In January this year, Innes FitzGerald had put herself firmly in contention for a place in the following month’s World Cross Country Championships, which were being staged in Australia. The 16-year-old, seen as one of Great Britain’s brightest athletics talents, finished fourth in the under-20s race in December’s European Championships in Italy but then took a decision that would have come as a shock to many.

FitzGerald wrote to governing body UK Athletics to request she not be considered for World Championships selection. Not because of injury, or perhaps fear of flying, but because she could not justify the environmental impact of travelling from Britain to Australia by plane.

It was a “tortured decision to decline” the opportunity, according to Champions For Earth, an organisation for environmentally conscious athletes, which supported FitzGerald’s choice.

“Aviation is the most energy-intensive activity we can do and explodes a person’s carbon footprint,” said the teenager. “I don’t want that on my conscience.” She had travelled to Turin for the European Championships by coach and train from her home near Exeter, in the south west of England, rather than fly. No such option was available to reach the other side of the world.

“I would never be comfortable flying in the knowledge that people could be losing their livelihoods, homes and loved ones as a result,” she wrote in a letter published by UK magazine Athletics Weekly. “The least I can do is voice my solidarity with those suffering on the front line of climate breakdown. Coming to a decision has not been easy, however little compares to the grief I would feel taking the flight.”

(Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

That mental conflict is shared in part by players who have made the journey to Australia and New Zealand for football’s ongoing Women’s World Cup.

A group of 44 players, led by the Denmark midfielder Sofie Junge Pedersen, have committed to take responsibility for the environmental impact of their flights to and from the tournament. They will donate to a combination of climate resilience, carbon offsetting and adaptation initiatives.

The impact of human-induced climate change on football is stark as its competitions continue to expand and their locations cause environmental harm through unsustainable travel — primarily by air.

In January, the New Zealand city of Auckland, the venue for this World Cup’s opening match, was hit by the worst floods in its history, described as a ‘one-in-200-years event’. The very next month, Cyclone Gabrielle became the deadliest cyclone/weather event to hit the same country in 55 years.

According to a 2020 report, Playing Against the Clock: Global Sport, the Climate Emergency and the Case for Rapid Change, published by the Rapid Transition Alliance and Play the Game, many clubs’ stadiums across the world are at risk of flooding amid climate change. Extreme weather will continue to impact the sport in many ways as the crisis continues.

All of this sticks in the minds of some players.

In partnership with the organisations Common Goal and Football For Future, several players are seeking to change football’s relationship with the environment. Is there a conflict, though, between being a climate advocate and participating in international tournaments such as the World Cup, given their impact on the environment?

“I am aware of the internal conflict that you have to participate in that system in order to do your job,” Tessel Middag, a midfielder with Scottish club Rangers who played for the Netherlands in the 2015 Women’s World Cup in Canada, tells The Athletic. “I try where possible to take the train and/or the boat. I’ve travelled from Scotland by boat but it just takes more time. It’s not always possible to or I’m not always able to pick that option as much as I would like to avoid taking a plane.”

Middag is not participating in this World Cup, having won her most recent cap in 2017.

Although the 30-year-old admits her awareness at the time around the impact of football on the environment was more limited, there was an appreciation of how things could have been done better in Canada eight years ago.

“I found it pretty ridiculous the way our group stage was scheduled. We had to fly to Montreal first (from Europe) and then we had a (warm-up) game in Toronto. We flew to Vancouver and Edmonton, which was our base for the tournament — we always flew back there.

“If only they would have at least structured the group stage a bit better. We could have had those games a bit closer and maybe taken a train or bus there, but because of the bus schedules, we had to fly across the country three or four times. It was definitely not at the forefront of FIFA’s mind to try to reduce the team’s impact.”

There does not appear to have been a report on the emissions generated by that World Cup, but four years later, the next Women’s World Cup in France produced 341,620 tonnes of CO₂ equivalent (including other greenhouse gases) — as much as is produced by over 76,000 cars in a year. A record-breaking heatwave also struck Europe during the summer competition.

That figure was up from just 40,000 tonnes of CO₂ equivalent from the 2011 tournament in Germany, but is less than 10 per cent of the total from the men’s World Cup last year in Qatar. It reflects the increasing popularity of the women’s game.

Despite efforts to make the current tournament more sustainable, it may well have increased emissions given its location, the internal flights required between matches and the increase from 24 participating countries in 2019 to 32. As one example, Sweden played their three group matches in New Zealand, then flew to Australia for their round of 16 match against the United States. before returning to New Zealand for the quarter-final and, if they beat Japan in that on Friday, semi-final. Should they reach the final, they will fly to Australia again before the inevitable long plane journey home to Europe.

“The way the tournament is organised has a massive impact on the climate. When they are choosing the host, this needs to be discussed,” says Elin Landstrom, a defender with Italian club Roma who competed in tournaments at youth level for Sweden. “The host needs to show how they are going to make it climate neutral or at least have a plan.”

Rangers striker Jane Ross, who has 146 caps for Scotland, believes there could have been mitigation to reduce the amount of flying. “Regardless of the location the tournament is held in, there will be air travel involved for teams and supporters to get there,” Ross says. “I think the internal flights aspect is one that could have been planned better to reduce the need for so much flying and therefore reduce the overall carbon footprint of the tournament.

