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What would a green World Cup look like?

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A truly green World Cup would look very different than today's tournament (Credit: Jewel Samad/Getty Images)
What would it take to really make the World Cup, and other sports mega-events, a genuine part of a low-carbon world?
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Humanity is deep in the throes of the World Cup. Billions of people are expected to tune in to at least one match of the 2022 Qatar tournament – a significant proportion of the global population.

With reach like this comes scrutiny, including on the climate impact of such a massive event. Qatar has built seven new stadiums and refurbished an eighth for the World Cup finals. It has also built a new airport, a metro system, new roads and around 100 new hotels. Some 1.2 million visitors are expected, the vast majority arriving by air, with many staying in nearby cities like Abu Dhabi and Dubai, then taking shuttle flights to matches.

In an attempt to make this World Cup the first that is "fully carbon neutral", Qatar has promised to offset its carbon emissions (Read more about the limitations of carbon offsetting). But many are not convinced. One analysis found the tournament could end up with a carbon footprint three times higher than it claims. Another found the carbon footprint attributed to the new stadiums were in reality about eight times higher, and heavily criticised a new carbon credit standard set up by organisers for not complying with international standards. A set of advertising complaints have now been filed across several European countries over Fifa's promotion of its carbon neutrality claims, while several footballers have sent an open letter to Fifa asking it to "ditch" the claim and only use offsets as a last resort.

It is hard to think of a different sector that attracts the attention of literally billions of human beings across the globe – Suki Hoagland

The scale of the challenge is undeniably vast. Some might question whether the World Cup as we know it now – with teams, fans and officials flying long distances and massive infrastructure development – can ever become sustainable. Would the basic model of the event need to change to become greener, and if so, what might that look like?

"It is hard to think of a different sector that attracts the attention of literally billions of human beings across the globe," says Suki Hoagland, a lecturer at the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability in California. "It will be a bellwether of how the rest of society is responding."

The Lusail Iconic Stadium in Doha is one of seven new stadiums being built for the 2022 Qatar World Cup (Credit: Matthew Ashton/Getty Images)

The Lusail Iconic Stadium in Doha is one of seven new stadiums being built for the 2022 Qatar World Cup (Credit: Matthew Ashton/Getty Images)

The past three World Cups are estimated to have generated between 2.2 to 2.8 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (MT CO2e) each. But this year's tournament is a step-change. One estimate calculated the current Qatar event could generate as much as 10 million tonnes CO2e – an amount similar to the annual emissions of Armenia.

It's a huge amount, albeit still a small fraction of global emissions. But since emissions across the planet as a whole need to be halved by 2030, Fifa should also, at the very least, halve its emissions by 2030, argues Khaled Diab, communications director at Carbon Market Watch and editor of its report on Fifa's carbon neutrality claim. Considering that sport is "not a life-or-death sort of activity", perhaps it should be even more ambitious than this, he adds.

What is CO2e?

CO2 equivalent, or CO2e, is the metric used to quantify the emissions from various greenhouse gases on the basis of their capacity to warm the atmosphere – their global warming potential.

There are two major areas of environmental impact from the World Cup. Number one: transport. Flying by air is incredibly carbon-intensive, making fan flights the largest source of emissions from every major international sporting event, says Madeleine Orr, a lecturer at Loughborough University London and founder of the Sport Ecology group of academics. And then there is the gigantic energy and material footprint of building new stadiums, along with the transport networks and hotels to accommodate hundreds of thousands of fans.

These two areas overlap because they are largely around the movement and accommodation of fans, not the footballers and their entourage.

Better buildings

Much can be done to reduce the environmental impact of new buildings, of course. One obvious starting point is sourcing low-carbon energy to power them, such as by building solar projects nearby. "Your energy consumption should all come from renewable energy," says Dale Vince, owner of Forest Green Rovers football club in the UK and founder of Ecotricity, a renewable electricity company. "But at the same time, you should be super-efficient with that, using low consumption devices like LEDs for floodlights, for example, and energy efficient appliances."

To lower emissions, construction could move away from conventional concrete-based structures, says Vince. Carefully considering the connections between key buildings in the World Cup could also help lower emissions, with electric buses, electric cars, personal mobility scooters or simply walking prioritised.

Vince envisions a green World Cup based in stadiums built entirely out of wood, all situated close together "so that if you fly in, you're in the World Cup village, and you can watch every game you want to without travelling other than by electric bus".

