Sports events leave giant ′ecological footprint′ | Global Ideas | DW | 08.05.2012
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Global Ideas

Sports events leave giant 'ecological footprint'

Sports federations are trying to fight climate change by switching to energy-saving lamps or solar-powered roofs. But the real problem lies in the growing number of flights to international sporting events.

Real Madrid's Xavi Alonso steps from the plane upon arrival at Mother Teresa's airport, near Tirana, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2010. Real Madrid will face Albania's K.S Gramozi Erseke in a friendly soccer match at Qemal Stafa stadium in Tirana on Wednesday. (ddp images/AP Photo/Hektor Pustina)

Jettsetting football players aren't good news for the environment

The irony is hard to miss. In order to talk about climate protection in sports with Lutz Pfannenstiel, you have to track him down in Sao Paulo. The international talent scout for Bundesliga side TSG Hoffenheim travels around the world in search of young, undiscovered football geniuses. His journeys often take him to South America or Africa. He has come to Brazil to network.

+++Global United+++ 2009 in Namibia, Spiel von Global United, Infos unter http://www.globalunitedfc.com/, Einlauf zum Spiel: zu sehen sind Lutz Pfannenstiel und Stieg Toefting

Former professional footballer Lutz Pfannenstiel, in the white jersey, is active against climate change

All that travel seems to contradict Pfannenstiel’s stand on climate change. After his professional career came to an end, the German keeper founded Global United, an association that tries to draw attention to climate change through football matches and spectacular events.

Pfannenstiel said you need at least one extreme or unusual and media-savvy event a year to get people’s attention. That’s why he’s planning a star-studded match in Antarctica, of all places, in 2014 – ahead of the World Cup in Brazil.

“Nothing like this has ever been done before and probably won't be done again,” Pfannenstiel said. “Of course, there's no proper stadium there with all the bells and whistles. It will be a really simple game on an airfield.”

Plenty of good intentions

There's no dearth of good and well-intentioned sporting events to fight climate change and raise awareness about environmental issues. Solar-powered roofs are being installed on a growing number of stadiums.

Green, energy-saving events have long become a standard feature in big events such as the Olympic Games. In the upcoming London Olympics, for example, 9 percent of the electricity needed to power the events will come from renewable sources. Still, it's a far cry from the 20 percent that London organizers had originally hoped to reach.

Symbolic gestures, too, are on the rise. European football's governing body, UEFA, recently participated in the World Wildlife Fund's Earth Year celebrations, shutting off all the lights at its headquarters in Switzerland for an hour on a Saturday evening.

The head of the UEFA Fair Play and Social Responsibility Committee, Peter Gillieron, encouraged people to convince friends, family and colleagues to make a positive contribution in the fight against climate change. “For example, you could go to work by foot instead of by car,” Gillieron said.

Too much football ruining the climate?

Nevertheless, Gillieron failed to address the high environmental cost incurred by UEFA’s numerous football games.

Fans at the stadium during the 2010 World Cup

Many fans follow their teams around the world

Indeed, the number of games and tournaments in the UEFA calendar has skyrocketed thanks to changed rules and a growing number of member states.

In 1991, the European Cup – the predecessor to the Champions League - involved 58 matches. In the current Champions League season, though, there are 212 games. The number of youth tournaments and women’s football competitions has exploded as well.

Every week, hundreds of planes carry footballers and their fans around Europe, transporting them from one stadium to the next. And that means big business: more games mean higher revenues from television broadcasting rights, and more money for the industry.

That, say critics, is in large part why football associations and organizations are avoiding the problem, despite the obvious - reducing the number of games would b a good opportunity to ease the burden on the environment.

UEFA president Michel Platini (Foto: ddp)

UEFA says fans are responsible for their own carbon footprints

When asked about its environmental responsibility, UEFA passed the buck onto the fans. "It is the responsibility of fans to compensate their individual carbon emission when they travel to an away game and we encourage them to use public transport whenever possible," UEFA said in an official statement.

Even Lutz Pfannenstiel remains wary of reducing the number of games. “That would mean intervening in the competition,” he said, pointing instead to smaller successes by Bundesliga clubs in slashing water consumption and setting up carpooling networks for youth leagues.

Changing mindsets not easy

James Atkins, chairman of an emissions trading company called Vertis, says little has changed in sports and athletics.

“There are tons of stupid ideas out there that are not good for the environment,” Atkins said, referring to the Premier League’s erstwhile plans to stage a game on a different continent for promotional reasons. The idea didn’t get very far: FIFA lodged an appeal and the Premier League dropped its cause.

In 2010, James Atkins released his book “Climate Change for Football Fans,“ where football metaphors are used to describe the Herculean battle against climate change.

Atkins said football players, too, often fail to set a good example. “When they’re young, they do silly things like having a bunch of Ferraris in their garage,” he said.

But Atkins also points the blame at football officials, who encourage fans to walk instead of drive to work to reduce their carbon footprint, while at the same time expanding their own lucrative business at a high cost to the environment.

Author: Martin Reeh /ss
Editor: Sonia Phalnikar

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