Since controversially being awarded the 2022 FIFA World Cup back in 2010, Qatar has promised that the soccer tournament—which kicks off on November 20—will be carbon-neutral. This would be an impressive feat for any major sporting event, given the need to build new infrastructure, accommodate teams and fans, move them around, and run the actual games. But it is an even more daunting challenge in this small Gulf state. Qatar is heavily reliant on fossil fuels, is blisteringly hot, and had barely any suitable facilities prior to the event.
Nevertheless, its organizers insist the tournament will be carbon-neutral. Skepticism about this claim has understandably been rife, as have allegations of greenwashing. Qatar’s sustainability strategy, broadly speaking, relies first on minimizing emissions as best it can—which has obvious limitations, given the need to build stadiums from scratch and operate them with packed crowds in the desert—and then compensating for any remaining emissions using carbon credits. The practice of offsetting draws criticism at the best of times, but the methods and calculations used to get the Qatar World Cup to net-zero are particularly dubious.
“Our investigation of the available evidence casts serious doubts on this claim, which likely underestimates the tournament’s true emissions levels and climate impact,” the nonprofit Carbon Market Watch (CMW) said in a report released earlier this year. The intentions behind the organizers’ attempts to brand the World Cup as carbon-neutral may be a subject for debate, says Gilles Dufrasne, CMW’s global carbon markets lead, but “what’s clear is they’re not correct.”
Because of its small size, Qatar was always going to need to invest heavily in new stadiums and accommodation. Being a small country also means it’s heavily reliant on imports, making any construction more environmentally taxing. Even the grass seeds for playing surfaces have been sourced from abroad and flown in from the United States on climate-controlled aircraft. Once those seeds have been sown, maintaining a single soccer field in November and December—when temperatures in Qatar are around 20 to 25 degrees Celsius, rather than the 40-plus degrees seen in summer—requires 10,000 liters of water a day. And there are 144 of these fields. Water doesn’t come easily in the desert, desalinating seawater requires lots of energy, and close to 100 percent of the country’s electricity comes from oil and gas. You can see how the emissions would mount.
It’s no surprise, then, that the tournament will produce around 3.6 million tons of carbon dioxide, according to FIFA’s official greenhouse gas emissions report. That’s 1.5 million tons more than the previous edition in Russia in 2018, and more than some countries produce in a year. And this is despite some eye-catching efforts to reduce emissions.
At the heart of these attempts are the tournament’s eight open-air stadiums, the centerpieces to its supposedly green ambitions. Seven have been built from scratch, and the other—Khalifa International—has been refurbished. They’re mostly constructed out of regional, reused, and recycled materials and have been certified for their sustainable design (though the certification body is owned by a real estate investment company created by the Qatari sovereign wealth fund, says Dufrasne). There’s even one venue, Stadium 974, that uses shipping containers as building blocks, enabling it to be fully deconstructed and reassembled in another location after the tournament.
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To handle Qatar’s heat, all except Stadium 974 use a novel cooling system designed by Saud Abdulaziz Abdul Ghani, a professor of air conditioning at Qatar University. Instead of constantly taking in hot air from outside and cooling it, the system forms a layer of cold air inside each stadium and recycles that. Grills scattered throughout guzzle this air in, filter it, funnel it past pipes filled with chilled water to cool it, and then target it at players through pitch-side nozzles and at spectators via diffusers under their seats, rather than filling the broader stadium bowl. The entire system is powered by a solar farm in the desert, and Ghani claims it uses 40 percent less energy than any other cooling system on the market. “The system is ideal for the hot and dry conditions of Qatar,” says Sorin Grama, CEO of Transaera, a startup that is developing a new class of ultra-efficient air conditioning systems but hasn’t been involved in the World Cup.
Surprisingly, losing the cold air through the open roof of each stadium’s main bowl isn’t a concern. Hot air outside is lighter than the denser cool air inside, meaning a bubble of cold air is trapped at the bottom of each stadium. To keep it there, Ghani and his team carried out aerodynamic analysis to understand how each stadium’s shape interacts with the wind, so as to channel the warm external air around and over each stadium’s main opening, rather than into it. The result is stadiums that not only avoid having their cool inner air displaced, but are stunning to look at.
