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The World Cup In Qatar Is a Climate Catastrophe

November 23, 2022
Scientific American

By Jules Boykoff on November 23, 2022

When the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA), the world’s governing body for soccer, proclaimed that the 2022 World Cup in Qatar would be “a fully carbon-neutral event,” the collective chortle that emerged from environmentalists could have powered a wind farm. The environmental nonprofit Carbon Market Watch blasted what it called FIFA’s “creative accounting” and issued a report charging that World Cup organizers’ stated goal “to reach carbon neutrality before the tournament kicks off” was fanciful at best. Carbon footprint calculations, the report noted, “can only take place after the event,” so heralding net-zero status beforehand “is premature and unworkable.”

As the passions of soccer fandom spark into flame during the World Cup, it makes sense to slow down and rationally assess FIFA’s sustainability claims. The stakes are higher than ever: the effects of climate disruption continue to intensify across the globe, and the United Nations Environment Program is imploring nations to “urgently reduce greenhouse gas emissions to limit the impacts of climate change.” While the carbon footprint of 64 soccer matches played over a single month’s time might appear trifling, compared with the enormous climate challenge we collectively face, FIFA’s slippery stance symbolizes the all-too-common misleading practices that many organizations, companies and governments use to hoodwink people into thinking they are addressing climate change while instead doing little.

To many, World Cup organizers’ claim of “a fully carbon-neutral” tournament in Qatar carries the unmistakable tinge of greenwashing: a public display of concern for the environment and an inclination to claim credit for providing solutions while doing the bare minimum, if anything, to make actual ecological improvements. And this isn’t just an issue for soccer: most mega sporting events are carbon disasters. In short, this amounts to virtue signaling wrapped in a sporty green cloak, the type of “covert narcissism ... disguise[d] as altruism” that Taylor Swift warned us about in her song “Anti-Hero.” Not only is greenwashing rooted in deception, but it structures permission to press ahead with status-quo pollution when, in reality, we need urgent action.

The Qatar World Cup is shaping up to be a quintessential greenwash. In its recent report, Carbon Market Watch found that when FIFA tabulated the carbon footprint for building seven new stadiums, it ignored enormous sources of carbon, underestimating emissions by a factor of eight. The tournament’s matches will be staged in eight stadiums, only one of which predates the run-up to the World Cup. One of the new venues—called Stadium 974 because it was constructed with 974 shipping containers—will be disassembled for reuse after the mega event, a process that carries its own carbon load. Carbon Market Watch’s report noted that many of Qatar’s “legacy plans raise questions about how sustainable they will be in practice,” given their quixotic “accounting methodology,” which is rooted in assumptions about local demand for World Cup–quality stadiums in the wake of the tournament.

World Cup hosts often maintain that stadiums built for the tournament will remain in robust, perpetual use after its conclusion—a claim that allows them to spread their carbon footprint over many years versus all at once during construction and the event. A spokesperson for the Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy, one of the World Cup’s organizers, told Bloomberg that it is “working to ensure there will be no ‘white elephants’ after the tournament by developing legacy uses for all the tournament venues.” But it’s hard to believe claims that the cavernous FIFA-standard stadiums built for the event will be used regularly in the years to come—even if they are slightly downsized afterward. After all, Qatari soccer culture is relatively undeveloped. Even soccer-mad countries such as Russia, Brazil and South Africa—hosts of the previous three men’s World Cups—have been left with a herd of white-elephant stadiums.

In addition to the carbon cost of the stadiums, Qatar expects to see a whopping 1,300 daily flights to and from the country during the World Cup. But that’s not the only source of airplane emissions. The grass seeds to give rise to the tournament’s pristine pitches have been flown in from North America on climate-controlled planes. And these fields won’t water themselves. The groundskeepers who maintain the eight stadium pitches, as well as the 136 practice fields, douse each field with 10,000 liters of desalinated water every day in the winter. In the summer the pitches require a whopping 50,000 liters each. The energy-intensive desalination process—necessary in Qatar because of the country’s negligible surface and groundwater supplies—only adds to the carbon footprint.

Beyond this, FIFA’s sustainability claims are highly reliant on carbon-offset schemes. Offset programs, which allow people and businesses to purchase carbon credits that pay for environmental projects around the world in exchange for canceling out their own carbon footprint, are not only notorious for being ineffectual but also for jump-starting “carbon colonialism,” whereby countries in the Global South are charged with executing carbon-offset projects that only end up benefiting the environmental ledgers of the Global North. For example, an investigation by the Oakland Institute found that Green Resources, a forestry company registered in Norway, set up carbon-offset schemes in Uganda that led to the disruption of more than 8,000 people’s livelihoods through forced displacement and pollution.