Moving matches

Another way to reduce the huge footprint of building many new stadiums would be to avoid building them in the first place. One option here could be reducing the number of teams playing in the final tournament, says Russell Seymour, executive chair at the British Association for Sustainable Sport. Having hubs where the top teams from each region come together for a smaller final tournament would reduce impacts, he notes.

Hundreds of thousands of people fly long distances to attend the World Cup, leading to a heavy carbon footprint (Credit: Oliver Hardt/Fifa/Getty Images)

Hundreds of thousands of people fly long distances to attend the World Cup, leading to a heavy carbon footprint (Credit: Oliver Hardt/Fifa/Getty Images)

Claire Poole, a sports event consultant and founder of the Sport Positive summit, says matches could also take place in locations with existing stadiums and energy efficient infrastructure, as well as being well connected to transport routes.

Fifa could even consider a permanent venue for the World Cup, says Diab. "The lowest carbon stadium or the most environmentally friendly stadium is the stadium that is not built." This is especially the case where stadiums are being built in areas that may not be able to find a use for stadiums after the World Cup is over. In Qatar, for example, he says, it's "open to question" how so many world class stadiums in such a small geographical area will be used after the tournament. "We've seen in previous tournaments of these becoming stranded assets, just left to crumble or being underutilised after the World Cup."

We just have to divorce it from being the biggest centralised party in the world to become the biggest decentralised party in the world – Madeleine Orr

One stadium built in the Amazon in Brazil for the 2014 World Cup, for example, sat mostly empty two years later. And when stadiums do stay in common use, there could be other environmental issues – Qatar's legacy plan, for example, expects to see a rise in tourism going forwards, which will likely involve greater emissions as visitors travel to its dozens of new hotels and stadiums.

A streamlined tournament

Orr's vision of smaller, greener World Cups would reduce the focus on them as tourist events, eliminating the need for 60,000-seater stadiums, and focus more on their nature as international competitions that feature the best athletes around the world.

Downsizing attendance at the World Cup would help to do away with the expectation for host countries to provide huge stadiums and several hundred thousand hotel rooms, says Orr. It would also open the door to a long list of countries that are currently nowhere near being able to host something of the magnitude of the World Cup, but who could then use their existing stadiums, making it "a lot easier to clean up that [environmental] footprint credibly", Orr says.

Smaller stadiums would also open the door for other sustainability measures, says Orr, like the use of reusable cups – much more feasible for a stadium of 20,000 people than 60,000 people. "Just by reducing the scope of the event, we start to unlock solutions," she says.

These events could see greater media presence to deliver as good an experience as possible to those watching around the world. Designated fan zones already spring up unofficially around the world, notes Orr, but these could be made more official.

A global gathering

"We're very close to having really strong hologram technology and good projector technology that could show you in live time what the field looks like in [for example] China, but in Wembley," says Orr. "All the London or England-based fans would have the option to go to Wembley to watch that game in live time with their fellow fans… with the experience of that elevated, high-stress game, which is really important. There's room for all of this to work. We just have to divorce it from being the biggest centralised party in the world to become the biggest decentralised party in the world."

Some might question whether the World Cup as we know it now can ever become sustainable (Credit: Jewel Samad/Getty Images)

Some might question whether the World Cup as we know it now can ever become sustainable (Credit: Jewel Samad/Getty Images)

Even before this technology exists, regional fan hubs could be established at a larger scale so people can enjoy the excitement without having to travel, notes Poole. It could be a hard sell, however, for many fans who dream of travelling to the World Cup at least once in their lives. And while the pandemic showed that football played behind closed doors can work, "it's not the same – especially on a world stage, we need the fans there", says Poole.

A plausible green solution could therefore be a mix of the two: a downsized event with most tickets going to fans from the region who could travel there without using planes, and quotas on international tourists attending.

Football generates a very unique sense of togetherness – Rutendo Musikavanhu

Another possibility could be a more decentralised World Cup that sees home and away teams playing at the nearest convenient location between the two teams, says Diab, minimising the amount of travel for the teams and their fans. This could also be a way to democratise football, allowing people to go to one game of the World Cup in their local area, he adds: after all, currently only those who can afford the price of tickets, travel and accommodation actually get to see the World Cup in person anyway. "Maybe if you have the distributed system you give an opportunity for more people, actually, not fewer people to attend matches," he says.

Changing hearts

However, there is also the social value of World Cups for host nations to consider. World Cups bring huge prestige for the host nation, but can also bring other lasting social impacts, says Rutendo Musikavanhu, a senior lecturer in architecture and cities at the University of Westminster in London. "These events do present an opportunity for change [and to] engage in political cultural debate," she says. They can bring diverse groups of people together that were previously segregated or marginalised, she says. "Sports do bring people together, there's a unique sense of happiness that is brought about, there's a level of escapism from our day to day."

