Sporting extravaganzas like the World Cup are an own goal on climate action

Now that COP27 has come to a bitter end, the world’s attention has turned to Qatar for this year’s next big climate event. With the last eight years on track to be the warmest on record, we dig into the carbon footprint of this year’s FIFA World Cup and what the lack of accountability around it means for global efforts to fight climate change.

President of the European Commission Ursula Von der Leyen regretted that the final agreement of this year’s UN climate conference failed to include a commitment to phase down fossil fuels by the world’s largest emitters. With its 2.8 million inhabitants, Qatar sure ranks low in that list, but eyebrows are being raised at the carbon footprint of this year’s football extravaganza.

If football as a sport is not directly responsible for causing damage to the climate, it is used as the engine behind what can be considered an ecological disaster serving one country’s wider national interests. With prominent political actors such as French President Emmanuel Macron making a plea to keep football out of political debates, questions arise as to what can be considered "shared efforts" in the fight against climate change.

From sand to concrete

The 2022 edition of the FIFA World Cup only kicked off this Sunday, yet it has been making headlines for several months, and for many reasons.

Qatar has a troubling track record when it comes to respecting the rights of workers, women and the LGBTQIA+ community. The large-scale building programme for welcoming this year’s games has further exacerbated the issue – and put it in the global spotlight. Over 6,500 migrant workers from Africa and Asia have reportedly died since Qatar was awarded the right to host the World Cup back in 2010.

On top of the human cost of this year’s competition, the construction of new infrastructure in the Qatari desert is criticised for having a disproportionate impact on climate.

In getting ready to host the 29-day games, Qatari authorities have invested billions of dollars in what constitutes a complete revamp of the country. This colossal and deadly enterprise included the construction of seven immense air-cooled1 stadiums to add to Doha’s single pre-existing arena, as well as new metro and sewage systems, and thousands of accommodation buildings.

But this new infrastructure is still not enough to accommodate the over one million football fans overflowing the country. Qatar has thus struck a deal with state-owned air carriers from neighbouring countries2 arranging for ‘Match Day Shuttle flights’ to carry local supporters from these countries in and out of Doha to attend the games. One flight every ten minutes, 160 times a day, not to mention the flights needed to bring the 32 national teams from across the globe.

Another contributor to the World Cup’s carbon footprint is the desalination of seawater, a common practice in water-scarce countries such as Qatar that is still heavily reliant on fossil fuels and costly to the environment. Under an average temperature of 30 degrees Celsius for the month of November, about 10,000 litres of additional desalinated water will be needed daily to water the pitches during the competition. With 450 litres per person per day, Qatar is already one of the highest per capita consumers of water in the world.

While organisers had described it as a ‘carbon-neutral’ competition—they seem to have missed the ball with their calculations. According to an analysis by Carbon Market Watch, the estimated 3.6 million tons of CO2, which were said to be compensated by highly questionable offset schemes, are missing at least 1.4 million tons created by the construction of the six permanent3 stadiums alone. And if travel was expected to account for over 50% of the cup’s carbon footprint, this figure does not include emissions from the daily shuttle flights.

The results of that analysis are backing accusations of greenwashing against FIFA by NGOs in France, Switzerland and the UK, which bring light to the larger issue that is the lack of regulation of private-led cross-border activities that are detrimental to climate and the environment.

Past the defence line of politics

The carbon footprint of international sporting events such as the World Cup have attracted more and more attention lately. Earlier this year, the hosting of the Winter Olympics in China had already stirred up controversy over its incoherence with the climate crisis. Last month, Saudi Arabia was awarded the right to host the next Asian Winter Games in 2029—in the desert, and with no pre-existing infrastructure.

The world is on track for a 2.5°C rise by the end of the century, if countries implement their plans under the Paris Agreement. To reach the goal of the Agreement and keep global temperatures from rising beyond 1.5°C, IEEP has calculated that global CO2 emissions would need to be reduced more than twice as fast as the rate they’ve come up in the last thirty years. COP27 failed at raising current pledges that are already missing the mark.

If the global community is to achieve such rapid reductions in a fair way, we need to think about how we are allocating the scarce remaining carbon budget. Events like the World Cup show that a large portion of that budget is being used on wasteful events and luxuries that serve a global elite, as shown in research conducted by IEEP last year. Rich countries like Qatar, already one of the highest per capita GHG emitters in the world, are using up the carbon budget in a way that does open ways for future resilience to climate hazards, all for the benefit and wealth of a tiny group of elite players and their corporate backers.

On the heels of a largely failed COP27, the international community needs to think about why such events are getting a free ride. Measures to seriously tackle aviation emissions, amongst the most unequal in the world, are desperately needed, as is the phase-out of fossil fuel emissions in power systems. Petro-reliant states such as Qatar should be emphasising such transitions rather than spending billions building white-elephant, carbon-dependent and intensive infrastructure. The opportunity cost of the resources expended on seven new football stadiums (reportedly USD 6.5 billion) is staggering at a time when resources for low-carbon technology is desperately needed.

In the future, FIFA and other sports governing bodies should make low- or zero-carbon (rather than "net neutral" events with purchased, dubious offsets) a baseline selection criterion for awarding sporting event hosting rights. Hosting in existing stadiums, in locations with more sustainable transport connections and accommodation available should be a priority. Such high-profile institutions should be held to a higher standard, instead of being given a special dispensation to pollute more than others on the sole argument that sports shouldn’t be "politicised".

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In addition to CO2 emissions, air cooling is known to release hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), a substance with high global warming potential (GWP). The Kigali amendment to the Montreal Protocol signed in 2016 regulates the phase-down of HFCs. Gulf nations, including Qatar, are among signatories that benefit from an exemption allowing for a delay in the HFC freeze date to 2047 instead of 2035.

Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia or United Arab Emirates (UAE).

One of the seven new stadiums will be transported to another location after the end of the competition.

 

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