Wembley Arena: an old stadium with a new, green vision

Interior view of the Wembley Stadium prior to the English FA Cup semi final soccer match between Arsenal FC and Manchester City in London, Britain, 23 April 2017 (re-issued on 17 March 2020). [EPA-EFE/DOMENIC AQUILINA]

This article is part of our special report Euro 2021 football cup: The green issue.

Wembley is one of the older arenas hosting Euro 2020 matches. Can a legacy venue reduce its environmental impact as well as a newer one?

When it comes to legacy stadiums, it doesn’t get more storied than London’s Wembley Arena. Opened as the Empire Pool in 1934 for the British Empire Games, 90 years later it is perhaps the UK’s most famous venue for sports and concerts. In the late 70s it was granted protected status and renamed Wembley, the area of London where it’s located.

The down side of that legendary status, of course, is that the building isn’t as energy efficient as newer stadiums. Nevertheless, the arena has made big strides in improving its environmental performance. In 2019 it was awarded the ISO 20121 certificate, the highest international standard of sustainability in events, and was recertified in 2020.

This in large part recognised the work done by the English Football Association, which runs the stadium. The FA developed an Event Sustainability Management System, headed by Sarah Smith, in 2018.

The sustainability team “continually works to improve the environmental impact areas considered most significant for events at Wembley Stadium – energy and climate action, waste, plastic use, water, food and transport,” Smith says. “To name a few of our many achievements in these areas over the years, we’ve been zero waste to landfill since 2010, we’ve installed water fountains across the stadium, increased vegetarian and vegan meal options, installed EV charging points outside the stadium, and switched to reusable cups for beer delivery.”

As for the energy impacts, Smith says it depends on the type of event. “They vary in duration and often have very different requirements for pre and post event set up, meaning some will use less energy than others,” she tells EURACTIV. “However, this also gives us a huge opportunity – in 2019 we switched to 100% renewable electricity and upgraded the floodlights to LED, reducing energy consumption by around 40%. We continue to roll out LED lighting across the building and identify and implement energy saving initiatives.”

This year, Wembley has been chosen as one of the 11 hosting stadiums for the Euro 2020 football tournament which was delayed to June this year as a result of the pandemic. That has put it in the spotlight as people look at the climate implications of this year’s unusual event – lower fan attendance because of COVID but more team travel because the usual one or two host countries have been expanded to eleven.

“Due to COVID-19 regulations, at the moment the stadium will be operating at a reduced capacity for the safety of everyone at the event,” says Smith. “As the majority of the environmental impact of our events comes from areas such as transport, food consumption, waste and energy, naturally, with less people travelling to and using the stadium, our impact across these areas will be reduced. However, this doesn’t mean that we won’t continue to address our environmental impact.”

Will this year's Euro cup have lessons for football’s climate impacts?

There are many things that football stadiums can do to reduce their environmental impact. But in an international tournament system, reducing emissions is inevitably difficult.

Examples from smaller, newer stadiums

The unavoidable reality, however, is that a big stadium hosting international football has limits to what it can achieve. But there are certainly lessons to be learned from some of the UK’s smaller clubs. On example are the Forest Green Rovers, an association football club based in Nailsworth, England.

The Rovers, who compete in the fourth tier of English football, have transformed into a green football club under the management of Dale Vince. It became the world’s first vegan football club in 2015, and a new lawn was installed with a number of eco-friendly innovations.

“They’ve recently designed a new stadium that’s being built designed with sustainability in line,” says Charlie Rogers, a consultant with the environmental consultancy Small World. “It’s made of sustainable materials like wood, and has renewable energy sources built into the site. They also use public transport to travel to their matches, use only locally sourced food and put out environmental messages to their fans.”

Such measures are right now not envisioned for a big stadium like Wembley or a big international tournament like Euro 2020. Rogers says some of the measures being taken by the Forest Green Rovers have lessons for the higher leagues, and some don’t.

“It’s so different being a team in a lower division in the UK compared to an international team,” she says. “That of course brings huge problems to the carbon footprint. A lot of teams will be playing in their respective countries regularly, and not flying internationally all the time. Even if they can fly commercial instead of mini jet.”

“There are huge challenges when you have an international fan base and an international competition, because it’s extravagant,” she adds. “You’re not going to be able to remove all of the energy consumption issues from a massive event like that. But one of the biggest impacts is not the actual energy use of the tournament itself, it’s influencing the millions of people that are going to be watching. You have so many eyes watching, and if they have an opportunity to change so many people’s habits.”

Future plans

Smith says Wembley has a lot of plans for further efforts to go green, and one area is in communication with fans. “A key aspect of maintaining ISO 20121 and our management system is continual improvement,” she says.

“General awareness around the impact of football on climate change has increased over the last few years – we know that football can negatively impact the environment and we also know that a poor environment can negatively impact the game. However, we also know that football has the power to create lasting positive change and there are some really exciting things happening across venues in the UK and globally.”

One example, she says, is the rise of sporting organisations like FA committing to the UNFCCC Sports for Climate Action Framework and positioning the sector on a path towards a low carbon economy.

Euro 2020 may also provide lessons on how reduced audience capacity affects energy use and general environmental impact. Of course, any stadium will naturally want to make sure all seats are filled once the pandemic is over. But if some of the reduced environmental impacts evident during this unusual tournament could be replicated even at full capacity, it could provide some interesting lessons for how to make football greener.

UEFA director: 'It is important for us to show leadership in greening football'

Even with its unique pan-European nature and reductions in fan travel due to the pandemic, Euro 2020 would have been the most environmentally conscious Euro tournament yet, says Michele Uva. And Euro 2024 in Germany will be “the most sustainable tournament ever,” he assures.

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