Dublin to Baku: What's the cost of Euro 2020 for the planet?

With 51 games set for 12 cities, Euro 2020 will leave a huge carbon footprint as fans criss-cross the continent

Last November, a few days after Ireland’s Euro 2020 playoff opponents had been confirmed as Slovakia, a letter was sent to the editor of The Irish Times which read “Sir, Forget the national herd. If we want to reduce our carbon footprint, let’s stop wasting oxygen on the national football team. – Yours, etc,

Co Donegal."

The following day, in response to an article about how to get to Slovakia in March for that playoff, another letter to the editor read “Sir, I completely agree with Brian Falter (Letters, November 21st) about the environmental impact of international football.

“Sadly, judging by the Irish Times article, ‘Slovakia v Ireland: Cheap routes, ticket info and the price of a pint’, our breath is being wasted. Nowhere in this article does it mention the serious carbon footprint from flying.

“Can I suggest The Irish Times might in future call attention to the environmental impact of options when recommending ways of getting to international sporting events?

“I am sure the best fans in the world will be only too delighted to see the climate crisis not having to be decided on penalties for once. Yours, etc,

Florence, Italy."

Given that the remit of this column is to look into consumer issues in the world of sport we decided to take note.

From the very outset Euro 2020 looks like a major carbon footprint problem and much of that impact will come from fans. With 51 matches involving 24 teams being held in 12 cities across Europe, from Dublin in the west to Baku 5,233km away in the east, it’s quite clear that the environmental impact of this tournament, particularly from the perspective of travel, will be very significant and considerably higher than any other European Championship held in just one country.

The idea of hundreds of thousands of fans as well as officials and teams flying around Europe between June 12th and July 12th probably isn’t the greatest image for Uefa in a time when the extent of the worldwide climate crisis is seemingly only getting worse and we wake up each morning to new images of Australia burning.

For teams that will play in two locations in the group stages – that is to say 18 out of the 24 sides – a run to the semi-finals or final would see them and their fans travel to five different European cities, potentially thousands of kilometres apart, over the space of one month.

Indeed, if a single fan were to attend all 36 group games they would produce a total of 13.3 tonnes of CO2 just from travel alone to each which is the equivalent to charging 1.7 million smartphones or of 2.8 cars being driven continuously for a full year.

For some groups there won’t be much difference between this tournament and previous ones held in one country as some of the host cities are paired closely together. For instance, Group D will create the least carbon footprint as England, Croatia, Scotland and Czech Republic play in Glasgow and London where many fans will move between the two on trains.

Previous experience

However, on the other end of the scale, Group A is likely to produce almost three times more pollution than Group D from travel alone. In Group A, Wales, Switzerland and Turkey will move between Rome and Baku while hosts Italy will play all three of their matches in their capital city.

For Wales fans the first two matches will require a trip of 4,200km to the Azerbaijani capital where they will meet Switzerland on June 13th and Turkey four days later before a 3,100km journey back to Rome to take on Italy. Those distances, it should be noted, are as the crow flies and with little or no options for direct flights, fans will in fact travel much further than that via the two or even three flights they will take to reach Azerbaijan.

At least Wales fans will have previous experience as it was only two months ago that they were required to do the same journey to Baku to see their side beat Azerbaijan in a Euro 2020 qualifier.

Apart from the huge financial costs involved in travelling at least 7,300km to see three matches in the space of eight days, having a team from western Europe and a team from central Europe go almost halfway to Beijing to play a football match against each other looks more than a little strange amid warnings of the dire consequences of climate change.

Add to that the fact that, after playing Wales, Switzerland will head back to Rome to take on Italy before then returning to Baku for their final group match against Turkey and it’s fair to start wondering just how baffled future generations might be when they look back on the logistics of this tournament.

In the year 2100 will it look even more ridiculous that thousands of people, in the space of eight days, travelled from Geneva to Baku for a match, then from Baku to Rome for another match and then back from Rome to Baku (a total of 10,500km) before – provided Switzerland get through – moving on to Bilbao, London, Bucharest, Glasgow or Amsterdam for the round of 16?

Since Uefa president Michel Platini announced in 2012 that Euro 2020 would take place across 12 different cities in Europe – a “romantic” way of celebrating the 60th birthday of the tournament – there have been plenty of questions about just how environmentally damaging the tournament could be and current president Aleksander Ceferin has acknowledged that it will “pollute a lot”.

To combat the pollution, Uefa have pledged to plant a total of 600,000 trees – 50,000 in each of the host nations – which they say will offset the effects of 280,000 tonnes of CO2 which will be produced during the tournament.

Uefa has worked with South Pole – a global sustainability solutions provider – to attempt to combat the environmental effects of the tournament and a spokesperson for the organisation says that travel between venues is the main form of pollution.

“The goal is to organise Euro 2020 in an environmentally sustainable way by applying sustainable event management criteria. Up to 80 per cent of the environmental impact of such a mega event comes from travel. This is why Uefa has made smart mobility and flight carbon compensation a priority. The aim is to compensate the carbon emissions of the flights of all travelling supporters,” South Pole said in a statement.

Transport pass

In total, Uefa and South Pole estimate that the travel of fans, officials and teams at Euro 2020 will produce around 405,000 tonnes of carbon and the organisation has pledged to offset all of that through the Euro 2020 forests as well as other projects such as providing efficient cookstoves to people in Rwanda to reduce the amount of open fire cooking which produces carbon dioxide and methane.

Uefa has also said that it will provide free public transport for fans in the host cities – something they have done before in major tournaments and at the likes of the Champions League final where a supporter’s match ticket acts as a public transport pass.

Uefa has said that Euro 2020, despite the huge travel involved, will be their most environmentally conscious yet and South Pole say that the focus is not so much on scaling back sporting events, but rather “scaling up the work that leagues, teams and venues are doing to address the environmental footprint of sports,” and they want the industry to “leverage its social influence to enact global climate action”.

Uefa is one such organisation which has the influence and the reach to create real change and, on the face of it, they do seem to be pushing the environmental agenda around the tournament.

However, there is little getting away from the fact that asking fans to travel thousands of miles to a neutral venue to see their team is starting to look less “romantic” and more like an outdated concept.

– This article is part of a series of consumer-based sports stories. If you have any queries, stories or issues regarding travel, tickets, sport on television or anything else you can email rcroke@irishtimes.com or via Twitter @Ruaidhri_Croke.