In her research looking at the legacy of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, for example, one respondent told her it was their first time ever to sit next to somebody of a different skin colour or ethnicity. The participant, who was black, also recounted feeling comfortable for the first time about speaking to a white South African in a bar, she says. "Football generates a very unique sense of togetherness, and a unique level of excitement is brought about by such a platform [as hosting the World Cup]. The World Cup was a vehicle for this [encounter], it allowed people to see beyond themselves."

Protestors gather in front of Adidas, a major Fifa sponsor, in Berlin. They say the 2022 World Cup has seen human rights abuses and greenwashing (Credit: Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Protestors gather in front of Adidas, a major Fifa sponsor, in Berlin. They say the 2022 World Cup has seen human rights abuses and greenwashing (Credit: Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Orr also sees a green World Cup as being hosted by one main country – allowing them to get the benefit of the publicity and tourism brought by the event. "If we have such a decentralised event that all the players and all the teams are in different places, then you've got teams flying all over the world back and forth, which doesn't make any sense."

The offset question

In the longer term, the world could start to see more widespread decarbonisation of aviation through alternative renewable fuels (or even electric planes over short distances), opening up more opportunities for low-carbon travel. Until the time when these kinds of options exist and are affordable, however, the question of offsets is likely to remain.

Offsetting means paying for an external project to reduce or sometimes absorb the emissions a country, organisation or person is emitting. But some argue in many cases they simply don’t work as intended, as, for example, it can be hard to ensure a forest stays standing or be sure a renewable power plant would not have been built even without the investment. Environmentalists are therefore concerned offsets can act as a “dangerous distraction” from what’s really needed – cutting emissions.

You have to be careful about greenwashing and not overstating what you're doing – Roger McClendon

Diab argues the World Cup shouldn't be using offsets at all to claim carbon neutrality – as it gives the misleading impression it is not leading to overall damage to the climate, he says. The event could still promote its contribution to climate finance, he says, but not claim this as negating its own emissions.

But if any carbon offsets are being used to claim "carbon neutrality", the organisers could ensure they are of the highest quality – reliable, long-lasting reductions in emissions that would not have happened without the investment.

An important part of offsetting any World Cup is also taking action to better understand the current footprint today, and setting credible goals for reducing this, says Roger McClendon, executive director of the Green Sports Alliance. "You have to be careful about greenwashing and not overstating what you're doing," he says. This would mean being transparent about progress, he says, even if it means, for example, admitting that only 30% of emissions are credibly mitigated or offset to begin with. “Then we work our way from there to 40%, 50%, till we get to 100% net zero [in future events]."

Back in 2018, Vince's football team, Forest Green Rovers, became the first UN-certified carbon neutral sports club in the world. "It is okay to use carbon offsets, but they can't be used ahead of everything else," says Vince. "You've got to do the measurement properly and diligently, you've got to reduce as far as you possibly can, and then, and only then, use offsets to deal with the residual [emissions]. This is a job that never stops, and Fifa should be doing this with every subsequent World Cup, it should get better and better."

Changing minds

Important as it is for the World Cup to reduce its carbon footprint, its huge reach means it could have far wider and longer-lasting impacts than the month-long event itself.

Sport occupies a hugely important and, in many ways, unique place in global culture. "The potential for the sports industry to increase human awareness and understanding of the challenges we face and the next steps of how to engage, act and adapt behaviours is a 'game changer'," says Hoagland.

In fact, if sport in general embraced a low-carbon approach it could "influence millions of people to make, and accept, changes in their life", says Seymour.

In a letter to Fifa, Tessel Middag from Rangers FC and other footballers asked it to ditch its carbon neutral claim for Qatar and only use offsets as a last resort (Credit: Alamy)

In a letter to Fifa, Tessel Middag from Rangers FC and other footballers asked it to ditch its carbon neutral claim for Qatar and only use offsets as a last resort (Credit: Alamy)

Food, for example, is a comparatively low source of carbon emissions for the World Cup compared to travel and instructures – Fifa's estimates for Qatar 2022 put emissions of food and drink together at less than 1% of total emissions. Still, serving vast amounts of meat – which is far more carbon intensive than vegan and vegetarian sources of protein – sends a wider message to people attending and watching the games.

