Euro 2020 - The climate cost of a competition held across the continent

First published by The Athletic, this investigation examines the environmental impact of a historic Euro 2020 tournament hosted across a number of cities throughout Europe.

Published: 6 October 2021 - 11.00am

In December 2012 it was decided by UEFA that Euro 2020 would be a pan-European tournament to mark the competition’s 60th anniversary.

The idea was first mooted by Michel Platini, the former UEFA president, on the eve of the 2012 final between Spain and Italy after he suggested it could be held in “12 or 13 cities” across the continent.

Nine years later — there was a 12-month delay due to a global pandemic — the Frenchman’s vision became a reality.

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Euro 2020 spanned 11 countries, four time zones, saw 24 teams take part and ended with Italy beating England on penalties at Wembley Stadium.

The initial plan was for there to be 12 host cities — as opposed to 11 — but Dublin missed out after they failed to give UEFA the required assurances that supporters would be able to attend games. Seville also replaced Bilbao as a host city in April after it was unable to guarantee it could host fans too.

And while the football on display was joyous, inspiring and much-needed after a bleak 18 months, it’s difficult to ignore the wider issues associated with a pan-European tournament.

In total, the 24 participating teams travelled a combined 118,156km — from host city to host city — across Amsterdam (Netherlands), Baku (Azerbaijan), Bucharest (Romania), Budapest (Hungary), Copenhagen (Denmark), Glasgow (Scotland), London (England), Munich (Germany), Rome (Italy), Saint Petersburg (Russia) and Seville (Spain).

“You have to start with the logic that you can’t play football on a broken planet”
- Tim Crosland, Plan B Earth

It’s important to note, however, that the overall miles travelled will be significantly higher than that figure as The Athletic hasn’t taken into account the various journeys required to get from the national side’s training base to wherever they’re playing, including travel to the hotel and so on.

“You have to start with the logic that you can’t play football on a broken planet,” says Tim Crosland, the director of Plan B Earth, a charity that advances strategic legal action to tackle climate change.

“You can see how you can present this as a wonderful cosmopolitan thing that opens up football to all these communities. If it wasn’t for the environmental impact, then one could see that,” he added.

Of the 24 teams taking part in Euro 2020, Switzerland covered 13,396km, which is more than any other side, even though they were knocked out in the quarter-finals.

Their opening tie saw them travel to Baku to face Wales, they then had to fly to Rome and play Italy before heading back to Baku and going up against Turkey. After progressing out of Group A, they had to go to Bucharest to play France.

After winning that game, they were rewarded with a trip to Saint Petersburg, where they met Spain in the quarter-final, eventually losing on penalties.

Hungary, who didn’t make it out of their group, covered the least distance, travelling only 561km. Their opening two games against Portugal and France were played at the Puskas Arena in front of a full crowd, with their final match in Munich against Germany.

England played six of their seven matches at Wembley, meaning their only trip was to Rome and back to play Ukraine, totalling 2,866km.

At Euro 2016 in France, England travelled 3,679km while they covered 6,630km at Euro 2012 in Poland/Ukraine and 3,520km in Portugal 2004.

Of the home nation sides, Wales racked up the most kilometres (8,584km). Their opening two matches were played in Baku, with their final group tie taking place in Rome against Italy. They then travelled to Amsterdam in the last 16 to face — and lose to — Denmark.

Italy were in the air for 3,267km on their way to Euro 2020 glory, having played in Amsterdam, Munich and London.

“Two or three years ago, nobody was talking about this at all”
- David Goldblatt, Football For Future

Campaigners say we need to cut down on flying because greenhouse gases, produced when fuel is burned, are the “root cause” of global warming. Previous Euros had been limited to one or two countries so there were far fewer long-distance journeys and flying.

Aleksander Ceferin, the UEFA president, acknowledged in November 2019 that while Euro 2020 would involve more air travel, the carbon footprint would be offset by the fact new infrastructure and transportation links wouldn’t need to be built.

“The nature of the tournament means there are many benefits over a traditional one,” he said. “In addition to being able to take the matches to more diverse communities across Europe, there is no need either to build a host of new stadia or the transport links that they require, which carry a huge environmental impact.

