Football’s real carbon footprint: a vector of consumerism

There has been a lot of interest recently in the carbon footprint of football, both clubs and competitions. UEFA has announced it is offsetting 450,000 tonnes of emissions from Euro 2020; league tables of clubs’ green performance have been published in the BBC and the Daily Telegraph.

However, there might be an elephant in the room: football’s biggest carbon footprint probably comes from its role as a vector of consumerism. As football is funded in great part by advertisements for consumer goods and services, the more we pollute, the more we can pay our heroes, and the more trophies we can win.

Something like £2 billion is spent on promoting consumer brands through the UK Premier League each year. This is in the form of sponsorship, advertising and TV rights which are partly funded by advertising sales.

The annual spend on Premier League club sponsorship of shirts, sleeves and other assets is something over £700m, and breaks down by sector as follows (data from Sportspro Media, figures in millions of GBP):

The environmental impact of these sectors, might be broadly evaluated as:

Note that I classified gambling as low impact – low environmental impact, that is. The social impact of promoting gambling is not considered here.

Thus, £234m is spent encouraging high environmental impact activities, £422m on medium impact activities and £72m on low impact. (Figures in the table below in millions of GBP).

What could the impact of this be on emissions? Thought experiment: assuming that you only spend on advertising if you generate gross margin from additional sales of at least that much, then the additional gross margin from high impact sales of air tickets and cars needs to be at least £234 million. That implies additional sales of around £500m-£1bn. That’s about 1-2m tonnes of emissions.[1]

As well as the direct sponsorship, there are also the advertisements on the TV channels which broadcast matches. During half-time of the Man Utd v Newcastle game on 26th December, Amazon Prime showed advertisements as follows:

This was a positive surprise – two of the advertisements arguably had a relatively positive environmental impact – an electric car and a home cooking service. This is a big difference from watching US broadcaster ESPN where the advertisements were mainly about big cars and hamburgers with high carbon footprints.

It is not so simple. Advertisements might result in increasing sales in a market as a whole – persuading someone to buy a car which they might not have bought otherwise. Or they might just cause changes in market share without actually causing a net increase in sales in that market – persuading someone to buy a Chevrolet rather than a Volkswagen. There would only be a significant environmental impact if the ads cause an increase in sales rather than just a shift in market share. We will need plenty of careful academic study if we want to understand the impact of football advertising.

Notwithstanding the mechanisms of impact, football is a window onto consumerism. Its sponsorships and advertising encourage us to spend and consume; they reinforce the pernicious notion that spending and possessions make us happy; they conveniently gloss over the horrific environmental damage caused by the lifestyles which they promote.

At the same time, some advertisements can be positive in the case of Amazon’s broadcasting on Boxing Day. This points to the potential for football to be a vector of good.

If football really wants to reduce its carbon footprint it needs to substantially decommercialise. It needs to move away from the advertising model which primes (yup, that’s why they call it Amazon Prime) us all to be spenders and polluters. It needs to scale down dramatically, stripping out the promotion of harmful products and eliminating socially and environmentally damaging messaging. Too big an ask? Of course. But at least we can start by knowing the facts when we talk about football’s carbon footprint.

I haven’t found research on the mechanism of football as a vector of consumerism. If anyone is interested in pursuing that, do get in touch.


1. We’d need an academic to calculate this more precisely. Here is a rough and ready approach. For airline sales take Wizzair as an example – their sales are around €2bn and their emissions around 3m tonnes a year. So an extra £500m of airline sales might generate an extra 750,000 tonnes of emissions. For car sales, assume a car costs £20,000 and needs 20 tonnes of CO2 to manufacture and emits a further 4 tonnes a year for 5 years, that’s 40 tonnes CO2 for a car. So £500m of car sales would imply around 1 million tonnes of emissions.

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The problem with net zero

The problem with net zero

Many companies and organisations are saying they will go net zero by 2030. This is in response to the climate emergency.

The intention is good but flawed. It is not suitable for a climate emergency. It is suitable for a mild climate headache, several notches less serious and less urgent than a climate massive heart attack. There is another approach suitable for a climate emergency: companies and organisations should go net zero now and then work to drastically improve the quality of the zero by 2030.

Net zero means that your net emissions are zero. That is the net of the emissions of your business less the offsets which you acquire. Offsets are actions which suck up CO2 such as planting trees, switching to regenerative farming or using technologies like carbon mineralisation or direct air capture of carbon. These technologies are not yet widely available, unlike the technologies of trees and soil which have been around for a few hundred million years and can be considered proven.

