More games, more countries, more travel: Does European football care about its climate impact?

An expanded Champions League, a continent-wide Euros and a brand new tournament are just some of the features that will help spread the game even further than ever before.
Do you think football should care about helping to combat climate change at a time when the entire world is gathering at COP26, which could have far-reaching consequences for businesses and individuals?

The expansion of European club football continues apace as world leaders meet to discuss global warming and avert a climate catastrophe.

BBC Sport conducted research and found:

This season's introduction of the Europa Conference League has seen a rise in the number of Uefa club competition group matches to 288 in 2021-22. That is a 20% increase year-on-year. This is despite the Europa League group stage having been reduced from 48 teams to 32.

The Champions League expansion (effective 2024-25) will result in 180 group games, an increase of 96. This is an 87.5% rise in the competition.

Between 2020-21 and 2024-25 there will be an increase of 55% in the number of group matches at major European club competitions.

Is green growth or greed? Uefa's new tournament: What impact does it have?

Uefa, the European football governing body, announced in 2018 that the Europa Conference League (ECL), was being introduced. It said it wanted to provide "more matches for more clubs" and increase the number of associations participating in European football. External-link

It didn't affect the revenue increase.

What about the climate impact of this new competition that takes the game to more countries?

This can be measured in terms of travel.

Sixteen of the 96 group matches are between teams less than 500km apart. This means that flights are almost always the preferred option for fans and teams.

Climate change is significant because flying contributes to climate change. The aviation industry accounts for about 5% of global warming. Western countries are disproportionately responsible, as only 3% of the world’s population regularly fly.

How does the new tournament help to increase this impact? These are our findings:

The Europa Conference League has 85% of its group games between teams less than 1,000km apart.

In the group stage, teams averaged 5,578km. This is nearly the same distance as flying from London to New York. This would mean that each individual traveling across the group stage would have an average footprint of 1,087kg CO2 (more or less one tonne).

Nineteen teams (59%) must travel over 5,000 km in total to play in their group games.

Forty-two of the 44 percent games involve trips over 2,000km.

Eleven teams (34%) must travel over 1,500km to play away games.

The Kazakh side Kairat has the longest total distance traveled by any team at 11,348km. This is more than a quarter the distance around the globe. Kairat fans would need to travel 2,212kg CO2 to get from one game to the next. This is more than the average world person's annual activity for all activities (4,000kg).

Uefa states that "We must balance economic, social and environmental factors."

Uefa was criticised during the summer over its environmental impact on the Euro 2020 pan-continent tournament. The event was held in 11 countries.

Aleksander Ceferin, the president of the organisation, spoke of "taking matches to more diverse European communities" and Uefa supported its environmental impact by pointing out a lack in building work to create new infrastructure, and a goal of minimising and recycling waste as well as a "gold standard" program for offsetting emissions.

However, Offsetting is described by Andrew Simms (Rapid Transition Alliance coordinator and co-director at New Weather Institute) as "massively problematic and lacking in scientific credibility".

Uefa's website describes climate change as "a threat to the whole planet" and says that it "places a special focus on promoting climate action within its competitions."

It is a signatory of the United Nations Sports for Climate Action Framework (external-link), an initiative that encourages sporting organizations to "display leadership in climate issues".

However, in addition to concerns about the Euros and the expansion of club competitions; five of the nine Champions League finals were contested by teams from the exact same country at a foreign location. Uefa was rebuffed by climate campaigners who asked for the environment to be considered in hosting decisions.

Is Uefa fulfilling its promises?

Michele Uva (Director of Football Social Responsibility at Uefa), stated that "our mission is to manage out carbon footprint."

"We are currently analyzing the impact, but our priority will remain to reduce the footprint for each event and offset any remaining emissions.

"It is impossible to eliminate all our carbon emissions. The teams must play, and they can't ride a bicycle. They have to fly if they are far. We can reduce and we can determine the best way to do it. Germany 2024 [the next men’s Euros] is a fantastic country because 17 activities are being planned that relate to the environment. "We cannot get to zero emissions immediately.

Uva stated that Uefa would publish an environmental sustainability strategy by December.

He said, "We are setting goals and we are building out our own Uefa sustainable events management system."

Each competition will have 18 parameters. We will also monitor the sustainability of each event. This new system will be tested in England for Women's Euro 2022, and then the entire project will be applied in Germany 2024. Next, we will apply the system to all matches at Uefa competitions. Then we will do it all domestically.

