There’s few institutions that have such a big following as football, says Seán McCabe. The sport has “such big potential to change the hearts and minds of people”.
McCabe, a Phibsborough resident and environmental activist, is the newly appointed climate justice officer for Bohemian Football Club.
The position is the first of its kind for Irish football.
“What’s good for the planet is good for the club, which is good for the fans,” he said on the phone last Thursday.
The role will involve McCabe looking at how Bohs can reduce its carbon footprint.
“I’ve been a massive football fan my whole life but I had climate justice compartmentalised,” he says.
Fighting the monumental challenge of climate change needs to start at local community level, McCabe says.
Doing this through football clubs is perfect, he says. “It is literally an open goal.”
Waste in the Stadium
The average football fan in Europe generates 0.8 kilograms of rubbish each time they visit a stadium, says Hubert Rovers.
That’s 750,000 tonnes per year from just European football fans, he said.
Rovers is the CEO of the European Football for Development Network (EFDN), a collection of over 100 clubs “committed to social responsibility”.
Members include Premier League champions’ Liverpool and France League 1 champions Paris Saint-Germain – and now Bohemians.
The biggest impact that clubs have on the environment is perhaps not what you think, says Rovers, speaking from his office in the Netherlands on Friday.
People often think that a club’s biggest impact on the environment is the energy they use to power the stadium, Rovers says.
But there’s LED flood lighting nowadays, he says. “And if you use green energy then that’s an area you can easily tackle.”
“Transportation to clubs and to matches, not only from the team but all the fans, is one of the biggest contributions to the carbon footprint of a football club,” he says.
In Liverpool, there can be up to 55,000 fans travelling to the stadium so you can only imagine what impact that has on the environment, Rovers says.
Consider the travel that is done across Europe for the UEFA Champions League and the UEFA Europa League matches, he says.
Walk Then Run
The first step for Bohemian Football Club is an audit, McCabe says. “We’ll be looking at both energy waste and physical waste on match day.”
From there, they’ll look at how they can reduce energy consumption and how to make circular economies within the club, he says. “We have to learn to walk before we can run.”
Other clubs in Europe have already started to shrink their carbon footprints.
Some are working on schemes to get fans to travel to matches in more environmentally friendly ways, says Rover.
“In Ghent in Belgium, they have the biggest cycling storage at a football stadium,” Rovers says. In a crowd of 14,000 or 15,000, about 3,500 come by bike, he says.
Other clubs offer discount train tickets to away matches so fans don’t fly, he says.
Many German clubs tackle plastic waste by using hard plastic cups that you can return for money, he says.
“Communities actually benefit from a shared sense of climate action,” McCabe says.
It’s a bit like how Bohs is a fan-owned club, he says. “That’s a rarity in this day and age.”
“The risk is that the same sort of corporate agenda that has taken over football , might one day take over climate action,” he says.
Top-down climate action, such as a carbon tax, can be regressive, McCabe says.
“They will undoubtedly hit the poorest the hardest and risk pushing some people into fuel poverty,” he says.
Rover says that football is the perfect place to start for community-led action on climate change. “My whole belief is that football is the new church.”
“In the Netherlands not a lot of people go to church but everyone loves going to a football stadium,” he says.
Football clubs can change the mindsets of fans through leading by example, he says.
“If we don’t do anything we will have a bigger problem than football is now and I think that football should be role models in that,” Rovers says.