They’ve attracted a lot of attention, understandably, but as far as the net-zero conversation is concerned, they’re just a distraction. Constructing and operating the tournament’s infrastructure only accounts for around a quarter of the World Cup’s total emissions, according to FIFA. Over half of emissions relate to travel and a fifth to accommodation. The single biggest contributor to the tournament’s overall footprint is incoming air travel, accounting for 44 percent of emissions.
What this means is that, despite its impressive architectural and air-conditioning feats, Qatar still needs to purchase 3.6 million carbon credits to offset the tournament. Instead of purchasing those verified by existing neutral standards, the organizers have set up their own system, called the Global Carbon Council, raising concerns about transparency and legitimacy. “The whole point of having a standard is to have a third party who is neutral and independent, so it’s weird to have a standard that is directly connected to the buyer and the organizers,” says Dufrasne.
Here’s where things get really problematic. Many of the council’s credits are being generated by renewable energy projects—such as a wind farm in Serbia—that have been built expressly to offset emissions elsewhere. The argument is that these projects have “saved” carbon by switching people to green energy. But these kinds of projects might not actually generate any additional reduction in greenhouse gasses in the long term, as the carbon they “save” might end up being removed from the energy system anyway by other low-carbon projects that launch in the future. For this reason, other carbon-market standards exclude these types of schemes.
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Not that this matters right now because with only days to go before the tournament, the Global Carbon Council has awarded just 550,000 credits—only 15 percent of what would be needed to achieve carbon neutrality, conservatively speaking. Offsetting itself is also inherently flawed, argues Julien Jreissati, program manager for Greenpeace’s Middle East and North Africa region, as it requires countering emissions that have already occurred with measures that can take years, perhaps even decades, to balance things out. And that assumes the projects actually reduce carbon emissions as predicted.
All of this also assumes that the estimate for the number of credits needed is accurate. In reality, the World Cup’s emissions are likely to be higher than outlined. A shortage of accommodation in Doha, Qatar’s capital city, is forcing many fans to stay in neighboring countries, like Oman and Saudi Arabia, requiring hundreds of match-day flights across the border that haven’t been accounted for. Estimations of air travel emissions assume that fans fly into and out of Qatar from their country of origin—not that they take repeated short-haul flights in the region. The organizers have long claimed that the compact nature of the tournament, with all stadiums located within a short distance of the center of Doha, would save emissions from long-distance travel between tournament sites. But this isn’t true with these shuttles.
According to the CMW report, organizers have also underestimated the emissions involved in the construction of the six permanent new stadiums—by a factor of eight. Instead of attributing these emissions to the tournament, the organizers have spread them out over the expected total lifetime of each venue, which is 60 years. This would make sense if, as the organizers claim, the stadiums are going to be used well into the future (indeed, FIFA’s legacy plans say that they’ll be converted into community facilities and used to host local teams after the World Cup is over). But it’s hard to understand how the stadiums can continue to be used effectively in such a small geographical space, one with fewer than 3 million inhabitants. “Qatar is not going to become a tourism hub overnight,” says Jreissati. “All the investment has been designed for a few weeks, and that’s as unsustainable as it gets.”
Until we have reliable data on how many people attend the event, from where, plus how the stadiums are managed, it’s impossible to know whether the event will be mathematically carbon-neutral. The organizers say that the World Cup’s emissions will be recalculated after the tournament ends, to get a more accurate estimate of its footprint, but if the calculation methods are fundamentally flawed, the exercise is moot. And once the tournament starts, there’s a risk that concerns about potential greenwashing—as well as those around migrant labor conditions and Qatar’s dubious human rights record—will be sidelined and forgotten.
This whole endeavor highlights just how hard it is to make an event truly carbon-neutral. But it also shows that countries and event organizers will nevertheless try (or try to make us think they’re trying) in order to enhance or launder their reputations. Even if they fulfill their emission-slashing promises, “sports-washing” like this can be morally questionable. At the very least, we need to make sure they keep their promises. So enjoy the soccer tournament, but don’t forget its broader impact.