"We have three years [upto Euro 2024] to collaborate with clubs to find ways to reduce. We cannot claim that we want football without people coming to the matches, as tourists and having an economic effect. This is what we love.

Fans are not only generating carbon emissions by traveling, but they also provide benefits for the economy and socially. Our commitment to the environment must be balanced with our commitments to the economy, and the social community. Combining these two factors must have a positive impact.

Uva was asked if Uefa's rhetoric in conjunction with expanding tournaments is "greenwashing". He replied: "We have billions and lots of media attention so we know that we have the chance to be a catalyst for climate action and lead the way."

"We want our part. Although it's not an easy task, we are fully engaged in this endeavor.

Uefa, a signatory of the UN Sports for Climate Action Framework will be expected to put actions ahead of words.

"We are moving beyond the pledges and coming up with the actions required in the short- and medium-term," Lindita Xhaferi Salihu (UN Climate Change's Sports for Climate Action Lead), told BBC Sport.

"It is important that our signatories demonstrate how they will achieve these actions given the context of their own operations. These organisations must report publicly on their compliance with the commitments they have made to us in order to keep our signatory status."

Uefa's actions are 'in direct contradiction with any form sustainability'

Hal Robson Kanu was the star striker for Wales at Euro 2016. He is also a natural nutrition entrepreneur and has a keen interest environmental issues.

He said he felt "disappointment and frustration" over Uefa's actions, at which tournament he had the most memorable moment in his career.

He stated that "Uefa has become more commercialized than ever before and is fundamentally being run like a business," BBC Sport reported. They are showing that by making decisions like these, they are clearly demonstrating this. It is not compatible to be part of the UN's sporting framework and make decisions that have a negative impact on their organisation footprint.

It [climate] is not on their priority list. This is an interesting position and not one that aligns with a climate-first, planet first, fans-first approach. It's in direct contradiction to any form of sustainability.

Uefa and sustainability: a timeline Date What has Uefa done? 2 December 2018 Announces the introduction of Europa Conference League, increasing the number of European club groups by 20%. 11 December 2018 Founding member to UN Sports for Climate Action Framework. 19 April 2021 Announces plans to expand Champions League with an 87.5% rise in group games. 29 May 2021 Ignores calls for relocation Champions League final to UK (game was moved from Turkey to Portugal due to Covid), Champions League final moved in Porto despite the presence of two British teams. 11 June 2021 Announces plan to expand Champions League, with an 87.5% increase in group games.

"For us, it's like The Champions League" - What do fans think?

This season's Europa Conference League has 32 teams. Their average Uefa ranking is 134. Nine of these teams are not among the top 200 Uefa clubs.

That is Uefa's whole point.

NS Mura, ranked 339th in Europe have a stadium that can hold less than 4,000 people and have never reached the group stage of a European competition.

They won the Slovenian top flight last season, which put them in the Champions League qualifiers. However, after losing in that competition, and then being beaten in a Europa League play off, they are now in Europa Conference League. This was the moment they had in their history, when they visited Tottenham in September.

NS Mura was defeated 5-1 by Tottenham in September, but Ziga Kous's goal is a highlight in the club's rich history.

Ian Samuel, a Mura supporter who moved from England to Slovenia, stated: "Financially, it's huge for our club. Covid has been a difficult time for most European clubs. This journey has helped us to be on the international stage and brought in a lot money.

"To play against Tottenham, it is the stuff of dreams. My Slovenian team, a small town of 10,000, never imagined that they would be playing Tottenham in London.

"I can understand that it is not the most important thing for clubs like Tottenham. For Mura, it's almost like the Champions League.

Dejan, a Mura fan for over 20 years, said: "We grew-up with one of the Mura players. Twenty years ago, he was playing in a small field with a handful of hundred people. Now, he is playing against Tottenham. This is something so special, and it's a true dream come true for me. Small clubs like Mura cannot win but can show the rest of the world that we exist. It's very positive for small clubs."

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How did we calculate the data?

Based on Air Miles Calculator data, travel distances are calculated starting from the closest airport to each club. External-link

Distances and references to emissions are calculated based upon direct flights. Some journeys might require multiple flights which could actually increase emissions.

Our data is based on all flights by plane. While it is possible that some of these may be done by rail or road, there are only three cases where clubs are located less than 300km apart.

CO2 emissions calculated using BEIS/Defra Greenhouse Gas Conversion Factors 2019.