To go net zero you add up all the emissions of your business and then buy offsets to match.

After that, during the years to 2030, you improve the quality of your zero, by cutting your own emissions more and more, so you steadily need to buy fewer and fewer offsets.

In practice it takes a few months for a company to calculate its emissions to a reasonable accuracy and buy offsets to match those emissions. This means you can easily be net zero by 2020.

There are plenty of offsets available, plenty of projects which are ready to go once they get commitments from offset buyers, and plenty of entrepreneurs ready to embark on new projects if they see demand and prices growing. So for the next few years, at least, there is not going to be a shortage of offsets.

Saying you are going net zero by 2030 is not ambitious and not particularly impressive. It makes more sense to go net zero now. Then, in the knowledge that you are having no net impact from day one, you have ten years to design and implement a plan to drastically reduce your own emissions, through efficiency measures, changes in strategy, operations, products and services, procuring genuinely renewable energy, establishing your own renewable energy sources, banning leaf blowers and so forth. Thousands of energy and environment consultants can advise on that.

For companies and organisations with high added value per unit of energy consumed – media, IT, FMCG brands, commercial and light industry, going net zero now is not a costly exercise. Heavy industry could make a similar step, but they would have to thwart pesky monopolies commissions and do this in synch with their competitors so that some of the additional cost could be passed on to customers.

After voluntary offsetting had its first vogue in the mid 2000s, and then got hit with scandal and accusations that it stops people putting in the effort to reduce their own emissions, it became standard practice to say that you first reduce the emissions you can, then you offset the residual amount. That was ok in the leisurely years after the financial crash and before the emergency, when we still had forty years until 2050 to solve climate change. But now we have only ten years, we have to approach it the other way round. Offset first, then reduce what you can.

The original approach runs the significant risk that you do nothing for ten years and then in the last year you offset all your emissions. The new approach of net zero now demands action now and creates an incentive to search for real emission reductions in the following years.

The message is: Net zero now. Not 2030.

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Who ate all the pies? The fate of American birdlife

Peritonitis Girth, the chief mathematician to the government of Onan Hash, recently delivered his report on the tragic decline in American birdlife.[1]

Since the 1970s, bird numbers in North America have fallen by one third. 3 billion birds have disappeared. “Where have they all gone?” ask Doctor Girth.

He outlined his explanation at a press conference in at the Telford Centre for Ecological Restoration.

“I am a man of numbers. In numbers we can find every truth. This is the beauty of mathematics.

“There are 300 million Americans, with an average weight of 81 kg. This is some 10 kg more than the average weight of a European– 71kg, whose diet, though scarcely wholesome, is markedly more modest.

“This implies an excess of American flab of approximately 3 billion kg or 3 million tonnes.

“We assume a feed conversion ratio of 4 – this is typical of a pig, the closest farm animal to the North American. This implies that Americans have eaten 12 million tonnes of pie more than the Europeans.

“It is commonly known that there are traditionally 24 blackbirds baked in a pie, according to the Song of Sixpence. Now, American food standards being what they are – since President Randolph Blast closed down the food safety agency – a standard 2kg bird pie only contains 2.5% bird, or 50 grammes. Thus 12 million tonnes of pie contain 300,000 tonnes of bird.

“The average bird weighs 100g. Thus 3 billion birds have evidently been consumed in American Pies. This is our missing number.”

And indeed that is where the birds have gone. Destroyed by death farmers who, with impunity and outside the framework of the Chemical Weapons Convention, wage warfare, conventional and unconventional, on the land , as they cram the gargantuan gullets of the American people.

[1] See earlier tales of the regime of Onan Hash in the Bustard under the Chronicles of Nat Eb.

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Notes on Sweden, Saudi and behaviour change

When I read that someone had bombed Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities and their production was down 50%, I assumed that Sweden had finally realised that climate diplomacy was doomed to failure and decided to take proper action.

Disabling Saudi’s oil industry is something I have dreamed about many times, not only when delirious with fever. As a complement to advocacy, policy, technological improvement and behavioural change, taking out important fossil fuel facilities makes sense if you want rapid decarbonisation of human society. This is easier because few people have deep, emotional sympathies for the regime of Saudi Arabia.

