The Worlds First “Net Zero Carbon Football Match” – Valid Effort or Missed the Target?

This Saturday’s premier league fixture between Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea is billed as the world’s first “Net Zero Carbon Football Match”. This caught my eye as I am often stunned by the vast number of corporate entities claiming to have achieved or targeting achievement of Net Zero but a small amount of digging reveals very little meaningful substance to these claims. I was curious as to what action Tottenham, who are hosting the match are taking in line with this claim.

Granted, a Net Zero business is not a straightforward objective. This following definition of what Net Zero means for a corporation is not hugely digestible to those with only a passing knowledge :

‘To reach a state of net zero emissions for companies implies two conditions:

  1. To achieve a scale of value-chain emission reductions consistent with the depth of abatement achieved in pathways that limit warming to 1.5°C with no or limited overshoot and;
  2. To neutralise the impact of any source of residual emissions that remains unfeasible to be eliminated by permanently removing an equivalent amount of atmospheric carbon dioxide.’

No such formal definition is in place for football matches but let’s see how these principles would apply to a such an event.

Value Chain Emission Reductions

The ‘value chain emissions’ are all emissions that are incurred in the process of delivering a product or a service. These can be categorised into emission Scopes 1, 2 and 3. In this context the emissions to be reduced, relevant to the match in question will include:

Scope 1 (Direct Emissions): Combustion of gas or any other fuel for space heating or hot water, use of company owned vehicles, leakage of refrigerant from cooling systems in the stadium.

Scope 2 (Emissions from electricity use): Electricity use for functions such as lighting, air conditioning, catering & retail.

Scope 2 (Indirect Emissions): Water use, waste disposal, food and drink production, merchandise manufacturing, production of energy used, third party services – broadcasters, cleaners, security etc.

Residual Emissions

From the total carbon remaining after all reductions have taken place an equivalent offset should be ensured. This is traditionally thought of as the planting of trees but can also be through the funding of low carbon technologies around the globe. Given the size of the operation, calculating the size of offset required will be a considerable task for Tottenham to undertake.

What is actually different about this match?

Interestingly, in the press release for this match Tottenham state that the emission reduction and removal will only be applicable to “direct emissions” – Scope 1 only. However, as listed above these represent only a small amount of the contributing sources to carbon emissions associated with the match. Without a detailed data set on all emissions sources it would be difficult to determine the split between emission Scopes. However, I am willing to estimate that Scope 2 & 3 emissions account for a significant proportion of the total quantity.

Despite this, most of the measures listed in Tottenham’s press release relate to indirect emissions (Scope 3) such as encouragement of supporters to make sustainable choices e.g. use of public transport, cycling  to the match, choosing a plant-based food option and use of water cartons opposed to plastic bottles. More reading of their website revealed these are really just the business as usual activities that have placed the club at the top of a UN backed 2020 Premier League Sustainability Table.

The only action I can see that does not occur routinely at the club is use of biofuel powered coach travel for the home and visiting team. This would only be applicable to reducing direct emissions if the squad usually use vehicles owned by the club to travel to the stadium.

The offsetting of direct emissions will be achieved through reforestation projects in the UK and abroad.

Is this action meaningful?

There is a bit of misalignment between what Tottenham say they are doing, what they are actually doing and what I think they should be doing. But is there much more that could be done? Already top of the 2020 Premier League Sustainability Table through good practice and policies, and with a shiny new stadium full of efficient building systems, there aren’t many more feasible measures that would reduce the carbon footprint of a single match other than expanding the range of the offsetting to cover the full value chain of emissions rather than direct emissions only.

What did catch my eye was the prospect of installation of a microgrid incorporating an off-grid battery and solar PV arrays to power the stadium which would be a significant step in decarbonising the clubs all round operations, let alone a single match. If this were to be installed, doing so in the original construction which was completed in 2019 would have surely been more practical. We will have to wait to see if this materialises.

Whilst there is little action over and above Tottenham’s business as usual activity, they should be applauded for highlighting sustainability. This topic is not often a value associated with football clubs and their supporters and in some cases appears to be almost entirely disregarded in the sport. For example, when an alternative venue was necessary for the 2021 Champions League final between two English teams, Porto was chosen. This forced 14,000 mostly British fans to travel thousands of miles across Europe to the event.

A final note is that it appears Tottenham are self-certifying this match as Net Zero and I’m sure this is replicated by many corporations. As demonstrated Tottenham’s definition of Net Zero differs from what I would expect and what I’m sure others would as well. For events like these to be truly meaningful and contribute to national decarbonisation targets ‘Net Zero’ should be an almost protected phrase only to be used if certified by an appropriate body. This has wider implications outside of singular events,  consumers make choices on the environmental impact of organisations so if two comparative products or services are both labelled as Net Zero the consumer should have confidence that they are both of equal environmental impact.


Event Press Release

Tottenham’s Environmental Approach 

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