The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

For a sweltering petrostate, a ‘carbon neutral’ World Cup is a challenge

6 min

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The 2022 World Cup has faced a cascade of controversies since Qatar won the right to host it more than a decade ago. Allegations of corruption swirled around the decision to stage one of the world’s most-watched sporting events in the Gulf nation of less than 3 million. (Qatar has repeatedly denied the accusations.) Fans wearing LGBTQ symbols have been refused entry to stadiums in the conservative Muslim state, and Qatar’s treatment of migrant workers has come under scrutiny.

Sometimes drowned out in the din: Concern over the tournament’s climate impact. Some observers questioned the move to hold the athletic competition in a desert climate, where summer temperatures reach above 110 degrees Fahrenheit — and in a region warming nearly twice as fast as the rest of the world. To avoid the heat, the World Cup is taking place in November and December for the first time. Even so, temperatures in Qatar currently hover in the low 80s. Matches are played largely at night, but the stadiums are still being air-conditioned to keep fans and players cool.

Perhaps anticipating blowback, Qatar laid out an ambitious pledge: to hold the first carbon-neutral World Cup.

FIFA and Qatar outlined their framework for fulfilling that promise in a 56-page sustainability strategy, which includes plans to measure greenhouse gas emissions, minimize waste and air pollution, and offset emissions.

Building the infrastructure to host the tournament was an enormous undertaking. But organizers say the metro system constructed before the event will reduce emissions from transit between games, and outlast the World Cup. Stadiums were constructed according to sustainable standards, FIFA said, and some will be dismantled or repurposed after the tournament.

A new 800-megawatt solar power plant attached to Qatar’s electricity grid will provide up to 10 percent of the country’s energy supply — and it is powering the targeted air conditioning deployed in stadiums, according to FIFA.

In line with organizers’ pledge to go “plastic neutral” as well, spectators are using biodegradable utensils.

Qatar’s effort “is a really positive thing from an environmentalist perspective, and something we should be encouraging more major international events to be doing,” said Shelie Miller, sustainable systems professor at the University of Michigan.

Critics, however, accuse Qatar of “greenwashing”: using the World Cup to bolster its green credentials and distract from its wider environmental and human rights record.

Environmentalists have pointed to numerous flaws in Qatar’s, and FIFA’s, approach to “net zero.” Some question whether such a small country will realistically make use of the gleaming stadiums once the World Cup is over. While Qatar’s size means fans don’t have to take domestic flights between games, some — seeking alcohol and cheaper hotels — are taking daily flights between Doha and Dubai.

An investigation by Carbon Market Watch “casts serious doubts” on organizers’ claims of carbon neutrality, the environmental watchdog said in a report this year.

To achieve net zero, it’s best to reduce energy demand and rely on renewable energy, experts say. With an event as large as the World Cup, though, the need for carbon offsets is “inevitable,” said Karim Elgendy, a sustainability expert and nonresident scholar at the Middle East Institute.

Offsets are meant to make up for emissions through investment in projects to reduce carbon in the atmosphere. But experts question whether the credits issued by the Global Carbon Council, the Doha-based carbon credit registry on which Qatari World Cup organizers are relying, will actually bring added environmental benefit, the Associated Press reported, since it’s unclear they will fund projects that wouldn’t have existed otherwise.

Then there’s the fact that this World Cup is taking place in the country with the highest per capita carbon emissions in the world — and that fossil fuels bankrolled the $220 billion Qatar reportedly spent on World Cup preparations. Qatar lags behind its Gulf peers in efforts to decarbonize its economy, Elgendy said.

Much of the criticism applies to the World Cup wherever it is held. And the 3.6 million metric tons of carbon emissions organizers estimate the games will produce are less than 0.007 percent of the annual global total, according to Christoph Meinrenken, a professor of practice at the Columbia Climate School.

“While the carbon footprint of 64 soccer matches played over a single month’s time might appear trifling,” writes environmental politics professor and former U.S. professional soccer player Jules Boykoff in Scientific American, “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.”

Rising temperatures add a new element of risk to the beautiful game. Exercising in heat strains the body, forcing the heart to work harder, said Thomas Deshayes, a researcher at the Montreal Heart Institute. Athletes can become dehydrated, especially in humid environments. Heat stroke is a leading cause of death in sports. To stave off that threat, new rules requiring cooling breaks at certain temperatures were put in place before the 2014 Brazil World Cup.

“The combination of historical data and current emission scenarios reveals that rising sea levels, intensified heat waves, increased risk of megafires, floods and deteriorating air quality all pose major threats to both amateur and professional soccer,” Deshayes said.

The larger question underlying all of this — whether, or how, the World Cup will be compatible with the fight against climate change — is not yet being debated widely, Elgendy said. But Qatar’s emphasis on sustainability could help spur that conversation.

The World Cup is, after all, one of the rare events that truly brings the world together. It is an opportunity for bitter political foes to face off on the field, and for a North African country to beat its former colonizer.

And, if harnessed effectively, experts say, it also provides a massive platform for raising awareness about climate solutions. During the Round of 16, which concludes Tuesday, FIFA partnered with the United Nations on an awareness campaign dubbed #SavethePlanet to draw viewers’ attention to the climate crisis.

“One of the great advantages of the World Cup,” Miller said, “is that we can have very interesting, productive discussions about what we need to do as a society, and start thinking about bigger, broader questions about what it actually means to go carbon neutral.”

Ishaan Tharoor in Doha, Qatar, contributed to this report.