The World Cup in Qatar is advertised as the first fully carbon neutral tournament. Skepticism about this claim is widespread. Can a major sporting event in a country that is strongly reliant on fossil fuels really produce zero carbon emissions? We checked this claim and found out that it is mostly false: FIFA has highly underestimated the carbon emissions and tries to compensate for its tremendous output by buying questionable carbon credits.
On June 5 2022 – the World Environment Day – Gianni Infantino, the current FIFA president, delivered a video message raising a “Green Card for the Planet”. He announced that the World Cup in Qatar would be carbon neutral. “We are committed to delivering a fully carbon-neutral FIFA World Cup 2022” it says in the sustainability strategy of the current FIFA World Cup. Even when Qatar was elected in 2010, the FIFA had already advertised and announced the 2022 World Cup as the “first World Cup” to be “carbon neutral”.
To evaluate whether those statements are true, it is important to understand what carbon neutrality means. The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) defines carbon neutrality in the same way as net zero CO2 emissions. The situation can be accomplished when “anthropogenic CO2 emissions are balanced globally by anthropogenic CO2 removals over a specified period”.
In June 2021, FIFA released a report revealing that 3.6m tonnes of carbon dioxide will be produced during the World Cup. That is 1.5m tonnes higher than the total produced by the last world cup in Russia 2018 and approximately 1m tonnes higher than the emissions of the World Cup 2014 in Brazil. In addition, it is more than what some countries produce in an entire year.
Carbon Market Watch has analyzed the total emissions and found out that a total of 3.6m tonnes cannot be true. Many environmentalists such as Mike Berners-Lee of Lancaster University claim that the event has indeed produced more than three times the revealed number of emissions. Berners-Lee estimates the total emissions to be “way over 10 million tonnes”. He further explains his calculations in an interview with the BBC exposing the way in which FIFA has concluded its low emission numbers. Among other things, he states that looking at the footprint of air travel by fans, “FIFA have assumed that all those journeys are going to be one-way-tickets”. An unrealistic calculation at best, as most of the fans are visiting from other continents and from overseas, making the travel back home by anything other than a plane nearly impossible.
Christian Behrens from the German Environmental Action told Sportschau that the World Cup in Qatar contained many features of Greenwashing. Advertising the World Cup as carbon neutral therefore sounds good but it might not be as sustainable as it seems.
Prior to the event, Qatar’s infrastructure was barely existent. Due to the World Cup a lot of construction had been done which generated carbon emissions which have not been included in the calculations. It is very hard to estimate the number of emissions. Still, it is obvious that most of them are related to Qatar’s selection of being the host of the World Cup. One could argue that by hosting the World Cup in Qatar, the small country received a great opportunity to establish a distinctive infrastructure. Comparing Qatar today to how it used to be ten years ago, it is obvious that it has profited from being elected as a host. However, as past World Cups and other major sporting events have shown: Much of the infrastructure such as stadiums are mostly abandoned or underused after the event is over. Therefore, the emissions calculated in the infrastructure sector are very likely to be wrong.
In addition to that, the tournament took place in eight different stadiums. As Qatar does not have a distinctive football tradition, only one of the stadiums has existed before. Therefore, seven new stadiums had to be built. One of those, the stadium 974, is a temporary stadium consisting of 974 shipping containers and is meant to be disassembled after the event to be assembled in a different location. The emissions of stadium 974 are estimated to be 438kt CO2e. CO2e stands for CO2 equivalent or carbon dioxide equivalent. Eurostat defines it as a metric measure which is used to compare the emissions from various greenhouse gases based on their global warming potential (GWP). The main difference between CO2e and CO2 is therefore, that CO2 only includes carbon dioxide whereas CO2e contains all gases.
Looking back at the emissions released by building Qatar’s stadiums: The remaining six stadiums have been calculated to release 206kt CO2e – only half of the emissions of the temporary stadium. Could six stadiums actually release half of the emissions that one stadium has?
