By Martyn Herman
LONDON (Reuters) - Tucked away in the leafy Cotswold hills, English fourth-tier club Forest Green Rovers rarely make sporting headlines, but have become unlikely trailblazers for something more pressing than three points on a Saturday afternoon.
At this week's major U.N. climate change conference in Katowice, Poland, the club's chairman Dale Vince received an award from the United Nations for his work in making Forest Green Rovers the world's greenest football club.
One of 15 projects to win Momentum for Change awards, UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) deputy executive secretary Ovais Sarmad described the club nicknamed the Green Devils as "the de-facto standard for sustainability in sport".
Businessman Vince, a former New Age traveller and founder and owner of renewable energy company Ecotricity, believes sport can be an important tool in tackling climate change.
After taking over his cash-strapped local club in 2010, he set about getting them into the Football League and becoming the world's first UN-certified "carbon neutral" football club.
The first mission was achieved in 2017 with a memorable playoff win over Tranmere Rovers at Wembley and this year the second goal was achieved.
Vince's vision is all over Forest Green's aptly-named 'New Lawn' stadium. It features solar panels on the roof of one of the stands, has an organic, pesticide-free pitch mowed by solar-powered mobots, water and cooking oil recycling systems and electric car charging ports outside the stadium.
Wildlife trails that are home to rare orchids and slow worms flank the ground, while one initiative has gone down especially well -- the 'vegan only' catering policy.
Some may miss the Saturday whiff of frying sausages, but Vince said Forest Green's eco-friendly menu is so popular that fans travel from afar to matches "just to eat the food".
"The bar has always been low when it comes to football food," Vince, who spoke to delegates from FIFA, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and Paris 2024 while in Poland this week, told Reuters by telephone.
"Some fans tell me they only come for the food! Our matchday food sales have quadrupled since we made the changes. Some football fans have adopted us because of our stance.
"We've created a new kind of fan."
The 5,000-capacity stadium is powered entirely by green energy from Ecotricity while a new stadium, built entirely from sustainably-sourced wood and designed by renowned architect Zaha Hadid, could be ready in three years.
As world leaders continue to debate in Poland how to achieve the goals set out in the 2015 Paris Agreement, the 57-year-old Vince says sport can bring the "biggest threat we face" to a wider audience, with little Forest Green leading the way.
"Sport has a responsibility to do what it can, and that means from fans to governing bodies," he said.
"We have shown what can be done. The UN and FIFA are holding us up as an example to other clubs and that's incredible.
"It's quite an improbable combination I think -- the environment and football -- but we've pulled it off.
"We've engaged a lot with other sports clubs and organisations around the world, so it's been a great success."
Forest Green's stance has seen fan clubs set up in 20 countries, while officials from Paris 2024 are to pay a visit soon as they bid to make their Olympics the greenest yet.
And Vince's eco philosophy appears to be having a beneficial influence both on and off the pitch. Attendances have quadrupled since 2010, while this season Forest Green are eighth in the table and challenging for promotion to League One.
Vince says the vegan diet policy has improved fitness levels and lowered injury rates.
"The players buy into the vegan thing from a performance point of view," he said. "There is so much evidence out there that vegan diets enhance performance.
"Look at elite athletes like Lewis Hamilton in F1, Serena Williams in tennis and Sergio Aguero.
"We have seen a real drop in soft tissue injuries. When we played Tranmere at Wembley a couple of years ago after about 50 games in the season, we had no injuries.
"Our situation was exceptional."
(Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Hugh Lawson)