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Qatar 2022 - Is There a Chance for Net-Zero World Cup?

How do you keep all the good of the World Cup — the display of talent and athleticism, the memory-making, the peaceful expressions of national pride, etc, — without hastening global warming?

Nov 28, 2022 / 3 Min
Photo: The History Of Soccer

“There’s no such thing as a carbon-neutral event, but that doesn’t mean sustainability is a non-starter for football’s biggest party” wrote Ira Boudway and Eric Roston for Bloomberg Green at the outset of the World Cup in Doha, Qatar.


According to the article, when the tournament’s organizers — a triumvirate made up of FIFA, the World Cup Qatar 2022 LLC (Q22), and the Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy (SC) — released its greenhouse gas accounting, the report did little to quell doubts. Their calculations, prepared by the Swiss carbon management firm South Pole, set the total emissions for the World Cup at 3.6 million metric tons. But independent researchers at the watchdog group Carbon Market Watch and the Paris-based carbon-management startup Greenly say this is an undercount. Greenly’s own assessment puts the total emissions for the event at 6 million tons, roughly equivalent to a year’s worth of emissions from 750,000 US homes. Greenly CEO and Co-Founder Alexis Normand calls the 2022 World Cup “the most emissive ever.”


The article argues that the most glaring flaw in Qatar’s math, as Carbon Market Watch outlined in a report earlier this year, is an underestimate of the emissions associated with its stadium-building. To accommodate the World Cup’s 64 matches, beginning with Qatar vs. Ecuador on Nov. 20 and ending with the final on Dec. 18, the host nation built seven new stadiums. One of them, aptly named Stadium 974, is made from 974 shipping containers and will be dismantled when the tournament is over. The other six are set to remain. In accounting for their carbon footprints, Qatar’s organizers anticipate that these stadiums will find meaningful use for decades to come and so assign them only a small fraction of the emissions associated with their construction. Recent history suggests this is a fantasy. Many of the stadiums left over from World Cups in Russia, Brazil and South Africa are now white elephants — and all of those countries have populations many times greater than Qatar.


In an emailed statement, according to the article, a spokesperson for the SC said it is “on track to hosting a carbon-neutral World Cup” and that its accounting methodology is “best in practice” and “designed to be based on actual activity data, after the FIFA World Cup has concluded.” The spokesperson said the organization is “working to ensure there will be no ‘white elephants’ after the tournament by developing legacy uses for all the tournament venues.”


The article continues arguing that even if one accepts Qatar’s stadium accounting, its plan to offset remaining World Cup emissions is also deeply flawed. So far, according to disclosures from the Global Carbon Council (GCC), which the tournament’s organizers helped create in order to identify and verify offsets, Qatar has purchased carbon credits from three renewable energy projects in Turkey and Serbia, totaling fewer than 350,000 tons of CO2 equivalent.  Those two wind farms and one hydro plant would exist without the funding, according to Carbon Market Watch. “These are cost-competitive on their own. They sell electricity. They make money from that,” says Dufrasne, “so buying credits from these projects doesn't really impact emissions. You're basically handing out money to someone who was going to do that project anyway.”


In another emailed statement quoted in the article, a FIFA spokesperson said it rejects the idea that carbon neutrality claims are counterproductive and said the 2022 World Cup’s net-zero target has been a “very strong motivation” for organizers to focus on climate action. “FIFA is very much aware of the seriousness of the climate crisis and of the complexity of properly managing its climate action and communication efforts,” the spokesperson said. “At no point is FIFA’s intention to distract its attention from the middle-term goal of reaching net-zero emissions.” 


The authors raise the question “so how do you keep all the good of the World Cup — the display of talent and athleticism, the memory-making, the peaceful expressions of national pride, the whole celebration — without hastening global warming? What does a climate-conscious tournament look like? Is such a thing even possible?” 


They suggest that one simple thing FIFA could do to dramatically lower the climate impact of future World Cups would be to put an end to stadium building. For the 2026 World Cup, to be jointly hosted by Canada, Mexico and the US, an expanded field of 48 teams will be playing in 16 pre-existing stadiums across the continent. Making a model like this permanent would avoid white elephants and eliminate a major source of potential carbon emissions (though spreading the event across such a large area introduces its own set of problems).


The article points that once every means to cut emissions has been exhausted, there are investments that Qatar and future World Cup hosts could make to truly help offset what remains. The best options, says Seth Wynes, a postdoctoral fellow at Concordia University in Montreal who researches climate change, are those that need the support most, such as direct air capture, an expensive new technology that injects greenhouse gases underground. Scientists say this will be an essential supplement to weaning our economies from fossil fuels. Likewise, sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) are a fledgling industry that, with more subsidies, could mitigate the climate impacts of air travel. Helping to fund these efforts, says Wynes, would show that the World Cup was “serious about being carbon neutral.”


Hence, it is not too late for Qatar to offset World Cup 2022 carbon emissions, and not too early for the next World Cup hosts to learn the lessons of Qatar. 


For the full article see Bloomberg Green.

Photo: The History of Soccer