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European Climate Pact

Together for 1.5°C - Morten Thorsby

Is a life in professional football compatible with being a climate activist? This is the question Norwegian footballer Morten Thorsby found himself asking early on in his career. Now an Ambassador of the European Climate Pact in Germany, where he plays with FC Union Berlin, he is using his platform to kick-start climate action in football.

My world: climate comes into play

Growing up in Norway, Morten always felt a strong connection with nature. Now 27, his talent for football was clear from a young age, and before long he went professional. It was at age 18, when he signed a 5-year contract with Dutch football club SC Heerenveen and moved to the Netherlands, that both his football career and climate activism would begin.

Before the move, Morten was not fully aware of the climate crisis or its severity. After reading about it at length in the press and doing research in his spare time, he became alarmed and even considered quitting his career as a footballer to dedicate his time and energy to climate action. “I was torn, because I know life as a footballer is inherently unsustainable,” he says.

In the end, Morten decided he could leverage his platform as a professional footballer to spread the word about the climate crisis: “After reflecting, with the help of my family, it was very clear to me that the better footballer I became, the more attention I could bring to this issue.”

My action: getting the football community onside

Now with FC Union Berlin in Germany and a member of the Norwegian national team, Morten has built a solid profile as an international player. Importantly, his journey led him to found We Play Green – an independent, not-for-profit organisation whose mission is to mobilise the global football family to accelerate the transition to a more sustainable world.

With 17 professional players on board and growing, We Play Green uses the universal language of sport to raise awareness of climate change and support players to speak out. “I think our biggest impact has been in shaping footballers to be advocates for the green shift,” says Morten.

But We Play Green doesn’t stop at player engagement. Part of its mission is to support grassroots projects that allow professional footballers to communicate the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and initiatives in a way that is relevant and engaging for the public. The #2Community was launched as a versatile and inclusive social movement to do just that.

“The number 2 represents keeping global warming to well below 2°C,” explains Morten. “But it also encompasses the many ways we can engage in climate action, including buying things second-hand (#2ndHand), thinking twice (#Think2wice) about our consumer behaviours, and giving things a second life (#2ndLife) through recycling and upcycling.” In 2021, Morten changed his playing number to 2, to represent this movement.

In 2022, We Play Green was among more than 20 major sports organisations, including the International Olympic Committee, which joined the Sports for Nature Framework. Supported by the United Nations Environment Programme, the framework unites the sport sector to develop and implement action plans to protect key ecosystems, create sustainable supply chains, and educate and inspire the wider sporting community to take action for nature.

Cementing his position as a climate activist, Morten became a European Climate Pact Ambassador after receiving an invitation from European Commission Executive Vice-President Frans Timmermans in 2022. “I didn’t hesitate to accept. Meeting the other Ambassadors and learning from ambitious minds has been great.”

In February 2023, he joined 3 other Ambassadors at the Climate Pact annual event in Brussels to discuss how citizens, communities, cities and regions can work together to take action against climate change.

And Morten isn’t operating alone: he has brought the We Play Green team with him. Joining the Climate Pact in 2022 with a pledge to mobilise the global football family of professional and amateur players, coaches and fans, the organisation aims to recruit 50 professional footballers as climate advocates by the end of 2025.

It’s no surprise that Morten was awarded the 2021 Player Activism award by FIFPRO (the International Federation of Professional Football Associations), which recognises football players who have made a significant contribution to social engagement.

Our planet: uniting a global team behind a common cause

As the world continues to heat up and weather becomes less predictable, mobilising the sport sector to drive climate action is more important than ever. Morten has already felt the effects of a changing climate first-hand.

“You can definitely feel the consequences of global warming when you play in excessive heat, or in places with varying air quality, both of which affect player performance. Rescheduling games due to floods and winds is also becoming more common.”

Morten feels that progress has been made within the football sector, despite the recent controversy over the Qatar FIFA World Cup and alleged ‘sportswashing’, or attempting to improve the reputation of a country or organisation through sport.

“At least within the last 2 years, there has been a big shift in awareness of the climate crisis in the industry, the role that football can play in solving that crisis, and its own carbon footprint,” he says.

Nevertheless, he feels strongly that world-leading organisations such as FIFA need to take responsibility, both in terms of addressing criticism and fixing systemic issues, and by making tournaments more sustainable.    

The link between sport and climate change is increasingly clear, and both sports fans and other players have generally been very supportive of Morten’s climate efforts. “I think a lot of people realise the great potential that lies within the football community to create mass action, and want to start doing more themselves.”

So, what can sports fans do right now to help kick-start positive change for the planet? We all have the power to demand change from sports organisations and support players who decide to speak out.

As for individual action, Morten sets an example in his own life: “I do my best to eat a plant-based diet and buy fresh local produce, as well as driving an electric car and biking around when I can.”

Why not make a pledge and commit to taking one of these actions alongside Morten? And if you’re a football player, you could join We Play Green to support its mission, and consider becoming a European Climate Pact Ambassador