Why football will (quickly) have to adapt to climate change

In recent years, many major sporting gatherings have been jostled by extreme weather events: a typhoon that forces the report of several matches during the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan, unbreathable air during the Tennis Open in Australia 2020 because of the bushfires, relocation of the Olympic marathon further north to escape the oppressive heat of Tokyo. The situation is similar for the Winter Olympics, whose future is uncertain.

And football is not spared.

The best national teams have gathered in Qatar to compete in the 22nd edition of the FIFA World Cup. For the first time in its history, the event, which, moreover, is the subject of several social and environmental criticisms, is held at the end of autumn due to the strong heat that affects the country during the summer and which could affect the health of spectators and athletes.

Will there still be a FIFA World Cup in 2100? What impact does pollution have on player performance? Do we have to make a choice between the love of football and the fight against climate change?

Researchers in the sciences of physical activity, we shed light on the impacts of climate change on the football of tomorrow.

​Football: victim or executioner of climate change?

The combination of historical data and current emission scenarios reveals that rising sea levels, intensification of heat waves, increased risk of megafires and floods, and degradation of air quality air constituting major threats to the practice of amateur and professional football. However, football is not just a casualty of climate change. Indeed, it contributes greatly to this, as evidenced by the annual carbon footprint of Premier League (English Football Championship) players, estimated at 29 tonnes of CO₂ equivalent, and this, just for travel.

This represents almost 3 times the annual carbon footprint of UK citizens, and far exceeds the global target of 2 tonnes per person, set to meet the commitments of the Paris Agreement (COP21).

2019 Brazil match interrupted due to fire – (YouTube screenshot)

​Heat, bad weather, floods: what impact on practice?

In the short term, the main concerns relate to poor air quality and heat, which could affect the health of spectators, sports workers and athletes, as well as their performance. Some sports associations such as Major League Soccer (MLS) or Alberta Soccer in Canada already impose safety thresholds in order to regulate the holding of events during episodes of high heat and pollution peaks.

Since it has become apparent that these conditions will be increasingly developed in the near future (mercury is expected to exceed 30°C more than 50 days a year in several Canadian cities, including Montreal and Toronto, by 2050-2080) , it is possible to estimate a greater emergence of reports and cancellations of training and matches. Added to this is the potential impact of fires on infrastructure as well as the degradation of natural grass pitches due to dry spells and summer watering restrictions. These lands could also be affected by increasingly difficult winter conditions.

In England, in 2013, a study already reported a loss of 3 to 13 weeks of use of certain natural terrains due to more intense rainfall. In the longer term, rising seas and flooding are more likely to pose a temporary or permanent operational threat to club operations and therefore jeopardize the future of football in some parts of the world if greenhouse gas emissions continue their current trends.

According to a model-based report, the stadiums of 23 professional teams in England could face partial or total flooding in every season by 2050. Such events have already occurred in Montpellier, France (2014) and Carlisle in England (2015), rendering the land unusable for several months.

Men carrying boards wade through a flooded soccer field in the Jukyty neighborhood of Asuncion, Paraguay, April 4, 2019. More than 20,000 people were evacuated after torrential rains caused major flooding
Men carrying boards wade through a flooded soccer field in the Jukyty neighborhood of Asuncion, Paraguay, April 4, 2019. More than 20,000 people were evacuated after torrential rains caused major flooding – AP Photo /Jorge Saenz

In certain contexts, synthetic pitches offer an interesting alternative when a natural pitch is unavailable or too degraded; moreover, they can be used over a longer period of the year. However, the privileged data that these grounds are prone to generate heat islands, with a surface temperature which can be 12 to 22°C higher than the temperature of a natural grass. This temperature level increases the heat stress experienced by athletes and, by extension, the risks to their health and performance. The same is true for the health of referees, coaches and spectators.

​Impacts on the health and performance of players

Air pollution negatively impacts the quantity and quality of passes, distance traveled and high-intensity efforts made by professional players. Pollution peaks could even drastically reduce the number of goals scored during matches.

There is empirical evidence, demonstrated over several decades, that the odds of winning are higher when playing at home. In a polluted city, this increase is accentuated when the opposing team comes from a less polluted city. Why ? Because the host team is used to higher average air pollution, and its performance is therefore less consumed.

Heat and dehydration can also affect the performance of athletes and, consequently, the quality of the matches and the spectacle offered. However, analyzes carried out on the matches of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil seem to indicate that the quality of the game was not affected by the oppressive heat. However, these results should be interpreted with caution, since elite athletes generally tolerate heat and dehydration better than untrained individuals.

It is therefore possible to think that the harmful effects on health and performance would be greater in amateur athletes, or in older players with specific health conditions.

Japan national team players hydrate during their training on the eve of the match between Japan and New Zealand at the FIFA Women's World Cup in Bochum, Germany, June 26, 2011
Team Japan players hydrate during training ahead of the match between Japan and New Zealand at the FIFA Women’s World Cup in Bochum, Germany June 26, 2011 – AP Photo / Martin Meissner

​Urgent need for change: from a reactive to a proactive approach

Football, through its scale and its ability to reach a large audience, can play a major role in the current ecological transition, in particular through strategies for mitigating and adapting to climate change.

The International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) was one of the first international sports federations to commit to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change – Sport for Climate Action, developing its own climate strategy. Concretely, FIFA has established several initiatives that revolve around three main objectives: (1) making football ready for climate action; (2) protect iconic tournaments from the impacts of climate change and (3) ensure the development of resilient football.

In the process, in order to mitigate the impacts of climate change on its operation, the world of football will very quickly have to move from a reactive approach to a proactive approach, by putting actions in place:

  • Prohibit sponsors from fossil fuels;
  • Reorganize competitions to reduce travel for athletes and fans, requiring national professional leagues to recommend train travel for short trips;
  • Promote public or shared transportation for fans and amateur athletes;
  • Reduce the vulnerability of practitioners and spectators by adapting regulations and activities: more effective refreshment breaks, possibility of making more changes during matches, revision of the rules concerning the duration of matches in the event of a tie, moving of matches to cooler times of the day.

Since football is not the only sport to be both victim and victim of climate change, urgent action by the sporting world as a whole is necessary to continue to play in a fun and safe way.

Academic expertise, journalistic requirement
Academic expertise, journalistic requirement – ㅤThe Conversation

This analysis was written by Thomas Deshayes, postdoctoral researcher in the sciences of physical activity at the University of Sherbrooke (Canada), and Paquito Bernard, professor of sciences of physical activity at the University of Quebec in Montreal (Canada ).

The original article was published on the site of The conversation.

Leave a Comment