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Deep Dive: Euro 2024 – can soccer go green?

Benjamin Restle
July 5, 2024

With over 2 billion dollars in expected revenue and a projected carbon footprint of 500,000 tons of CO2, we're diving into whether this "most sustainable European Championship" is hitting its eco-friendly targets. From discounted train rides to plant-based snacks, discover the real impact of this soccer fest as business interests clash with sustainability goals.



Benja Faecks, policy expert on global carbon markets with Carbon Market Watch

Silvia Festa, senior business development manager with Eurail

Hartmut Stahl, senior researcher Öko Institute 

Pamela Wicker, professor for sport management and sport sociology at Bielefeld University

Alice Ainsworth, senior consultant with Carbon Trust

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Central Berlin is teeming with excited football fans, milling about, drinking beers, singing and laughing. They’ve gathered near the capital’s fan zone – a sprawling, purpose-built area replete with massive screens -- to watch their teams go head-to-head in the EUFA 2024 European men’s football championship.

Groups of Albanian fans clad in their nations’ dark-red football jerseys pass by. There are plenty of Austrian fans in red-and-white shirts, too. Dutch fans in bright orange jerseys are out in force as well --- even though their team’s not playing tonight, many have arrived in the city ahead of tomorrow’s match. A few Italy fans are about as well.

There are many other international visitors too. For whom football is just as important as experiencing real Germany culture….

Like this fan from India, who didn’t get tickets see any of the matches.

No, we didn't get it. But I still wanted to kind of feel the experience. But I had so many beers in the last few days, and which has been amazing because I think, you know, I think when you think about Germany, when you think about Berlin, you kind of relate to beer and sausages, maybe. A friend of mine, she's from Ukraine. She's been here before. She's like: Shubu, you have to have those sausages.

This year, 24 national teams are participating in the European Championship. With matche s played across 10 different German host cities.

European football governing body UEFA – which are organizing the tournament together with host national Germany -- could rake in over two billion euro in revenue from television licensing, sponsorship deals, ticket sales and so on.

And while most of us are probably focused on which teams will advance to the next round of the tournament, perhaps we should also be looking at what’s being done to minimize its ecological impact.

After all, UEFA billed this year’s football tournament as "the most sustainable European Championship of all time."

Welcome Living Planet, my name is Benjamin Restle.

Benja Faecks: Whenever I see a claim like that, I'm kind of asking the question as compared to what?

That’s Benja Faecks of nonprofit group Carbon Market Watch.

Benja: That's a bit tricky because if you would say this is a more sustainable championship than the last that was held in Germany, you know, you can actually compare it to the same event. Right. So you have the same parameters. So you can say. So this is actually an improvement. But when such a bold claim is put out….what do they actually mean by that.

Looks like UEFA scored a bit of an own goal there.

But semantics and fuzzy methodology side, organizers have taken quite a few measures to keep carbon emissions down.

Which are still expected to be substantial: Germany’s Öko-Institute, an environmental think tank, projects the tournament will produce about 500,000 t of CO2.

To put that figure into perspective: That’s roughly the amount of CO2 produced by 120,000 cars in an entire year. The Öko-Institute says about 80% of this year’s tournament related carbon emissions will result from transport alone!

With 2/3 attributed to air traffic!

Football players, staff, officials and fans need to travel to and from Germany.

And then onwards to different host cities and stadiums in the country.

Berlin alone is expecting some 2 million international visitors from about 120 different countries.

So what are organizers doing to keep travel-related emissions to a minimum?

They’re encouraging fans to choose cleaner modes of transport, like trains.

European nationals with matchday tickets can buy discounted interrail passes, for example. A deal that’s designed to entice more European fans to catch a train to Germany, rather than fly, or drive there by car.

Silvia Festa: The interrail pass Euro 2024 is a special pass, exclusive product, for match ticket orders and is valid for a roundtrip journey from 32 European countries, excluding, of course, German residents to Germany.

That’s Silvia Festa, Senior Business Development Manager with Eurail, which sells the train passes.