“I would never turn down the opportunity to compete for club or country at an elite level due to travel and therefore you do feel like a bit of a hypocrite at times when you care about the environment and the climate crisis but are having a negative impact on it through aspects of your career.”

England players board the plane for the World Cup. Many teams travelled business class – considered better for performance but with a greater carbon footprint (Photo: Naomi Baker – The FA/The FA via Getty Images)

Katie Rood, a forward at Scottish club Hearts, also says she wouldn’t have followed FitzGerald’s lead by choosing not to participate in this World Cup had she been selected by co-hosts New Zealand, and says “hypocrisy” — a common refrain by those seeking to downplay action on climate change — is unavoidable when living in modern society.

“If I don’t go, somebody else will, and they won’t necessarily use that platform to talk about these things,” Rood says. “But I’ve been home (to New Zealand) once in four years. I’ve minimised my personal flights.

“It’s impossible to be perfect in the systems we live in. There is no such thing as a perfect environmentalist. If there is, then they are off living in the woods and not necessarily impacting society. We live in this society and in order to change it we need to be speaking about it and we need to do every little bit that we can.

“I’ll happily wear that hypocrite badge if it means that I can still influence change. I’d rather be a hypocrite than a cynic.”

Rood is a member of the Champions for Earth group, alongside British Olympians in canoeist Etienne Stott, sailor Laura Baldwin and rower Dave Hampton. She is also a climate champion with Football For Future, an organisation raising awareness on the relationship between football and climate change, and supporting the football industry’s attempts to become more environmentally sustainable.

She questions whether it is possible to keep expanding and still be sustainable: “They’re supposed to be the elite, the top of the top, the World Cup. Is it really about football or is it about turning a profit?”

A knee injury in May ruled Rood out of contention for the tournament but she had hoped to push for a place in the squad, meaning questions on sustainability and her potential role entered her head. Those concerns had played a part, however small, in her withdrawal from the squad that went to the 2021 Olympic Games in Japan. Personal reasons and the reopening of New Zealand’s borders following the lifting of the Covid-19 lockdown played a role too.

“We supported Innes through Champions for Earth, which was awesome,” she says of FitzGerald. “Athletes have to be so single-minded and so one-track-focused to perform at the highest levels. But when it happens at the detriment of everyone and everything else, we really need to consider what we’re doing.”

Landstrom points to the difference between being an individual and being part of a team when it comes to turning down opportunities.

“There’s a lot of conflict but it’s about being an employee,” she says. “I don’t have the right to say no.” There has been significant travel with Roma due to their participation in the Europe-wide Champions League, “but I always check if there is a different way of travelling. Italy is quite good with trains, so we’ve used them a lot.

“I’ve been thinking a lot about it. Almost every time we have a flight, I check how we can get there differently. But it’s also about how I can be well prepared for the game as that is my job. So I need to find a good solution.”

Last month, European football’s governing body UEFA asked teams not to fly between matches at the men’s European Championship in Germany next summer. To help achieve this, matches have been regionalised to facilitate land travel. Fans will also be offered discounts on long-distance train journeys.

In November 2021, world football’s governing body FIFA agreed to join the United Nations Climate Action Framework, which includes an obligation to halve emissions by the year 2030 and reach net zero by 2040. It has taken measures to try to improve the sustainability of the World Cup.



After broken promise in Qatar, what are the green credentials of the 2023 Women’s World Cup?

But even as football comes to terms with the climate crisis and seeks ways to mitigate its impact on the environment, it still leaves those players who advocate for a more sustainable world grappling with their conflict.

Middag says FitzGerald is “an inspiration”, but concedes she would not follow her lead. “If I had the opportunity (to take part in the World Cup), I would have gone,” she adds. “I am, and everyone is probably, still on a journey towards more climate awareness. If you ask me again in a couple of years, maybe I’ll be at a point where I don’t want to fly at all.”

But one way in which all three women seek to square that conflict is by using their platform as elite athletes to speak out and encourage action on the climate crisis. Middag, for example, is part of Fossil Free Football, campaigning to remove polluting companies from the game. Rood, Middag and Landstrom all work with Football For Future and Common Goal, and try to encourage their team-mates to be more environmentally responsible.

“It’s ironic that sportspeople who are young people — in our teenage years, twenties and thirties — are used by big polluting companies to be the figurehead of their products,” Middag points out. “It’s the younger generation that is going to experience most of the negative effects that will come from those polluting products.

“When people say, ‘But you’re doing this and that’, I’m like, ‘Yeah, that’s true’. But that doesn’t mean I can’t speak out and use my platform to try to move individuals.”

With millions of eyeballs around the globe on the tournament as it approaches its climax next Sunday, and because of the rapid growth of women’s football in recent years, there are more opportunities than ever to promote positive action on the climate crisis. Even for those not participating in this World Cup, it can inspire.

That, clearly, is the hope for Rood, Middag and Landstrom, and the means by which they manage the conflict of participating in a carbon-intensive sport, particularly when it comes to major tournaments.

“I wanted to use football to see the world,” says Rood. “Then I saw the world and I realised football could be a vehicle to change the world.”

(Top photo: Georgia Soares/The Athletic)