Then I read that it wasn’t the Swedes but the Iranians. That’s smart of the Swedes. Getting an equally odious regime to do the dirty work. With the added benefit that the obvious response of Saudi will be to knock out Kharg Island.

All this puts up the price of oil (and stretches military budgets which should be charged on to oil traders), with a bigger economic impact than timorous attempts by governments at imposing carbon taxes. No chance of a backlash: the French yellow jackets won’t go to Teheran to demonstrate.

Even until very recently bigwig academics, technologists and bureaucrats have been trying to make us believe that it’s really quite simple to deal with climate change. “All you need is a global carbon price,” they used to say – say five to ten years ago. Then a bit later they corrected that. It’s really quite simple to solve climate change. All you need is innovation. An energy revolution.” That would be a few years ago. And so on. It was a whopping misrepresentation born of narrow thinking and naivety: hopium.

Now they have started to join the dots a bit more, they have realised that technological innovation in energy does not help solve deforestation or the criminal malpractice known as industrial farming. They have remembered the age-old Jevons Paradox – when you save energy in one area, you just spend it in another. They note the rise of soft fascism which despises environmentalism.

I was pleased when finally someone with public responsibilities, Professor Sir Ian Boyd, the chief environmental scientist of the UK government, warned us last week that: “People must use less transport, eat less red meat and buy fewer clothes if the UK is to virtually halt greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.”

He added that the public has little idea of the scale of the challenge to cut greenhouse gas emissions out of our lives.

“We need to do more about learning to live sustainable. We need to change our behaviours and change our lifestyles.”

Yet to that, people protest indignantly at threatened loss of freedom: “Who’s to tell me I can’t have a holiday in the Caribbean? It is my right to have cheap food and petrol! Isn’t this the job of government and big business?”

People have been asking these indignant questions for decades and it amazes me that they still have any political clout. It is blindingly obvious that everyone needs to pull their weight and tighten their belt. It’s ok to dick about like the Victorians did when there were a couple of billion humans on the planet most of whom lived simply; but with 8 billion people aspiring to middle class: you redesign a ketchup bottle and you kill a billion fish.

And then I see that even the best of those that run our nation states – ok, the only normal one left, Mrs Merkel, and she’s going – ultimately lack the courage to put their careers on the line for the sake of the Planet – and the hapless carnival that is the New York Climate Summit with Greta’s beautiful, heart wrenching and futile plea.

I find myself wishing for an authoritarian regime: it would be so much easier not to fly if I was not allowed to fly. And if no-one was allowed to fly, there wouldn’t be any FOMO.

Today we have a bleak menu:

  1. Stop eating meat, stop industrial agriculture and stop flying
  2. See the bright side of a war in the Middle East.
  3. Endure an authoritarian regime

The alternative is, obviously, no choice. We fry.



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Say the obvious: To save the Amazon, stop eating meat.

If you ask an expert about the causes of destruction of the forests in the Amazon, they will say: meat. It is virtually all about meat eating. Ranchers raising cattle. Farmers growing soya for export to the meat industry.

This is borne out in an excellent report by Mighty Earth:

So there is one thing you can do about: cut down on eating meat (and dairy). And if you don’t mind being a hypocritical for the sake of the planet, get your family and friends to.

Below are the largest customers of the slaugherhouses and soy animal feed traders most associated with cattle and soy deforestation. So these are the companies you should not buy from until they sort out their act:

Study the logos carefully and if you see them any place, don’t go in.

You might say: well, I only eat local, grass-fed meat, so it’s ok. That works a bit but not much. If you eat that local grass-fed meat (which has limited production capacity), it means someone else has to get their meat from more damaging sources.

I was amazed to read these short interviews with eminent professors at Harvard’s Kennedy School.

They are pronouncing on what to do about the destruction of the forest in Brazil.

Not a single one of them says the obvious: Stop eating meat.

When the brainiest people on the planet don’t or daren’t talk about the real causes of things, (a) it gives cause to lose hope and (b) it is an indictment of our educational system. The system raises highly refined, brainy people, and with that, they lose the ability to talk straight.

Perhaps this is too harsh.

I wondered what they would say about drug policy and the war on drugs? Surely at least some would say that: “Ok send in military helicopters to shoot up the drug lords in Mexico if you want, BUT ALSO work on domestic policies to reduce demand for drugs. Education, health care, mental health care, make it socially unacceptable etc.”

Demand-side measures are ok for drugs. So let’s have demand side measures for forests, too.

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