several more clubs have joined the Charter, including Charlton Athletic and Queens Park Rangers. As of this week, nine EFL clubs have signed, including three in the Championship.

Speaking last week as QPR announced its commitment, Lorraine Whitmarsh argued that elite athletes have a huge role to play in normalising greener travel behaviour.

“Elite footballers enjoy a privileged status in society, and their choices are often looked on as aspirational by the public. By committing to reducing flying, clubs can signal that they are taking climate change seriously and help change norms about travel amongst elite clubs,” she said.

“On the converse, the normalisation of flying by these clubs serves to reinforce the belief that we don’t need to prioritise environmental sustainability in our decision-making and drastically undermines the terrifying reality of the climate crisis.”

The growing number of clubs signing the charter suggests that the pressure is on for clubs to take more concrete action on their own flights, bringing their behaviour in line with their broader sustainability strategies.

A representative from Millwall FC explains to Global Sustainable Sport that joining the charter was a ‘no-brainer’.

“As we look at increasing our eco-friendly activity, travel was a key area for Millwall to look at,” they say. “Millwall we are always looking to be innovators, which made the charter even more appealing – to become a founding member of the working group and lead the way for other football clubs to follow our footsteps.”

Challenging norms: Transfer Green campaign

Another campaign launched in recent months goes beyond team travel to focus more closely on travel during the transfer window.

The Transfer Green campaign, launched by Fly Green Alliance in partnership with Sokito, a producer of eco-friendly football boots, encourages football players, clubs, and football associations to opt for greener transport options during the season’s transfer window.

The aim is to reduce clubs’ and players’ reliance on high-impact transport, such as travel, when they move between clubs during what can be a hectic time of the season.

During a webinar held on the opening day of COP28 last December, Fly Green Alliance and Sokito presented commissioned research that showed that the English Premier League is the top emitting league in football.

We decided to concentrate on the transfer window travel as it is so iconic, mostly business aviation focused, and we realised we could bring some interesting data to the table,” says Sarah Wilkin, Founder and Chief Executive of Fly Green Alliance.

By focusing on the football transfer window – which usually makes headlines with its high transfer fees – the team hope to be able to associate transfers with more than just the money.

“There is also already a monetary value associated to the transfer, but not a carbon value, so we wanted to bring attention to this,” Wilkin says.

Athletes leading the charge

Recent examples of addressing athlete flights have come from football, but the wider industry is also grappling with the need to reduce high-impact travel.

Individual athletes, like endurance runner Innes FitzGerald, have made headlines by refusing to travel long distances by plane, while groups of athletes have also put the issue in the spotlight: last year, a group of 44 women’s football players pledged to offset their flights to the Women’s World Cup.

UEFA has also announced plans to reduce short-haul flights during this summer’s EURO 2024 tournament by clustering group games and encouraging teams to travel by coach or train.

Meanwhile, leagues, associations, and governing bodies are beginning to implement and develop their own travel policies, though these are not always transparent. Kansas City Current were recently fined over $55,000 by the NWSL for using a charter flight between games.

It’s clear that athletes have a critical role to play in driving change across the sector, as well as normalising greener travel among their peers.

Professional football player William Troost-Ekong, who is also Head of Purpose at Sokito and has been active in the Transfer Green campaign, planted olive trees to compensate for the emissions generated by his loan move from Watford to Salernitana last summer in what was called ‘the first carbon-neutral international transfer’.

In an interview with The National, Troost-Ekong said that governing bodies must lead the way. “The governing bodies, the people really in charge, from the leagues to the Champions League, to Uefa and Fifa … they have to create and enforce policies and set new rules because I think that’s the only way to make a big change,” he said.

Policies and enforcement must come from above, but athletes like Troost-Ekong still have an important role to play.

“Athletes are role models and influencers. If an athlete has photographs taken of them travelling to a game or event on chartered flight or private jet, it socialises the idea that this is not just acceptable, but desirable,” says Sports Positive’s Poole. “Conversely, if athletes are photographed travelling sustainably, it can lead to coverage and interest in that activity.”

Challenges ahead, but change on the horizon

The roadblocks standing in the way of the move to more sustainable travel remain, including packed event calendars, lack of low-carbon alternatives, and an emphasis on athlete performance.

But, slowly, sports clubs and organisations are beginning to come together to address these issues.

So what needs to happen now to make greener athlete and club travel a reality?

Most importantly, making sustainable options the industry standard will require public commitments from sports organisations across the board. Initiatives like the EFL Sustainable Travel Charter are ground-breaking, but the industry needs to see further initiatives across more sports, and more professional clubs need to make public commitments.

At the same time, optimising event calendars and using the power of the athlete voice will be critical.

In an ideal future, says Poole, sports organisations across the industry will commit to taking sustainable travel options wherever they can.

“I’d hope to see those responsible for calendar-setting share commitments and progress on optimising locations and timing of sporting events to reduce travel miles,” Poole says.

As pressure grows and access to support increases, 2024 could be the year that sports clubs begin to make genuine changes to their travel choices.

“I am optimistic that we are approaching a tipping point,” adds Pledgeball’s Cross.

But there is another important part of the puzzle: fan travel, which makes up a huge proportion of most clubs’ Scope 3 emissions.

Part two, which will be published next week, will continue Global Sustainable Sport’s analysis and explore the major issues facing fan travel.

 

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