The beautiful game in a changing climate

Climate change is projected to impact the seasonality and intensity of extreme weather events, with more heavy rainfall occurring in the autumn in the UK – but what does this mean for the future of the UK’s most popular sport? As part of our Get Climate Ready campaign, we’ve been looking at the impact severe weather, in particular heavy rain and flooding, has on UK football.

Flooded football field, Image: Shutterstock

What is the science telling us about our future climate?

The latest UK Climate Projections (UKCP18) noted that there is an increased chance of warmer, wetter winters and hotter, drier summers as our climate continues to change. UKCP Local projections show that climate change is projected to bring about a change in the seasonality of extremes, in particular heavy hourly rainfall intensity in the autumn. This will impact on the frequency and severity of surface water flooding (pluvial flooding) particularly in urban areas. Hourly rainfall extremes that are responsible for flash flooding are expected to increase with climate change.

Elizabeth Kendon, Met Office Science Fellow, said “The UK has experienced unprecedented rainfall events in recent years, and since 1998 the UK has seen six of the ten wettest years on record. British weather is notoriously variable, making it difficult to identify underlying changes in rainfall extremes above natural variability. However, a number of recent Met Office attribution studies have shown that some recent heavy rainfall events in the UK associated with flooding can be linked to human-caused climate change. Events such as the wettest February on record in 2020, or the record-breaking rainfall seen on 3 October 2020, are expected to become more frequent by 2100 due to climate change.”

Why are we talking about football and climate change?

Football is the UK’s most watched and played sport – in 2021 roughly 1.5 million people in England played at least twice a month.

UK football is already experiencing the impacts of heavy rainfall and flooding events. In 2007 significant levels of rainfall caused the river Don to burst its banks, flooding Sheffield Wednesday’s Hillsborough Stadium. In 2015 torrential rain accompanying Storm Desmond saw Carlisle United’s Brunton Park flooded, and the club was forced out of the stadium for seven weeks.  

These events may act as a glimpse into the future of the sport, and a recent study (Rapid Transition Alliance (Playing against the clock (2020)), reported that by 2050, a quarter of UK football grounds will be flooded.

Abingdon Football Club Flooded, February 2021. Image: Shutterstock

Football for Future is seeking to build a more sustainable culture in football, raising awareness of the relevance of climate change and supporting the industry to become more environmentally sustainable. Barney Weston, Director at Football for Future, said; Climate change is the defining issue of our generation. We are seeing that the football community is waking up to the importance of taking action and Football For Future are working with clubs – from the Premier League to the non-league – to help them understand what that looks like for them.”

Grassroots football in action. Image: Grahame Madge

Grassroots at risk – what action is needed?

Though the impact of severe weather at football grounds and pitches is dependent on the level of exposure and vulnerability, grassroots football pitches are also at risk. The last comprehensive survey of grassroots football (Sports and Recreation Alliance (2014) Alliance Survey referenced in Rapid Transition Alliance: Playing against the clock (2020)) revealed that on average, around a third of grassroots pitches are already losing six weeks to two months of the year from flooding due to severe weather.

Grassroots football clubs provide enormous value to communities, offering a low entry barrier to the sport. Whilst these clubs don’t have access to the funds of league clubs, there are actions that can be taken on climate change. Individuals and the club as a whole can consider actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions – mitigating against climate change will help minimise the worst impacts in future. Clubs can also consider how they can adapt to a changing climate, with good maintenance practices important to ensuring high quality pitches. We reference guidance on this on our football and climate change webpage.

Raising awareness and encouraging action

Last weekend from 3-5 February 2023 was the first ever Green Football Weekend. The event brought together 80 of the UK’s professional football clubs, fans, families and communities to ‘unleash the power of football on climate change’. People were encouraged to take climate-friendly actions to ‘score green goals for the club they support, with over 80,000 goals scored over the course of the weekend.

Over the weekend itself, clubs across the football divisions held greener games, making their fixtures as carbon-friendly as possible through activities such as subsidising public transport for fans, using reusable bottles, announcing new commitments and even distributing wildflower seeds to fans. 40 clubs wore green armbands to show their commitment to tackling climate change.

Sarah Jacobs from the Green Football Weekend team said: “Climate change is already having dire consequences for football, from flooded pitches to sweltering summer temperatures. Football clubs and fans have a critical role to play in protecting our world. It’s brilliant to see the power of fan action inspiring clubs and the whole football community to be more ambitious.”

Talking football and climate change

Last week, Met Office meteorologist and presenter Alex Deakin caught up with Sarah and Barney as well as Met Office Science Fellow Professor Lizzie Kendon in a live Twitter Spaces conversation. You can listen to this on-demand to hear what they had to say ahead of Green Football Weekend.

Find out more by following #GreenFootballWeekend, #GetClimateReady and @ftblforfuture

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