Parallels between football’s ESL and climate crisis

A post about football might not be the most obvious fit for an environmental blog. But bear with, there are parallels to be drawn. This week, we have had Earth Day, an annual event used by new United States President Joe Biden to try to set the climate agenda he promised in his election campaign.

But in football we also had “What on earth?!” day, when six clubs from the Premier League announced their involvement in a European Super League (ESL) project. A closed door one, just for the elite.

It sparked protests from fans. Socially distanced? Perhaps. But respectful nonetheless. No riot police needed. These were non violent, in-person protests demonstrating outrage at the idea. A notion fostered by money-focused owners without even consultation of their football managers or teams, perhaps not wholly even their boards of directors. Although a report today suggests the media teams were briefed a week ago.

As Sir Alex Ferguson famously exclaimed when Manchester United won the Champions League in 1999: “Football. Bl***y hell!”

Shock plan straight in at the top

Now, I love sport, as do many people. But it seems like hell indeed that it should be the main headline news on television – unless it is doing good. I mean the top item. If sport controversy makes the top six or 10 items, so be it. But number one above all other crisis at present? Not even Greta Thunberg, the teenage climate activist, saying that she wouldn’t attend COP 26 unless all countries had the chance to do so reached top billing. And that’s surely more important, being climate change related?

But that’s just how shocking the ESL proposal was. These clubs could break away and play in a competition that suited them and nobody else. There would be no promotion or relegation to the competition, and the rich would simply get richer. Totally anti-humanitarian, anti-competitive and against every principle of fair play.

The crux of these owners’ reasoning is as John Barnes, the former Liverpool footballer, explained on one television programme. The owners of clubs have made their wealth by thinking simply about money. Therefore they can afford to buy clubs – and making money is the way they think. Not about fans or fairness.

Therefore, whether the fans agreed with the idea didn’t seem to enter their thinking. There was a disconnect, a huge misjudgement of sentiment as fans turned against their own clubs, let alone others. As PR disasters go, it’s hard to think of a bigger one even against Donald Trump pulling out of the Paris Agreement climate commitments: to some of his own people (particularly the coal and oil industries), his decision was a delight.

No care for wider world

Here, for me, is the analogy to ESG – Environmental and Social Governance: how a company cares for the wider world and its customers.

Football – a footballer – has made huge headlines and made an enormous impact on school meals for the under privileged. He’s called Marcus Rashford. He did much to overturn the perception of footballers as greedy people who are only interested in money. (There have been plenty of exceptions over the years, with many doing plenty for charity or to help others, in or out of the public eye.)

He’s deserved his space as a lead item on the news. Football has supported the Black Lives Matter movement with the taking of the knee before games. Over the years, they have shown their support for various causes, with minutes silence for various people who have died or campaigns to support various causes, from cancer to gay rights through wearing certain coloured laces.

The suggestion of a European Super League represents everything about greed and against ESG, or equality of any kind. The biggest clubs – or their owners at least – have made various attempts down the years to discuss such a project. The idea isn’t going to go away and has legs of some sort, maybe in the form of a summer tournament as club football continues to climb in popularity against national team football.

The real life and death matters

Essentially, while sport thrills many of us it isn’t more important than life and death – as a former Liverpool manager Bill Shankly tried to claim. But the environment is a matter of life and death. Witness Ade Adepitan’s excellent series at present on iPlayer outlining how Bangladesh’s land space and crops are shrinking because of rising sea levels. How families who have practically nothing are having to move to already over-crowded cities. That makes them refugees, even in their own nation. Climate refugees. Not refugees through war, but as a direct result of the changing environment.

One easy comparison is that 1% of the world’s population causes more than half of global aviation emissions. Emissions that causing a rise in global temperatures that are melting ice caps in carbon negative-emitting Bhutan, turning them into lakes that threaten villages on lower ground through flooding. Football’s less than 1% – the people who own certain clubs – showed they thought they could trample the rest by taking their clubs solo, for profit. Through ignorance or a feeling of security, the elite can fail to show they care.

Earth Day takes its place

Therefore it was fantastic that Earth Day – by association of Biden’s pronouncements to the world – featured as the top news item a couple of days after the European Super League idea collapsed (for now).

This is the important stuff. The world’s most influential government (arguably) pulling its weight with positive vibes. Acknowledging the 2020s as a “decisive decade”. Pledges to reduce carbon emissions. New target dates. The US power sector to become carbon neutral by 2035. A hugely bold statement, considering the cold reaction Thunberg received in one coal-mining state in her series “A Year to Change the World”. Anyone else remember the Thatcher-stripping of the UK coal-mining communities? Finding alternative employment or opportunities will be key to addressing the coal and oil extraction in the United States.

Let’s think about ESG for a moment. There is the environmental impact of a business, or a nation. Many of those impacts seem obvious. Some less so. Panaroma exposed how some sewerage firms are treating rivers recently. Badly. Not reporting overflows or sticking to rules. Many companies are reducing their plastic use.

Then there is the social impact. It’s not perhaps so easy for companies to judge. But many think about the social impacts they have on people, or the benefits they could made to society. Giving staff time off to help charities. Making a charity their cause for the year. Supermarkets making pledges about excess food distribution.

Then there’s governance. Including reporting a company’s ESG in annual reports, possibly via a financial professional or using a similar framework, as supplied by the Climate Disclosure Standards Board, perhaps. Governance is about much more than that of course, being internal as well as external facing.

Investors want ESG reporting

The public, increasingly, want to buy goods from companies that consider their environmental impact. Effectively, those companies who have governance in that direction. Investors increasingly want to see that, too.

Environmental improvements – tackling the Climate Emergency – will come from three angles: Consumers demanding change; companies leading on change; Governments regulating to ensure change. You can work out your own Venn diagram, placing in Extinction Rebellion and “industry” leaders in various ways. But you can’t take away that anyone who wants to drive climate issues cares. And do the elite?

Football fans show they care by protesting about something that was quickly called off. The quicker reaction of course was online. And football fans are quick to show their opinions.

It isn’t so easy to see with the climate, despite the rise in interest and the proliferation of action groups and petitions. That’s where protests have proved effective, in person or by backing those petitions to companies and our MPs.

Do the top companies care?

Many of the elite – those in power, from politicians to industry leaders – find it hugely important to report their ESG standards. Many of them care. Maybe not personally at the very top managing director level, but the people who work for the company in various guises, from Board members to management. Elon Musk, pursing electric vehicles with vigour at Tesla, might disagree. But do those running oil or fossil-fuel heavy energy companies really care about the investments in wind, solar or even tidal energy?

Their investments in those areas are still tiny compared to exploration costs for more oil and gas. Fewer than 50% of Europe’s biggest companies are tracking their environmental impact in their annual reports, evidence from a disclose pressure group has found.

So there remains a long way to go to ensure some care about the wider impact they are having, either personally or through their work. Those money men at the top of football come from the finance world, where top executives might not realise – or mind – what happens in the environment as long as it doesn’t affect their bottom line. The ESL project just reminded us that the rich think about the rich first.

While the devil is in the detail, the US’s intended stance under Biden is a giant step in the right direction. If only he can persuade others to follow. To ask China not to base their economy on fossil fuels. Or Australia not to sell it to them. We, the public, must keep up the pressure, against all forms of greed. It’s down to us – the public – to pressure the big firms as consumers by voting with our feet. Or maybe our wallets.