Polluting sponsors take centre stage as Champions League kicks off again

Press release – February 10 2023

European football returns with some fascinating match-ups! Qatar Airways will play against… Qatar Airways on Valentine’s day. Emirates will play StandardChartered on the 21st, two polluting giants who finance and burn enormous amounts of fossil fuels. Red Bull will take on Etihad the 22nd: while the two brands sell a similar dream of making you fly, in the real world the consequences are littered streets and an escalating climate crisis.
But whether we’ll see Neymar put three past German Qatar Airways’ new Swiss goalie, or have Modric pull the strings on the Emirates’ midfield, there’ll always be one big winner: the fossil fuel industry and their polluting products. 

The return of the UEFA Champions League means the return of the team’s fossil fuelled sponsors. As the round of 16 kicks off, some of the fixtures will see some of the most polluting sponsors in football face off. 

With pressure mounting on UEFA to deliver on its sustainability commitments, these fossil fuelled fixtures highlight how far the tournament organisers and clubs need to go. Players – young and old – will continue to advertise for some of the most polluting companies in the world at a moment when the climate crisis is rapidly escalating. 

Football fans from around Europe, united in Fossil Free Football, call upon football clubs and bodies to break ties with big polluters. Just like with tobacco ads, climate destructive companies and products – such as airlines and dirty banks – don’t deserve their place on football shirts and on billboards. Practically, the UEFA can update its regulations on what advertisements and sponsors it allows. 

Frank Huisingh from Fossil Free Football, said: “When the Champions League matches started with the EU and UEFA asking you to turn off the light, followed by a Gazprom commercial, it was clear that the UEFA had a massive credibility problem. It’s good news that Gazprom is gone. Now it’s time for the UEFA to stop offering other big polluters – such as airlines – such a massive billboard.”

Michael Hardy, from the Fossil Free LFC campaign, said: “Elite football is drenched in high-carbon advertising and will continue to be until football associations, leagues and clubs act decisively. These polluting businesses use advertising and sponsorship with football because it works. Fans begin to associate the intense emotions, the collective joy and the adrenaline – everything that makes football what it is – with companies that are destroying the planet and the future of the game. Whether it’s fossil fuel firms, or the banks that fund them, it’s high-time we kicked these big polluters out of the game.”

Vitas Carosella, Real Madrid fan, said: “ Real Madrid are 14 times champions of Europe, and one of the richest, most popular clubs in the world. They should be the gold standard for innovation in football and a leader in the fight against climate change. Right now they are letting everyone down in this regard. They are still joined at the hip with Emirates, a sponsor that heavily contributes to CO2 emissions and general pollution. This is incredibly frustrating given the horrendous impact climate change has had on Spain in the past years. We have seen raging wildfires, droughts, flash flooding and unbearable 40 °C temperatures. Madrid needs to lead from the front and reassess its ties to the fossil fuel industry.” 

Not in line with commitments

UEFA, as well as current Champions League hopefuls PSG, Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool signed up to the UN Sports for Climate Action framework. One of the principles of this framework is to “promote sustainable and responsible consumption”. Advertisements for polluting products on shirts and the hoardings around the pitches are a direct contravention to this commitment. 

UEFA must bring its regulations on advertising in line with its public promises. Subscribing to this UN Sports for Climate Action Framework is laudable, but should be followed by credible action. Football can do what sport did with tobacco in the past: ban advertisements for products damaging the health of fans and players. With the climate crisis being labelled as  the biggest health threat facing humanity by the World Health Organisation, the time for such a ban is now. 

A fossil ad ban  is not the only thing missing from UEFA’s sustainability plans. While it has promised a 50% emissions reduction by 2030 – the UN recommends a 2019 baseline – it has not yet made clear how it will deliver on this. With travel being the biggest source of emissions from sports, an overhaul of the football calendar will be needed, and there are no signs the UEFA will deliver on a smaller and more regional football calendar.

Background on sponsors


Airlines are prominent sponsors in the round of 16, with Manchester City donning Etihad Airways on their shirts, Real Madrid being sponsored by Emirates and both PSG and Bayern Munich (on the shirt sleeve) advertising Qatar Airways. UEFA itself has a partnership with Turkish Airlines. Air travel is the most carbon-intensive form of travel on earth and there is currently no low carbon alternative that can deliver net zero, despite many claims made by the airline industry. If unmitigated, aviation emissions are expected to double or triple by 2050 and in doing so consume up to one-quarter of the global carbon budget under a 1.5 degree scenario. In short, lowering demand for aviation is the only sensible climate strategy, and advertisements do the exact opposite.

Aviation works hard on protecting its reputation and trying to avoid serious climate policy targeting its sector. Sponsoring football clubs and associations to improve its reputation is part of this strategy.

According to Etihad Airways annual reporting, the airline was responsible for 4,310,592 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions in 2021. However, as this was during the COVID-19 pandemic, when global air travel was greatly reduced, it is not a fair reflection of Etihad’s true environmental impact. Etihad’s emissions for 2018 and 2019 figures are 9Mt and 10Mt, respectively, approximately twice as high as 2021 levels.  Emirates Airlines reported a similar drop in emissions during 2021 to 5.8Mt, but in 2019 they were approximately twice as high at 11Mt.  According to Qatar Airways reporting, their emissions were 14.3 MT for the financial year 2020-2021 and 22,4 MT for the financial year 2018-2019. For Turkish Airlines, this was 16.6 MT for 2021 and 17.9 for 2019. 

If we take these pre-COVID estimates together, their combined annual emissions is somewhere in the region of 53Mt – this is the equivalent emissions of running nearly 121 gas-fired power stations for a year or 265,486 railcars’ worth of coal burned. Even these figures are large underestimates of the impact of flying. Flying has strong warming non CO2 effects on global warming, due to nitrogen oxides (NOx), vapour trails and cloud formation triggered by the altitude at which aircraft operate. These non-CO2 effects contribute twice as much to global warming as aircraft CO2 and were responsible for two-thirds of aviation’s climate impact in 2018.

Fossil fuel banks

Liverpool sponsor StandardChartered is a bank with a disastrous climate record. Research from Market Forces shows that in 2021 alone Standard Chartered funded fossil fuel expansion projects that will emit 2.3 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide across their lifetimes – five times the annual emissions of the entire United Kingdom. StandardChartered is heavily criticised for its record on the climate crisis, and sponsoring Liverpool is a way to improve and protect its reputation around the world.


For more on polluting sponsors in football: https://www.rapidtransition.org/resources/sweat-not-oil-why-sports-should-drop-advertising-and-sponsorship-from-high-carbon-polluters/ 

For questions, you can contact Frank Huisingh +31646998442; frank@fossilfreefootball.org; www.fossilfreefootball.org 

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