She says it’s been popular since launching. With over 5,000 tickets sold ahead of the tournament to individuals in 31 different European countries.

Though unfortunately none of the football fans I spoke to said they’d caught a train….

Like this Dutch guy:

Car and aeroplane. Yeah. Easily and quickly. Yeah. That's the main thing.”

Or this young Austrian:

We came with the car and we are together with my father. It depends on the price, of course. Uh, what I saw, um, from the Austrian railway, it's very expensive just to come to Berlin. From Vienna, you have to pay just one way more than €200.

At least UEFA Euro 2024 ticketholders can also snag low-cost domestic train tickets offered by German rail operator Deutsche Bahn.

And everyone with a ticket may use Germany’s public transport network free of charge from 6 AM on matchday until 6 PM the following day.

Benja: I think that's a really, really good first step. And I definitely welcome that.”

That Benja Faecks again.

Benja: The tournament in Germany…..I think it's a really nice, nice plan that I set up with, uh, connecting the match tickets to train tickets and even having, uh, European partnerships that, um, give a discount on the interrail tickets. Pretty nice plan and we have to see how that turns out in reality.

Hartmut Stahl of the Öko Institute agrees, but says organizers could have done better:

Hartmut Stahl: So that's definitely a good idea. But I mean, what obviously would be the best solution to have free tickets all over Germany? That would be a real progress.

But let’s be clear: these travel discounts and freebies are only available to the 2.3 million fans who got their hands on coveted matchday tickets.  

Parking is also restricted near football arenas to further discourage fans arriving by car.

But only Berlin, Hamburg, Leipzig and Frankfurt have scrapped all public parking lots their vicinity of their stadiums. Organizers have also divided all 36 group stage matches up between three regional clusters:

One in northern and eastern Germany. Another in western Germany And one in the south.

This is designed to keep team and fan travel to a minimum. And reduces the number of flights taken by football teams by 75%, UEFA says. But only three teams have actually pledged to avoid or cut down on flights during the tournament:

Germany has said its team will not fly during the group stage. Portugal promised its squad would travel to two out three group matches by bus. And Switzerland said its players will take a bus to travel to its German basecamp UEFA has also said it is pushing for more sustainable football infrastructure.

Like: Using renewable energy to power German football arenas. Reducing floodlight use. Minimizing water consumption, and encouraging grey water use where possible. But we’ll only know how many resources have been saved after the last very last match has been played. Another key factor for keeping carbon emissions low is avoiding construction.

Pamela Wicker: To make these major sporting events more sustainable one key aspect is, of course, to use existing infrastructure, existing stadia or to have a follow up usage for anything that is built.

Germany is hosting all Euro 2024 matches in 10 pre-existing football arenas that will be in use for many years to come.

Let me give you sense why this is so important: 

Qatar built seven brand new football stadiums specifically for the 2022 football world cup.

Non-profit environment group Carbon Market Watch found their construction alone accounted for over 1.6 million t in CO2e – roughly three times than what has been predicted for the entire EURO 2024 tournament.

Then there are smaller, and perhaps more symbolic measures that can make this year's football fest a little more climate friendly. Like offering vegetarian and vegan snack options – something UEFA has also recommended for the tournament.

And I did see vegan sausages on offer at Berlin’s bustling fans zone. They looked just as juicy and scrumptious as the real ones. And were selling for the same hefty price.  

The Dutch fan I spoke earlier didn’t seem too keen on meat-free snacks…

We have seen them, but we don't try them. No, no, we eat meat.

But one younger German fan I interviewed seemed open to vegan food.

Yes, I honestly try to be vegan for a year. It was not that bad, to be honest. Um, now I'm eating meat, but, uh, sometimes I use the vegan, uh, options here, and I think it's a good idea for people who are living vegan so that not just meat or something is getting sales so beautiful you cannot find that anywhere.

He said offering climate friendly food options was easier than getting fans to ditch planes and cars for trains and bikes.

I think it's a good. Yeah, vegetarian food and vegan food. I think, um, it's not that difficult to do that. And like other things like logistics and something it's really difficult to manage that because it's a big tournament. I think they give their best.

