The Premier League’s unrivaled global appeal has seen sold-out stadiums around the world this summer – with fans spread across continents getting to see their heroes in real life.
After two years of travel restrictions due to the coronavirus, most clubs in the English top flight have opted to play matches abroad on money-making tours, while some have opted for more low-key training camps abroad.
But after calls for sport to use the pandemic as an opportunity to redefine its role in the climate impact, the return to huge numbers of planes has raised questions about the cost to the environment.
Villa top CO2 emissions
This table shows a BBC Sport estimate of each club’s emissions in order of who has produced the most CO2 from air travel.
BBC Sport has not included broadcasts of home games for the purposes of this comparison, as air travel – mile for mile – is more damaging way to travel for the environment.
|Premier League teams||Air miles traveled in pre-season||C02 emissions per passenger (in kilograms)||Carbon emissions per soccer team in metric tons|
|City of Manchester||9505||1123||33.69|
|Brighton & Hove Albion||1916||296||8.88|
|West Ham United||1206||278||8.34|
|of the city of Leicester||564||134||4.02|
|BBC Sport’s calculations are based on an estimated average of 30 people – players and staff – traveling per club|
The club that produced the most CO2 during their pre-season tour was Aston Villa.
Their tour of Australia included games against Leeds United, Brisbane Roar and Manchester United, while Steven Gerrard’s side also flew to France to play Rennes today.
In total, Villa has emitted 87.63 metric tonnes of CO2, equivalent to 2,921kg per passenger, from five flights this summer – with the longest journey from the UK to Brisbane.
The total carbon dioxide emissions of the Villa team is equivalent to driving from London to Manchester 790 times. or a person flying from London to Los Angeles 136 times. or 17 times the annual emissions of the average UK citizen (pre-pandemic).
Leeds, who traveled to Australia to play Brisbane Roar, Villa and Crystal Palace, were the second highest. Their tour resulted in the Yorkshire club emitting 82.08 metric tonnes over four flights, equivalent to 15.8 times the annual emissions of the average UK citizen.
A number of clubs appearing at the bottom of our table, such as Brighton and Bournemouth, have flown to Europe for training camps and low-key friendlies.
Brighton chief executive Paul Mullen told BBC Sport that sustainability was “not a major element” in their pre-season plans, but added that the club were in the “very early stages” of developing a strategy “to be a sustainable business”.
Mullen told BBC Sport that many clubs will have overseas tours built into commercial deals designed to “further extend the brand” in global markets.
He said: “I think there is an expectation to be a good citizen, to be a leader in that and to show good practice where we can but, at the same time, recognizing our business also poses some challenges.
“We realize it’s a collective responsibility. The Premier League is developing its own sustainability strategy and I suspect that what will emerge from this is a strategy where clubs entering the Premier League have certain minimum commitments that they have to meet as part of that commitment.
“I think football will always be the driving force in terms of the business and we have to realize that and the environment we operate in, but I think we can align and integrate, improving our sustainability and green credentials through that.”
BBC Sport contacted several clubs for comment as they plan and deliver their own pre-season tours, instead of the Premier League.
The league – which has signed up to the UN’s Sport Climate Action Framework – has a sustainability strategy that includes sharing best practice with its clubs.
Clubs’ climate claims were judged on behaviour
Dr Russell Seymour, chief executive of Basis – the British Association for Sustainable Sport:
“Flying to distant countries for pre-season friendlies is certainly not about preparing for the upcoming season, but about expanding the brand’s reach and increasing the fan base, and therefore revenue, in those countries.
“Interestingly, just six clubs accounted for two-thirds of the total CO2 emissions. Two of these clubs were tied at the top of the Sport Positive Sustainability League in 2021 and thus recognized for the good work they do at their own grounds.
“Air travel is often demonised; its impacts are significant and we, as a society, should fly less. It is more complicated than simply condemning all flights, but clubs must understand that the credibility of their sustainability claims will be judged by their most visible behaviors and actions.
“Football, in particular, has a significant influence on what behaviors are acceptable and what are not.
“Ultimately the decision to undertake a tour in a distant country should be in line with the club’s own vision and values and whether, as the effects of the climate and ecological emergency continue to grow, it fits with the attitudes and the expectations of the public and the fans of the club itself”.
Why do clubs fly so much?
The Climate Change Commission, the UK government’s adviser on the matter, has requested an urgent plan to reduce the number of flights.
Manchester United, another of the clubs with the highest emissions this summer, said it “recognizes the impact of international travel on climate change” and offset its carbon emissions with investment in reforestation project in Western Australia.
A spokesman admitted to BBC Sport that “you could argue that all travel is avoidable”, but added that pre-season tours “provide vital preparation time for players and management ahead of a new season”.
They added: “Furthermore, they represent a significant commercial opportunity, not just for Manchester United but for the wider appeal of English football.
“That is why for the first full pre-season tour since the start of the pandemic we have offset the carbon emissions produced by air travel.
“We understand that this does not have a direct impact on the environment, but we are committed to taking the necessary steps to reduce our carbon footprint. We also believe that by continuing to promote this project we can educate others and help protect our planet.”
Premier League clubs lost on aggregate £1bn in revenue during the 2019-20 season and across all of Europe’s top clubs, losses for the two years affected by Covid between 2019-2021 were calculated 7 billion euros (£5.83 billion) from UEFA president Aleksandar Ceferin.
These losses were from empty stadiums, a reshuffled calendar, television discounts and commercial and sponsorship reductions.
In addition, fans who might not be able to travel to England to see their clubs in action were given the opportunity to watch matches.
The United spokesman added: “Manchester United is a globally supported football club and while we provide the opportunity for our millions of fans around the world to see the team in person, we also recognize the need to do so responsibly.”
How have we processed the data?
These BBC Sport calculations are likely to be a very careful underestimate of the actual numbers.
We have not taken into account the unknown amounts of luggage or the possible extra staff on the larger scale tours. We have also assumed economy class on commercial planes as a baseline, while Premier League clubs may have flown:
- business class – which can increase emissions by around 2.75*
- first class – which can increase emissions by around 7.4*
- by private jet which multiplies emissions and creates additional flights compared to existing commercial airlines
We have calculated air miles and emissions using this website – but they haven’t added the multiplication method to capture the “maximum climate impact” at high altitude, known as “radiative forcing”.
How sustainable do Premier League clubs claim to be?
Tottenham and Liverpool were the joint top clubs in Green League 2021 – a table measuring the viability of all 20 sides of the peak. Tottenham players travel to domestic matches in biofuel coaches, reducing emissions from the team’s coaches by more than 80%, and Liverpool have committed to decarbonising the fuel through the use of sustainable aviation fuel in the future, which will also reduce emissions by 80%.
Other clubs have also committed to reducing their emissions.
Bradford was also announced last November they would keep the same jersey for two seasons, saving money and helping the environment.
BBC Sport sent two journalists to Thailand, Australia and the United States to cover many of the Premier League clubs on parts of their tours, along with a number of other media and press agencies.
Additional reporting by Dave Lockwood, Editorial Lead for Sustainability, BBC Sport