Climate change: how UEFA was caught offside over flights

It’s probably fair to say the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) is more demonstrably aware of its contribution to climate change than your average international federation.

And it’s probably fair to say it does more than most federations to offset harmful emissions linked to its core activities – in this case fans travelling across the continent to watch football games.

Yet, a quirk of fate, which has seen four English clubs qualify for the finals of Europe’s main club competitions, has thrown a harsh spotlight on the union’s arcane decision-making process.

As the world finally wakes up to the dangers of climate change, fans of Liverpool and Tottenham will travel to Madrid, in Spain, for the Champions League final, while fans of Arsenal and Chelsea will make an almost 6,000-mile round trip to Baku, in Azerbaijan, for the Europa League finals.

It has been estimated that the 45,000 fans travelling to both finals will emit around 35,490 tonnes of carbon dioxide. This is not just inexcusable from an environmental perspective – it means a lot of pointless hassle and expense for spectators, too. By sticking rigidly to selection policies that often seem bewildering, they are given their critics, including hard-pressed fans, an open goal.

Unfortunately for UEFA it doesn’t end there.

Next year’s Euro 2020 finals are being held in a new transcontinental format that will greatly increase the amount of travel for supporters as their teams move back and forth across Europe.

What, then, is driving this madness?

To some extent, good manners. Federations, of all types, are acutely conscience of sharing out the spoils between their member associations. A culture of politesse reigns, where fringe members have to be encouraged and more established ones shown a certain amount of due deference.

But there is also, undoubtedly, a resigned sense of ‘this is how things are’.

A culture of air travel is almost in the DNA of large international member-based organisations. You can hear the exasperated cry of board members as they try to come to terms with their environmental responsibilities – ‘but international meetings require air travel, what can we do?’

Well the first thing they can do is own the problem – and then accept that there are things that can be done about it, and then get on with doing them. In UEFA’s case it might simply be a case of delaying a decision on where to host cup finals until it knows which teams are competing – and then choosing somewhere equidistance for both sets of supporters. If that means rotating between Spain, England, Germany and Italy, then this is something UEFA will have explain to its members.

For associations in general, especially those organising large international congresses, the issue of air travel is not a problem that is going to go away.  Instead it is likely to intensify until they can ignore it no longer. They would be wise to tackle it now – before somebody else cries foul!