So organizers are trying to reduce carbon emissions directly linked to the tournament.

What’s new is that now, they’re also are putting money towards avoiding future emissions.

Hartmut: They have developed this carbon fund. And that's something which I think is really, uh, um, something new. And really a big step forward.

UEFA has allocated €25 for every ton of CO2 emissions produced during the tournament.  

This 7 million euro carbon fund will be used to support small German football teams become more sustainable.

Hartmut:  the idea is that the money is no longer spent for for buying certificates. these are these carbon compensation projects  but instead. the money the funds are given to clubs in Germany, because there are so many clubs in Germany that they have problems with their facilities. They have to make renovations. Um, energy efficiency is a big issue there.

But while 7 million euro may sound like a lot of money, UEFA could be spending much more given it’s likely to make over 2 billion euro in revenue!

Not only that. UEFA has also been granted massive tax exemptions – worth up to 250 million euro. 

So we’ve looked at some steps taken to reduce the tournament’s carbon footprint.

And efforts to reduce future emissions, too.

Looks like organizers really have their eyes on the ball.

But what about the potential positive, long-term impact of such tournaments?

Alice Ainsworth of nonprofit Carbon Trust thinks athletes can lead by example and inspire fans to adopt more eco-friendly lifestyles.

Alice Ainsworth: So role models play a huge, a huge part in, in sport. You know, people have their, their sporting heroes that they follow intently and actually can have a really big influence on the way an individual chooses to live their life.

If you see your sporting hero, um, choosing to consume less meat or opting to avoid domestic travel or really kind of lead a more sustainable life, maybe they're talking about, I don't know, lowering their, their fashion, um, footprint, for example, and rewiring clothes, things like that actually can have a really significant positive impact, um, on an individual's choice and lifestyle choices.

But of course, we shouldn’t be naïve, either, says sports researcher Pamela Wicker:

Pamela: So we will have a tournament for four weeks. So it cannot solve all societal challenges and it cannot make everybody more sustainable during this period of time.

But it can of course create some initial changes. Maybe some people change the attitudes. Maybe some people already change their behavior. So it can be a starting point for many people when it's, um, in the media and on television for one month. But we cannot expect sporting events to solve all these societal and political issues within four weeks.

Now let’s consider some radical options – like a football manger whose teams is one goal down with only a few minutes left on the clock.

How could major sporting events be organized to drastically reduce their carbon footprint?

This is something Benja Faecks of Carbon Market Watch has been thinking about in the context of the 2024 Paris Olympics.

Benja: But if you take the example of the Olympic Games. Maybe 90% or or even more of the people who are actually watching the games are not in the stadium, but they're watching it on TV. So the question really is like, if you can reduce this, the amount of people who take the plane to go to that, to that place, I think you could really make an impact.

So one approach could be limiting the number of spectators allowed inside sporting arenas.

And encouraging more people to stay home and watch tournaments on television, or online.

But then we could have eerily quiet sports venues like during the COVID pandemic, when football matches were held in empty stadiums.

Do we really want that?

Benja: We tried to think of systems where you reduce access to stadiums for local people and you create sort of local public viewing hubs.

In a way that would help, but in the end you’re always losing something.

Only allowing locals to attend would be another way of drastically reducing the ecological impact of major sporting events.

After all, international travel – air traffic specifically – is the biggest source of carbon emissions in this context.

But that goes against the very idea of major tournaments: internationalism, multiculturalism and openness.

I suggested this idea to one German spectator near Berlin’s fan zone.

Just Germans is not a good idea because the atmosphere is, uh, much, much better when everybody is here, like every country.

And then there’s the radical option:

Pamela: I think the problem of sport is that it would be most environmentally friendly when there would be no sport event. But since we all enjoy having sporting events, they also have many positive social impacts. We have to work on how these sport events can be hosted in a way that is more environmentally sustainable and economically sustainable.

Personally, I wouldn’t want to live in a world without the excitement and drama of international football tournaments.


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