“Working with South Pole (an organisation which helps businesses compensate their carbon footprint by investing in renewable energy and development projects around the world), we are supporting the activities of the Gold Standard carbon reduction projects, which will support local communities and be of lasting value to the planet.”

As part of its work with South Pole, UEFA committed to planting 50,000 trees in each of the Euro 2020 host countries (600,000 in total). The Euros also started and finished with an electric car delivering the match ball, which prompted a reaction from most people, whether it was being puzzled or finding it amusing.

But while the governing body has pledged to fight climate change, the fact they are sponsored by Gazprom, the largest natural gas supplier to Europe, and AntChain, the biggest blockchain platform in China and ByBit, a cryptocurrency exchange company, suggests otherwise.

For context, according to Digiconomist, a single bitcoin transaction will use the same amount of power as the average American household does in a month. One transaction is also equivalent to the carbon footprint of watching 138,762 hours of YouTube.

“It’s greenwashing and it’s dishonest,” Crosland adds when asked if UEFA’s message about sustainability can be taken seriously given its sponsors. “It’s not about planting your trees and then doubling your carbon emissions, that’s pretty counter-productive.

“If UEFA has got the funds to be planting trees, and some of those plans are well thought out and some aren’t, then that’s great. But to be removing all the advantage of that by hosting a tournament that guarantees far more carbon emissions is not a good message.”

While UEFA’s approach to sustainability can appear questionable because of who they receive money from, David Goldblatt, the chair of Football for Future, acknowledges the fact they are trying to change.

“UEFA could do better, but have a look at what’s going on at the Copa America where there is no environmental policy of any kind,” he told The Athletic. “We all have a go at UEFA, and rightly so, but let’s also recognise that they are pioneers.

“By the time everybody else has caught up with UEFA, I suspect they will be further down the line. They are re-writing their whole sustainability and carbon emissions policy at the moment.

“On the multiple-city idea, that was a romantic gesture by Platini. He wasn’t thinking about it (the environmental impact). The decision was made in 2012 and what institution has not made some bad carbon decisions in the last 30 or 40 years?

“The UN Sports Climate Action framework was the IOC, FIFA and UEFA — in conversation with others — but they (UEFA) launched that conversation. We can have a debate about what’s in the framework but you should never let the perfect be the enemy of the good because we need to start somewhere. UEFA have done that.”

Katie Cross, founder of Pledgeball, a charity that encourages football fans to make sustainable lifestyle choices in support of their team, believes it’s crucial organisations such as UEFA get their messaging right.

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“If you have UEFA and footballers saying, ‘Yeah, I’m not perfect, but we are all on this journey together’ and they start making changes, then people will go along with it,” she said.

“At the moment it is being marketed as something that is only for a few. There is a real stereotype around people who address climate change, and that messaging needs to change.

“What people don’t realise is that fans haven’t mobilised to do something about it. If we all did that by making small changes, then the collective impact would be massive.”

While everyone will have different views on whether a pan-European tournament was a good idea or not, Crosland, Goldblatt and Cross all agreed on one thing — that a real statement of intent from UEFA would be to end their partnerships with companies that cause a significant impact on the environment.

“That would be incredibly powerful and I think it would be vital given where the discussions are right now,” Crosland explained.

“That’s the sort of thing that has to happen if we are going to be realistic about this.

“We’ve got to have people making those bold statements otherwise we drift on towards catastrophe.”

Goldblatt, however, believes those conversations are already taking place.

“Two or three years ago, nobody was talking about this at all,” he said. “People had an issue with Gazprom but would never link it to the climate crisis. Over the last year or so, it’s begun. You can’t be oblivious to it. There have been a number of campaigns on social media about banning certain advertising. That conversation has started.”

The full details of the sustainability projects UEFA has invested in won’t be published until the final carbon impact assessment, which will now be put together as the tournament has finished.

Due to confidentiality clauses within their deal with South Pole, the governing body are unable to disclose how much money they have invested.

So far, a total of 100,000 trees have been planted in Amsterdam and Baku, forming part of their 600,000 pledge in all the host countries combined ahead of Euro 2020.

However, the project is yet to be pursued on the other cities due to reasons linked to the pandemic.

UEFA will also be reaching out to host stadiums to track how much waste they were able to recycle and reuse as part of their commitment to hosting a more sustainable tournament.