UEFA is launching a public awareness campaign – ‘Cleaner Air, Better Game’ – during the European Under-21 Championship that will take place in Hungary and Slovenia to highlight the growing threat to public health of air pollution, which annually claims more than 8 million lives around the world.
During the group (March 24–31) and knockout (May 31 – June 6) stages, UEFA will lead a range of pilot initiatives that underline its commitment to making the championships a carbon-neutral event.
Among these initiatives, a dedicated Count Us In platform will invite the European football community to commit to small lifestyle changes to help improve air quality: walking or cycling more, moderating domestic heating or reducing food wastage. Each pledge will be added to a counter that converts commitments into real-life carbon savings.
“If ‘Cleaner Air, Better Game’ can inspire everyone involved in football to take small individual actions to improve air quality, there will be collective benefits for all of our society,” said UEFA President Aleksander Čeferin announcing the campaign, which is spearheaded by UEFA’s Football and Social Responsibility division.
As well as Count Us In, several other organisations at the forefront of climate action and environmental protection are backing the campaign, including the European Commission (EC) and World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).
“I welcome UEFA’s clean air campaign: let it be an inspiration for many more actions against the climate crisis across the world of professional football,” said Frans Timmermans, Executive Vice-President of the EC in charge of the Green Deal.
“I welcome UEFA’s focus on environmental pollution and its new ‘Cleaner Air, Better Game’ campaign!” said Virginijus Sinkevičius, European Commissioner for Environment, Oceans and Fisheries. “Air pollution has a very real impact on our health, our well-being, even when and where we can enjoy sports. That’s one of many reasons we are committed to a zero-pollution ambition for the European Union.”
UEFA President: ‘Real and present danger’
“Poor air quality threatens the long-term health of society and sport,” added the UEFA president. “By reaching such a vast audience, football can play an important role in raising awareness of the real and present danger of air pollution – both on and off the pitch.”
The EC estimates that 130 cities across the continent currently fail to meet standards set by its air quality legislation. Air pollution in Europe alone causes the premature death of 400,000 citizens each year.
Science suggests that poor air quality has a growing negative impact on footballers’ health, with even professional players struggling to perform. Studies show that higher levels of air pollution can slow the pace of matches by up to 15%.
“Millions of Europeans love football. Watching it and playing it. No matter if we are kicking a ball around a green park or on a concrete playground, everyone playing deserves to breathe clean air,” said Mr Timmermans, “As fans and players, our individual choices can help tackle the climate crisis, for example, in choosing how we get to a match.”
“UEFA’s campaign with Count Us In comes at an exciting tipping point,” said Christiana Figueres, former Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). “Clean, regenerative energy systems are in our grasp, but to accelerate their adoption, we need everyone to step up to the challenge.
“Burning fossil fuels for energy and transport is causing climate change and levels of air pollution that are poisonous to us all. We are delighted to engage the millions of football fans and hundreds of players across Europe in taking steps to protect what they love.”
UEFA and co-hosts team up for legacy activities
As well as ensuring this will be a carbon-neutral event, UEFA is also working with the national football associations of Hungary and Slovenia to leave a positive legacy for future efforts to combat air pollution in both host countries.
To this end, the governing body has joined forces with the co-hosts to invest in planting more trees in both countries as well as boosting bike-sharing programmes and usage during the championships.
“With these symbolic measures, we are widening responsibility for protecting the environment and supporting green initiatives for the wider football community,” said Radenko Mijatović, President of the Football Association of Slovenia (NZS).
“Every Slovenian can be proud that our country is setting best practice standards when it comes to caring for the environment,” added Mr Mijatović, “Each individual must accept responsibility for protecting our planet. The earth is not about to stop turning, but we have a duty to hand the world to our successors in the same state, if not better, that we received it from our ancestors. And that includes the quality of the air we breathe.”
“I am very pleased that we have had the opportunity to join UEFA’s environmental campaign as one of the hosts of the UEFA Under-21 Championship,” said Sándor Csányi, President of the Hungarian Football Association (MLSZ). “I am confident this tournament will be memorable not only for excellent matches but also, thanks to this campaign, for calling public attention to the importance of environmental awareness.”
“Those of us who are conscious not only of our present but also our future feel obliged to act responsibly in every area of life. The support of youth football is also of strategic importance to the MLSZ since it is the most important investment in our future,” added Mr Csányi. “This is why we place particular emphasis on social and environmental issues. As the German poet and philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche once said: ‘The future influences the present as much as the past’.”
First step towards UEFA strategy on climate action
To assess lessons learned from the campaign, European football’s governing body is planning to stage a symposium on 5 June bringing together key partners and stakeholders. Its conclusions will guide a working group set up last year to develop a long-term UEFA strategy on climate action.
Drawing on expert advice, the working group aims to quantify football’s impact on the global climate, identifying how the game can most effectively reduce its carbon footprint and researching climate change’s impact on European football.
As well as the European Under-21 Championships, the governing body has also committed to offset all carbon emissions for this summer’s EURO 2020.
Last December, the UEFA president signed the European Climate Pact, pledging to use football’s global reach to raise awareness of the climate emergency and inspire more people to take action to save the planet. UEFA was also among the first signatories of the Sports for Climate Action Framework led by the UNFCCC – an international environmental treaty supported by over 150 nations.
Dates to remember during the Under-21 Championship
UEFA will also highlight two important events in the global sustainability calendar run by official partners:
• WWF’s Earth Hour on Saturday 27 March at 20:30 (local time) will unite millions of individuals, businesses and leaders from over 120 countries by shining a spotlight on the perilous state of the planet and calling for urgent action to address nature loss and climate change. First launched as a symbolic ‘lights out’ event in Sydney, Australia, in 2007, Earth Hour has grown to become one of the world’s largest grassroots movements for the environment.
• The European Union Green Week, scheduled for May and June 2021.
“Air pollution is an environmental risk affecting millions of people every year. It has a detrimental impact on climate, nature and our quality of life in general,” said Vanessa Pérez-Cirera, WWF Global Deputy Lead for Climate & Energy. “Solving the climate crisis will help fix our air pollution problem because both are driven by greenhouse gas emissions caused by burning coal, oil and gas.
“Everyone can and must do their part to contribute to the transformative change needed to ensure we breathe clean air, have a thriving natural environment and use clean renewable energy,” added Ms Pérez-Cirera, “We owe this to our children and their children.”
Count Us In is a citizen climate action movement supported by Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac, who led negotiations for the United Nations during the historic Paris Agreement of 2015. Working with experts from the UN Environment Programme and other partners, Count Us In has developed a group of high-impact steps that people can take to cut their personal emissions to ensure cleaner air. These are based on three criteria:
• Impact: actions that drive a major reduction in carbon emissions;
• Influence: actions that make politicians and businesses pay attention;
• Involvement: a set of actions that offer everyone the ability to get involved.