"Food is just so easy and obvious: don't have animals in the food at the World Cup," says Vince, whose own football club went vegan in 2017. One substantial change many people can make personally is to reduce the quantity of animal products they consume, and our own dietary choices can influence the choices of those around us. "And it's the same for any sporting event. It's the showcase, the symbolism, the example that's being set."

Food options could also be labelled with their exact carbon footprint, Poole adds, so fans could make informed decisions about what they eat, much like we have calories on foods now. Some sports organisers, like Wimbledon, and food brands, like Quorn, are already starting to add this information to their food and menus, she adds. (Read more about whether we should count carbon like calories.)

Green ambassadors

But a green World Cup would have to go much further than changes to food alone: much greater consideration would be put into what is advertised on everything from footballers shirts to banners around the stadium and TV ads. For one thing, there would be a marked absence of products or brands associated with high carbon lifestyles, such as airlines and SUVs, says Seymour.

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There is a huge dissonance between hearing a sports event is "carbon neutral" then attending and seeing airlines and fossil fuel companies advertised on jerseys, agrees Orr. "That is sending a very different message to me about their values and where they're going and what they are trying to achieve, by who they're aligning themselves with, and what they're trying to sell me." Seeing vegan protein, electric car and renewable energy companies advertising would create a very different picture, she says. Sport has done this before, she notes – cigarettes used to be widely advertised in sports including football, for example, but are now no longer promoted in many countries.

Beyond advertising, there is even precedent for Fifa banning countries from participation for political reasons. It could also implement serious penalties if host countries do not meet the expectations on sustainability, says Orr. All this could help ensure sustainability is embedded into the very bidding process from the start.

In fact it's hard to overestimate the impact of a World Cup that visibly embraced and promoted genuine and credible climate action. But individual sports celebrities also have a huge impact on wider culture. It's an engagement that has not always been welcomed by sports organisations, however – many were angered this year when Fifa sent a request to World Cup teams to "focus on the football" rather than discussing human rights issues in Qatar.

A green World Cup could see fans at their national stadiums like Wembley to watch the match digitally rather than flying (Credit: Michael Regan/Getty Images)

A green World Cup could see fans at their national stadiums like Wembley to watch the match digitally rather than flying (Credit: Michael Regan/Getty Images)

Football and other sports have a long history of social activism and supporting racial justice and civil rights, often with huge influence. "Footballers have a huge status as role models, and football is something that inspires hundreds of millions of people around the world," says Seymour. "So what happens in the realm of football has knock on effects in wider society – it sets the tone for a lot of other things."

A truly green World Cup would therefore also mean individual footballers and other sports leaders both speaking about climate action and implementing it in their own lives – such as by avoiding private jet use.

Some people question whether it is fair to ask athletes to take on the climate challenge when they are already tasked with raising the profile of other social justice issues such as Black Lives Matter and gender equality, says Hoagland. "My response has been, 'maybe not fair, but nothing about climate change is fair'."

A long road

Hoagland also points out that sport itself will be negatively impacted by climate change – with everything from heat waves, droughts, flooding and violent weather to sea-level rise and a lack of snow impacting it. "So the sports industry has a vested interest in addressing climate change," she says.

Carbon Count

The emissions from travel it took to report this story were 0kg CO2. The digital emissions from this story are an estimated 1.2g to 3.6g CO2 per page view. Find out more about how we calculated this figure here.

There are of course several climate initiatives in sport already. Perhaps the largest is the UN's Sports for Climate Action Framework, launched in 2018 and now signed by 200 sports organisations including Fifa, which aims to put the sector "on the path of the low carbon economy" by giving signatories set principles and encouraging them to embed environmental considerations into their decisions. The framework has been productive for some organisations that have signed up to it, says Orr, but doesn't specify requirements or the steps they should take.

With all this in mind, it may feel daunting to look ahead to the next World Cup in 2026, when carbon emissions from travel could be set to rise even further: the next tournament will expand from 32 to 48 teams and take place across an entire continent. "Fifa is actively increasing the [climate] impacts, while publishing a carbon reduction plan," notes Seymour.

But, for Diab, things could soon start to look very different if Fifa decided to set the pace for climate action. "Football is a beautiful game, it's about fair play, so Fifa should be leading by example, showing that they want to play fair by the climate, and that they want the beautiful game not to have an ugly underbelly."

Qatar 2022 declined to comment for this piece, but referred us to its sustainability efforts. Fifa did not respond to a request for comment.

 

Jocelyn Timperley is a senior reporter for BBC Future. You can find her on Twitter @jloistf.

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