Outdoor Air Conditioning Cools the World Cup–But Is It Sustainable?

Outdoor Air Conditioning Cools the World Cup–But Is It Sustainable?

In 2009, when Qatar placed its bid to host the men’s World Cup, many wondered how a country so hot–summer temperatures can exceed 110 degrees Fahrenheit–could host a soccer tournament. Qatar constructed air-conditioned outdoor stadiums to quell these concerns. This could be a model for other sporting venues to adopt this technology to protect the health of their athletes and their fans. Experts say this is a flawed solution and is not sustainable.

The idea of placing energy-guzzling air conditioning in open-air, roofless stadiums has been added to Qatar’s long list controversies (ranging alleged corruption to reported abuses of human rights ).). The host country claims that the AC systems used in seven of its eight World Cup stadiums are built with sustainability in view. According to the International Federation of Association Football ), global football’s governing body. The outdoor ACs will draw energy form solar panels and send cool air only where it is needed most, namely the seats and the field.

But experts are skeptical that AC systems installed in outdoor stadiums can be truly sustainable. Shelie Miller, a University of Michigan sustainability expert who has studied refrigeration systems and air-conditioning systems, claims that air-conditioning is a major contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions. This is due to the strain on the electricity grid as well as faulty AC units that leak refrigerant chemicals, which are potent greenhouse gases. The global increase in indoor air-conditioning usage is likely to make this problem worse. With outdoor AC tech readily available, it may sound like an easy fix for heat-related illnesses at athletic competitions, an issue that plagued the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and will affect more events as the climate crisis continues. Miller states that it is a bad idea from an energy perspective because much of the cold air escapes to the open environment. “There’s a reason that we close our windows when we run our air conditioners.”

A way to make stadium AC more effective would be to use it only in closed stadiums and not open-air ones like Qatar’s. Jessica Murfree, a Texas A&M University sport ecologist, said that this would allow AC to be more efficient. She admits that it is difficult to imagine a world in which all sports are indoors. It’s difficult for me to imagine a football or baseball season without rain, snow, direct sunlight, and without the occasional bird landing on the field

Miller acknowledges the efforts of Qatar’s engineers to make AC systems more efficient by using “spot cooling” which directs cool air only to areas that require it. She says that improving the energy efficiency of a large load of electricity does not mean you have a large load of electricity.

And although Qatar claims that its AC systems will run on solar power, Miller believes that this is not enough. She says that the materials used in renewable energy technologies are not infinite, so there are still limitations on how much energy we can produce. “Just because we have access to renewable technologies doesn’t give us a blank check to spend energy wherever.” A spokesperson for FIFA contacted by Scientific American was unable to clarify whether the AC systems for Qatar’s stadiums run entirely on solar power or just partially.

Still, cooling technology is appealing for a World Cup being held in one of the hottest countries in the world. Although FIFA decided to break with tradition and move the men’s World Cup from Qatar’s scorching summer months to its cooler winter, temperatures in Doha, Qatar, in the coming weeks are expected to be fairly hot, in the 70s and 80s of degrees F. Even warm temperatures can put people at risk of heat illness, says Stephen Lewandowski, an expert in environmental health and risk assessment at the Uniformed Services University.

Lewandowski states that heat illness is a spectrum. Each degree F increase brings more severe conditions. He explains that exercise in warm temperatures can cause kidney stress and put pressure on the heart. The extreme side is when the body cannot compensate for heat and the body’s core temperature rises. Lewandowski explains that this is where you reach the most dangerous conditions, which can lead to heat stroke or heat exhaustion.

A picture shows parts of the cooling system at the al-Janoub Stadium on April 20, 2022 in Doha, which will host matches of the FIFA football World Cup 2022.
A picture shows parts of the cooling system at the al-Janoub Stadium on April 20, 2022 in Doha, which will host matches of the FIFA football World Cup 2022. Credit: KARIM JAAFAR/AFP via Getty Images

He argues that soccer players are more physically fit than the average person and have lower risk factors for heat illness. Fans in the stands, especially young children and those with underlying medical conditions, may be more susceptible to heat illness than the players. Lewandowski states that stadium air-conditioning can reduce heat stress and provide a more comfortable environment for both fans and workers. “Each degree cooler can lower the risk of heat illness

Stadium air-conditioning can help players perform better, according to Carl James, a Hong Kong Sports Institute physiologist and sports scientist. He says that there is plenty of evidence to show that soccer players are less efficient in warmer climates. This can lead to tactical changes. James suggests that air-conditioning will allow for faster-paced games, where players feel more confident to take more risks and sprint more. He says that in hot conditions, it is impossible to expend this kind of energy as you will feel miserable for the next part. James says that these results depend on the performance of Qatar’s stadium AC systems. He wants to know “How consistent the airflow across [the field]?” and “How substantial is the temperature drop?” he states. When contacted for comment by Scientific American, FIFA spokespeople didn’t offer specific answers to these questions.

These advantages come at a steep price: outdoor AC is very expensive as a way to combat a warming planet. Murfree believes such solutions will make sports more difficult to access. If climate control technology such as air-conditioning becomes the norm for advanced competition, she says it will require more resources, money, and time to maintain.

There are less costly–and more sustainable–alternatives to keep sports players safe from heat stress. James suggests that players should be allowed to adjust to high temperatures. This is a simple and effective option. The human body is resilient and can be protected from heat illness by spending some time in the heat and training before a tournament. Many players didn’t have much time to adjust to the World Cup in November. James explains that the World Cup is occurring right in the middle the European playing season …,, so people are coming from cold European winters straight into warmer climates.

Lewandowski suggests that you add more breaks to games when heat becomes a problem. This is a less time-intensive option. Lewandowski also suggests a few other simple solutions that can help players deal with heat stress. Cooling vests and similar garments are made with ice packs or cold liquids to keep the wearer cool. However, Lewandowski worries that these garments might not be practical for soccer matches because they can be bulky. He also mentions extreme cooling, such as dipping your arms into cold water before entering an event. This can help you stay cool and maintain your performance. Hydration is also important: ongoing research is being done to determine which liquids (such ice slurries), might be the best for keeping the body cool.

There are many ways to help players beat the heat. Theoretically, stadium air-conditioning is one of these methods, but it comes at a high price to the environment. Miller describes this “positive feedback loop” in which “air-conditioning causes climate change, and we need to respond to it.” Adding large outdoor stadiums to that equation would only make matters worse.

” If we are really trying to achieve a sustainable future then cooling open-air stadiums is not the way we get there,” Miller states.


    Daniel Leonard is a freelance science journalist and current Scientific American editorial intern whose work focuses on space, tech and natural history. Follow Leonard on Twitter@dalorleon

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