What would it take to truly integrate the World Cup and other sports mega-events into a low-carbon world?
Humanity is in the midst of the World Cup. A significant proportion of the global population is expected to watch at least one match of the 2022 Qatar tournament.
With such reach comes scrutiny, including the environmental impact of such a massive event. For the World Cup finals, Qatar has built seven new stadiums and renovated an eighth. It has also constructed a new airport, a metro system, new roads, and approximately 100 new hotels. The vast majority of visitors are expected to arrive by air, with many staying in nearby cities such as Abu Dhabi and Dubai before taking shuttle flights to matches.
In an effort to make this World Cup the first, Qatar has promised to offset its carbon emissions in order to be “fully carbon neutral” (Read more about the limitations of carbon offsetting). Many people, however, are not convinced. According to one study, the tournament’s carbon footprint could be three times what it claims. Another discovered that the carbon footprint attributed to the new stadiums was actually about eight times higher, and heavily criticized the organisers’ new carbon credit standard for failing to meet international standards. A slew of advertising complaints have been lodged in various European countries in response to Fifa’s promotion of its carbon neutrality claims, while several footballers have written an open letter to Fifa urging it to “ditch” the claim and only use offsets as a last resort.
It is hard to think of a different sector that attracts the attention of literally billions of human beings across the globe – Suki Hoagland
The magnitude of the challenge is undeniably enormous. Some may question whether the World Cup as we know it can ever be sustainable, with teams, fans, and officials flying long distances and massive infrastructure development. Would the event’s basic model need to change to be more environmentally friendly, and if so, what might that look like?
“It’s difficult to think of another sector that captures the attention of literally billions of people around the world,” says Suki Hoagland, a lecturer at Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability in California. “It will be a barometer of how the rest of society reacts.” Each of the previous three World Cups is estimated to have produced between 2.2 and 2.8 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (MT CO2e). However, this year’s tournament is a game changer. According to one estimate, the current Qatar event could emit up to 10 million tonnes of CO2e, which is comparable to Armenia’s annual emissions.
It’s a lot, but it’s still a small portion of global emissions. However, because global emissions must be cut in half by 2030, Fifa should, at the very least, cut its emissions in half by 2030, according to Khaled Diab, communications director at Carbon Market Watch and editor of the report on Fifa’s carbon neutrality claim. Given that sport is “not a life-or-death activity,” he suggests that it should be even more ambitious.
The World Cup has a significant environmental impact in two areas. The first is transportation. Flying is extremely carbon-intensive, with fan flights accounting for the majority of emissions from every major international sporting event, according to Madeleine Orr, president of the International Olympic Committee. a lecturer at Loughborough University London and the academic leader of the Sport Ecology group. Then there’s the massive energy and material footprint of constructing new stadiums, as well as the transportation networks and hotels needed to accommodate hundreds of thousands of fans.
These two areas overlap because they are primarily concerned with fan movement and accommodation, rather than footballers and their entourages.
Of course, much can be done to reduce the environmental impact of new buildings. One obvious place to start is to source low-carbon energy to power them, such as by constructing solar projects nearby. “Your energy consumption should be entirely renewable,” says Dale Vince, owner of the Forest Green Rovers football club in the United Kingdom and founder of Ecotricity, a renewable energy company. “However, you should be extremely efficient with that, using low consumption devices such as LEDs for floodlights, for example, and energy efficient appliances.”
According to Vince, construction could shift away from traditional concrete-based structures to reduce emissions. With electric buses, electric cars, and personal mobility scooters, carefully considering the connections between key World Cup buildings could also help lower emissions. or simply prioritized walking.
Vince envisions a green World Cup based in stadiums built entirely out of wood, all situated close together “so that if you fly in, you’re in the World Cup village, and you can watch every game you want to without travelling other than by electric bus”.
Another way to reduce the massive environmental impact of building many new stadiums is to avoid building them in the first place. According to Russell Seymour, executive chair of the British Association for Sustainable Sport, one option here could be reducing the number of teams competing in the final tournament. He notes that having hubs where the best teams from each region come together for a smaller final tournament would reduce impacts.
Claire Poole, a sports event consultant and the founder of the Sport Positive summit, believes that matches could also be held in locations with existing stadiums and energy-efficient infrastructure that are also well connected to transportation routes.
According to Diab, Fifa may even consider a permanent World Cup venue. “The stadium that is not built has the lowest carbon footprint or is the most environmentally friendly stadium.” This is especially true in cases where stadiums are being built in areas where they may not be used after the World Cup. He says it’s “open to question” how so many world-class stadiums in such a small geographical area in Qatar will be used after the tournament. “We’ve seen in previous tournaments of these becoming stranded assets, just left to crumble or being underutilized after the World Cup,” he says.
We just have to divorce it from being the biggest centralised party in the world to become the biggest decentralised party in the world – Madeleine Orr
One stadium built for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil’s Amazon, for example, sat mostly empty two years later. And even if stadiums remain in use, there may be other environmental concerns. For example, Qatar’s legacy plan anticipates an increase in tourism in the future, which will likely result in higher emissions as visitors travel to its dozens of new hotels and stadiums.
Orr’s vision of smaller, greener World Cups would focus less on them as tourist events, eliminating the need for 60,000-seater stadiums, and more on their nature as international competitions featuring the best athletes from around the world. According to Orr, reducing World Cup attendance would help to eliminate the expectation that host countries provide massive stadiums and hundreds of thousands of hotel rooms. It would also allow a long list of countries that are currently unable to host something of the magnitude of the World Cup to use their existing stadiums, making it “a lot easier to clean up that [environmental] footprint credibly,” according to Orr.
Smaller stadiums would also allow for other sustainability measures, such as the use of reusable cups, which would be much more feasible in a 20,000-person stadium than a 60,000-person stadium, according to Orr. “Just by narrowing the scope of the event, we begin to uncover solutions,” she says.
These events may see increased media coverage in order to provide the best possible experience to those watching from around the world. According to Orr, designated fan zones are already springing up unofficially around the world, but these could be made more official.