Furthermore, the claim that the stadium 974 is more eco-friendly due to its reusability, is flawed at best. It is still unclear whether the stadium will ever be reused. Even more, dismantling and reassembling as well as the transportation of the stadium includes further CO2 emissions that are not calculated in FIFA’s report. If the stadium is delivered to a far enough destination (more than 7000 km) the emission output is very likely to be higher than building two separate venues.
In fact, the emissions were calculated for the entire lifetime of the stadiums which is estimated to be 60 years. For the World Cup however, it is only a time period of 70 days – and those 70 days have been used to calculate the emissions. The assumption is that the stadiums will continue to be used after the tournament – not only for sporting events but also for non-sporting activities. Qatar being a small nation with a population of 2.9 million people and a very small football tradition, it seems very unlikely that the legacy plans of the stadiums can be fulfilled. However, it is hard to evaluate the authenticity of those plans since they depend on the population.
In conclusion, the footprint for the construction of the seven stadiums is probably at least 2.06Mt CO2e according to the analysis of Carbon Market Watch. That would make the infrastructure by far the biggest component of emissions. In the current report it is only considered to be the third biggest.
Transportation and accommodation
FIFA had claimed that the advantage of building all eight stadiums within a 50km radius of the center of Doha would be that “spectators and players will spend less time traveling and more time enjoying the tournament”. Since Doha, Qatar’s capital city, does not offer enough accommodations for fans and participants of the tournament, many people had to stay in neighboring countries which required them to fly to Qatar. In total it was approximately 160 flights per day from neighboring countries. Those additional emissions have not been included in the calculation that led to 3.6m tonnes of carbon emissions. Only in the first two weeks of the tournament, aviation was expected to generate between 100,000 and 200,000 tonnes of CO2 according to the french newspaper Le Monde.
Carbon credits are used to offset the inevitable emissions from an event in order to reach a balance of zero between emissions and compensations. FIFA claims to neutralize these unavoidable emissions by offsetting them through “mitigations initiatives”. Therefore, the organizers need to acquire 3.6 million credits to compensate for 3.6Mt CO2e. They have collaborated with the Gulf Organisation for Research and Development (GORD) to establish a new carbon market standard, the Global Carbon Council (GCC). According to FIFAs report about Greenhouse Gas Emissions at least 1.8 million offsets are supposed to be delivered by GCC.
Out of over 600 submissions the GCC has only approved six projects. So far only three of them have been invested in by the Qatari government. One being a wind park in Serbia owned by the company “Energy Changes”. In fact, they have already sold certificates equivalent to 200,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions even though the wind park “Kosava” is not up to the GCC’s own standards according to research done by the German public broadcaster “BR” . One driving factor in the approval process is that both, the CEO and the appraiser of the project, are members of the GCC.
In addition to that, it is unclear whether the funding is providing the necessary impact to compensate for its supposed 3.6Mt CO2 deficit. The Qatari government is supporting projects in countries which already have an established renewable power sector. Two of the funded projects are located in Turkey – a country owning over 30% of its installed capacity in green energy production. Experts such as Gil Dufrasne, the author of the CMW report, say that those projects would have been built anyway – even without the additional funding of Qatar. “The purchase of the certificates has no effect on the existence of these projects”, she states, rendering these measures obsolete.
Carbon neutrality is a theoretical concept that is very difficult to accomplish and review. The estimation of emissions must be correct as well as the number of projects that should compensate for the amount of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere. Still, there is a high probability that FIFA has not only enormously miscalculated its emissions but has also invested in questionable compensation projects. Therefore, we can assert that the FIFA World Cup in Qatar is very likely not to be carbon neutral and that the statement of Gianni Infantino mentioned in the introduction is mostly false.
RESEARCH | ARTICLE: Daniel Jelski and Theresa Fürst, Hochschule der Medien, Stuttgart (Germany)
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