The GSB Interview

James Atkins of Planet Super League

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James Atkins, an irrepressible Briton living in Budapest, is an entrepreneur, a football/soccer fan and someone who believes that the sport must play a much more active role in the climate fight.

It is thus not surprising that he founded Planet Super League, a company that is using football and gamification to inspire fans to take climate actions, repeat them and share them. 

 

GreenSportsBlog: Your journey, from your youth in the Northwest of England to accountant to entrepreneur to launching Planet Super League, which uses football (soccer) and gamification to inspire fans to take climate action, is an incredibly circuitous and fascinating one. So, which came first, your passion for football, or the environment?

James Atkins: Growing up in the Lake District in the 70s, I loved football, growing up a Man United fan — they were rubbish back then. As a player, I was a goalkeeper until I was about nine. Unfortunately, I discovered fear and I never grew, so that was it for me as a footballer.

At the same time, I was interested in environmental things — bird watching with the family, recycling at school.

Eventually I went to Cambridge, studying modern languages and linguistics. But I didn’t go that route, instead working at Arthur Andersen…

GSB: …The mega-financial services firm?

James: That’s the one! I worked in accounting and auditing. I knew nothing about either, but I got trained. Then I found myself at Waste Management in the early 90s, working as a comptroller for one of their subsidiaries in Germany. I was bad at that. Was finally able to get the hang of a job at when I worked in corporate finance for Deloitte in Budapest, Hungary from 1995-98.

Eventually, in 2001, I co-founded Vertis Environmental Finance, an emissions trading company, with Paul Bodnar, a Hungarian-American who ultimately became Senior Director for Energy and Climate Change at the National Security Council under President Obama. Our mission was “inspire and empower industrial companies to transition to the low-carbon economy”.

GSB: How did you go about that?

James: We are an emissions trading company, working with 1,500 companies in Europe as part of the European Union’s emissions trading scheme which started in 2005, modeled on the U.S. program to reduce acid rain.

Vertis trades emission allowances with industrial companies and aircraft operators — this is mandatory in the E.U. for heavy industry and aerospace. Over time, the scheme has helped reduce emissions in the Eurozone by around 35 percent since 2005.

 

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James Atkins (Photo credit: James Atkins)

 

GSB: Are the emissions really being lowered or are companies just shifting them to other parts of the world where emissions trading is voluntary?

James: Good question. I think overall there is reduction. But, there also is surely some displacement, and a lot of reduction that happens isn’t directly linked to the EU emissions trading system (ETS)…but reduction is a key goal of the scheme and our work.

GSB: Is Vertis one of the big players in the emissions trading market? What is your point-of-difference versus the competition?

James: We are a relatively small company but have a decent market share in the EU ETS. The reason companies work with us are that we speak their language — a big deal in Europe, our market knowledge and our customer service.

GSB: Congratulations on building an important green business. It sounds like you’d have your hands full with it. What led you to get into the “climate change for football/soccer fans” business with Planet Super League?

James: Well Lew, by the mid-2000s, I had, for quite some time, understood the severity of the climate crisis. My response, in 2005, was to launch The Bustard, a blog in which I share my thoughts occasionally about climate policy, business, psychology and sociology.

I started to make a book out of it, but the draft ended up being sooooo boring!

And I was not succeeding in getting people to care about climate change.

What they did care about was sports. So, I rewrote the book as a novel set in Burnley, north of Manchester.

I imagined a working-class family. They had no interest whatsoever in climate change, but they were huge fans of Burnley F.C

GSB: The Clarets!

James: That’s right! The dad runs into a climate scientist who was not a football fan at all.

They make a bet in which the family learns about climate and the scientist learns about football, goes to a game in fact. And I created the Burnley Protocol to replace the Kyoto Protocol. It redefines the individual’s bond with nature and society.

Anyway, this started me down the road to conceiving the Planet Super League…

GSB: …Which looks to redefine fans’ bonds with nature and the environment?

James: The biggest thing clubs can do is to inspire fans to change lifestyles.

And look, while it is important for teams and sports venues to green themselves, emissions from the games themselves are relatively small.

The real question is: How do you deploy the social power of football in the service of climate action?

GSB: James, you are speaking my language! So, how does Planet Super League propose to do this?

James: Planet Super League combines football and gamification to inspire fans to take climate action. We’re learning that fans are motivated to do more for the environment if it is done for the club that they love.

Our first pilot, the Unstoppable Challenge, ran over June and July last summer, with 20 families who are fans of six clubs in the English Midlands:

  • West Bromwich Albion, then in the Championship, the second tier of English football. They have since earned promotion to the Premier League
  • Derby County, Championship
  • Nottingham Forest, Championship
  • Stoke City, Championship
  • Port Vale F.C., League Two (fourth tier)
  • Notts County, National League (fifth tier)

 

We gave them up to a dozen challenges, which included switching out lightbulbs, going car-free, and reducing meat content (“Convert a Carnivore”). The families who navigated the challenges successfully won vouchers for their clubs’ team shops as well as all-important bragging rights.

We then rebuilt our app and in November and December ran our second pilot – PSL1 – with 200 families recruited – mainly via schools – by 11 clubs including four from the Premier League – Aston Villa, Leicester City, West Brom and Wolverhampton (aka Wolves).

 

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The “Amazing Adatias”, representing Leicester City FC, enjoying one of their meat free meals (Photo credit: Planet Super League)

 

GSB: What were the results?

James: During the tournament 39 different activities were available around energy, food, transport and discovering nature. A total of 1,960 were completed and 2,800 were done by people outside the immediate group of participants. Families scored 13,500 Impact Goals which is the equivalent to a reduction of 13 tonnes of CO2, or about a half a tonne of CO2 per family on an annualized basis – which is a start.

 

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A young Northampton Town-supporting “Hoyes Hero” proudly showing his energy smart meter (Photo credit: Planet Super League)

 

GSB: Congratulations; that is a good start indeed. How is Planet Super League funded? 

James: We’ve funded ourselves so far but are looking for investment from sustainability-minded wealthy individuals who are football fans.

GSB: How has COVID-19 impacted your plans?

James: I don’t mean to sound trite about the epic and tragic nature of the pandemic but COVID may actually have helped slightly. It gave our participating families something to do, to distract them from the daily challenges they were facing. And the clubs also had more time to consider us.

GSB: I can see how that would be the case. So, what is happening with Planet Super League during the 2020-21 season?

James: We’re relaunching an open version of the tournament just now so school kids under lockdown can take part.

In March we will launch a new series of tournaments. New format. New look and feel. For real now. We’re aiming for 20 clubs and a lot more families, and then build up to “lots of clubs” by the end of the year. We learned a heck of a lot and now have to build that all in to our improved version.

We’re starting to talk to media partners and brands for sponsorship.

Behaviour change is notoriously difficult – and sensitive – but we reckon Planet Super League is on to something special and want to make it a thing.

 

Photo at top: Fans of Leicester City, one of the clubs that participated in Planet Super League’s second pilot, celebrate (Photo credit: Leicester City F.C.)

 


 

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