On 18 May 2021, Gazprom, the Russian oil and gas giant, enhanced its sponsorship of Uefa soccer competitions by signing up as a partner for the next two editions of the European Championships. The company also renewed its deal for the Champions League.
Uefa was one of the first signatories of the Sports for Climate Action Framework led by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). In December 2020, the Uefa president Aleksander Čeferin announced the organization’s support for the European Climate Pact. He also pledged that Uefa would use soccer’s global reach to spread awareness and inspire fans to help fight climate change.
Signing climate pledges is not enough
Uefa’s sustainability ambitions clearly do not align with their sources of sponsorship revenue. Alongside Gazprom, top Uefa sponsors in both 2020 and 2021 include Nissan, Qatar Airways, and Volkswagen. According to their MSCI ratings, Nissan and Volkswagen are laggards on ESG (environment, social, and governance). The World Bank named Russia the world leader in gas flaring, contributing 21.3% of gas emissions globally. Gazprom is the main culprit.
Sponsorship is big business. According to GlobalData, across the top 15 European soccer leagues, front-of-shirt sponsorship generates an estimated $1.4bn annually. Real Madrid currently boasts the biggest front-of-shirt contract in European soccer, with their deal with Emirates valued at $81.8m a season.
Soccer and ‘dirty money’
In this sense, Uefa’s renewal of its contract with Gazprom is part of a broader problem of high carbon sponsorships in sport. According to a report entitled ‘Sweat not Oil’, published in March 2021, more than 250 sponsorship agreements exist between sports groups and companies in high carbon industries. The same report suggested that the promotion of high carbon products seriously undermines efforts to combat climate change.
The report examined 13 different sports and found that soccer was the worst offender in terms of high carbon sponsors. Out of the 250 sponsorship deals with high carbon products, 57 of them were with soccer groups. Among these deals were primarily companies from the airline, oil and gas, and motor industries.
Andrew Simms, the co-author of the report, claims that those high polluting companies are sport washing through sponsorship. “Heavily polluting industries sponsor sport to appear as friends of healthy activity, when in fact they’re pumping lethal pollution into the air that athletes breathe, and wrecking the climate sport depends on.”
The money from sponsorships from high polluters is attractive in the short term. However, long term, sport – like every other industry – is going to suffer the consequences of climate change.
Uefa Champions League final will leave a large carbon footprint
Uefa has already come under fire in 2021 for not considering environmental issues. They moved the Champions League final on 29 May 2021 from Istanbul to Porto, despite the fact that it involves two English teams (Chelsea and Manchester City). Uefa said its decision will allow fans to travel to a green zone to watch the match live from within the stadium.
However, from an environmental perspective, it makes little sense not to play the final in England. According to BBC Sport, fans who have traveled to the past nine finals have sent an estimated 133 million kilograms of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Had those games been played in the home country whenever possible, this figure would have been cut to an estimated 27.7 million kilograms, the equivalent of saving a year’s worth of emissions from energy use by over 12,600 homes.
Divestment from fossil fuels is crucial to tackling climate change. Sport, with its vast global audience, has the power to have a substantial positive impact and help towards global climate initiatives. Uefa, and more broadly the sports industry, should reduce the number of high carbon sponsorships if they are to make good on their commitments towards more sustainable practices.