The World Cup In Qatar Is a Climate Catastrophe

The World Cup In Qatar Is a Climate Catastrophe

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 World Cup is underway, it is important to slow down and evaluate 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. This is not a problem 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 to be a true greenwash. Carbon Market Watch’s recent report found that FIFA underestimated the carbon emissions for seven new stadiums when it calculated their carbon footprint. Eight stadiums will host the tournament’s matches. Only one of these stadiums was built before 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 stated that many Qatar’s “legacy strategies raise questions about their sustainability in practice” due to their quixotic accounting methodology. This is rooted in assumptions about the demand for World Cup-quality stadiums in Qatar.

World Cup hosts often claim that the stadiums they built for the tournament will continue to be in use long after the event ends. This allows them to spread their carbon footprint over many years, rather than just during construction. 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. Qatari soccer culture is still relatively infancy. Even soccer-mad countries like Brazil, Russia, and South Africa –hosts of the three previous men’s World Cups — have been left with a few 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 just one source of plane emissions. The grass seeds to give rise to the tournament’s pristine pitches have been flown in from North America on climate-controlled planes. These fields will not 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.

Fifa’s sustainability claims are heavily dependent on carbon-offset programs. 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.

Qatar World Cup organizers helped established their own carbon-offset agency called the Global Carbon Council, which has thus far authorized three projects: a hydroelectric plant and a wind farm in Turkey and a wind farm in Serbia. But Carbon Market Watch policy team member Gilles Dufrasne told Le Monde, “These are renewable energy projects that are generally excluded from the carbon market system. These credits have no positive effect on the climate as they do not affect the viability of the project which generates them .”


FIFA’s greenwashing also extends to sponsorship. Earlier this year QatarEnergy, one of the world’s largest purveyors of liquified natural gas, signed on as an official FIFA sponsor. According to a Natural Resources Defense Council report, liquified natural gas is not the vaunted “bridge fuel” that boosters promise: such gas can actually forestall the transition to renewables when people choose it rather than going straight to greener options such as wind or solar. Yet FIFA’s announcement of the deal stated that QatarEnergy is “responsible for the development of cleaner energy resources.” Hydrocarbon sponsorships are pure-grade greenwashing and have no place in the climate change era.

We are facing a climate that is a Qatarstrophe. The Qatar World Cup demonstrates that FIFA-style sustainability can be a bit like trying buy Bigfoot with a bucket full of cryptocurrency. Just because something seems real doesn’t make it so.

Sports mega-events are very popular with elected officials and economically well-positioned elites. They provide the opportunity for photo opportunities and back-room deals cutting, as well as photo opportunities. Mega events are a convenient way to get power, prestige, and money. In this high-stakes money shuffle environmental concerns are often overlooked or relegated as an afterthought. Because there is virtually no independent oversight or accountability, governments, FIFA and their corporate partners can continue to get away without being held accountable.

Soccer doesn’t seem to be the only one. Three recent Olympics–Tokyo 2020, Rio de Janeiro 2016 and Sochi 2014–earned some of the worst environmental sustainability scores. Sustainability claims for sports mega events are often more lofty than they are practical.

This raises a question: Is it possible to host a mega-event in sports that is carbon neutral? These events are likely to make net-zero emissions impossible due to their increasing size. One recent study found that between 1964 and 2018, the soccer World Cup and the Olympics grew some 60-fold in terms of the number of sports, athletes, journalists, spectators, marketing and costs involved. While limiting the construction of new stadiums could be helpful, it would also create a list of potential hosts who are historically responsible for global warming. The carbon footprint from travel–which FIFA says accounts for 52 percent of all Qatar World Cup emissions–is baked into the global tournament and hard to sidestep unless the number of traveling fans was curtailed, a prospect that is difficult to envision.

Sports mega-events, as they are currently arranged, are not sustainable. Since FIFA and the International Olympic Committee ramped up their environmental claims back in the 1990s, their events have only become bigger, and their impacts have only become more severe. Greenwashing hypnotizes the public to the environmental effects of sports mega events and insinuates that individual consumer choices can help alleviate the current ecological crisis. Greenwashing obscures the fact that mega sports events are global capital vehicles that have a transformative impact on cities, ecosystems, and our collective future.

This is an opinion and analysis article, and the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


    Jules Boykoff teaches political science at Pacific University. He is the author of five books on the Olympics, including the soon-to-be-released book The 1936 Berlin Olympics: Race, Power, and Sportswashing. His writings have appeared in publications such as the New York Times and the Guardian, as well as the Nation. Follow Jules Boykoff on Twitter

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