Amid World Cup criticisms, is it time for sport to be greener?

Environmental advocates have questioned Qatar’s net-zero carbon promise and are urging FIFA to consider impacts of climate change.

As alternative fuel sources become available, the future of aviation could be changed on the quest for net zero emissions. Image: blackqualis, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Flickr.

Qatar promised to host the first carbon-neutral World Cup - but environmental experts doubt Doha’s accounting toward that goal, and are calling for climate impacts to be front and center in deciding the location of future global sporting events.

Qatar, the world’s largest producer of fossil fuel gas, made the vow when it bid for the 2022 FIFA World Cup 12 years ago - but monitoring groups say the tournament hosts deserve a “yellow card” over the pledge as many emissions have been overlooked.

For instance, the country spent at least $229 billion on infrastructure development, including the construction of seven new football stadiums.

But it has undercounted the footprint of the six permanent stadiums constructed for the event by a factor of eight, coming to 1.6 megatonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalent instead of the 0.2 megatonnes of CO2 equivalent reported by Qatar, found a report in May by environmental monitor Carbon Market Watch.

The host nation has also faced criticism for the number of flights that have been operating during the tournament.

State-owned Qatar Airways has helped organise daily air shuttles in and out of Doha on match days from other Gulf cities, including at least 60 daily flights to and from Dubai.

Air travel accounts for almost 52 per cent of the expected emissions from the event, according to a recent report by FIFA.

To achieve its carbon neutrality pledge, Qatar announced a string of initiatives, including using solar-powered stadium air conditioning, repurposing shipping containers as building materials, and purchasing carbon credits to offset emissions.

The offsetting scheme does not work, it’s a scam. The problem with their claim of carbon neutral is that they are basing it on carbon offsets.

Julien Jreissati, program director, Greenpeace

The organisers said they would purchase such offset credits from projects in their own nation and the surrounding region, through a new carbon market standard, the Global Carbon Council (GCC).

But there are not nearly enough credible carbon offsets on the market to meet demand, and many countries and companies are relying heavily on offsets of questionable value rather than reducing emissions in their own operations, analysts say.

The GCC was meant to issue at least 1.8 million carbon credits to offset the World Cup, but only 130,000 had been sold as of May, according to Carbon Market Watch’s report.

Many environmental advocates say Qatar’s carbon-neutral claim for the World Cup amounts to little more than “greenwashing.”

“The offsetting scheme does not work, it’s a scam,” said Julien Jreissati, a program director at Greenpeace.

“The problem with their claim of carbon neutral is that they are basing it on carbon offsets.”

As the World Cup nears its end - with Argentina and France meeting in the final on Sunday - environmentalists say Qatar must continue to face scrutiny over its green pledge and that future events must not treat climate change as an afterthought.

Accounting tricks

In its report, Carbon Market Watch said it was sceptical the GCC would be effective in offsetting emissions generated by the tournament. Doha underestimated the climate change impacts by omitting a range of emissions from its calculations, it said.

Gilles Dufrasne, lead author of the report, said the carbon credits purchased by the host country are derived from renewable energy projects that are already operational and profitable.

“That’s why they don’t have much quality because they are not generating … additional reductions compared to what would have happened anyway,” he said in an interview.

“So it is basically quite unlikely that their impact will actually compensate for the emissions from the tournament.”

Qatar’s World Cup organisers have dismissed Carbon Market Watch’s conclusions as speculative, saying that emissions will be calculated using “best in practice” methods after the tournament ends to ensure they are based on existing activities.

But climate analysts said carbon offsets are being overused as the primary basis of net-zero claims for sporting events.

“We basically have to use a mosaic of measures including demand reduction, including renewable energy and … offsets to some extent. We cannot use one of those measures alone,” said Karim Elgendy, a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute, a think thank.

“You don’t start with offsets; you end with offsets.”

New models needed

Environmental advocates have called on FIFA to develop new models to determine where the World Cup is held in the future.

They say the tournament should not be awarded to countries that require extensive infrastructure development, and that it should ensure fans worldwide have an equal chance of attending.

“These events could actually, instead of being seen as a cash cow … be seen as a real opportunity to create lasting positive change, not only socially or economically but also in terms of sustainability,” said Jreissati of Greenpeace.

However, environmentalists and analysts say that will not be the case with the 2026 World Cup, which will be held across three countries: the United States, Canada, and Mexico.

“Everyone will fly everywhere,” said Elgendy of the Middle East Institute. “There is no promise of any kind of carbon reduction, let alone a net-zero carbon event.”

As part of its climate strategy - launched last year - FIFA said it aims to reduce emissions at the events it organises and that it plans to be carbon-netural as an organisation by 2040.

Meanwhile, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has said that all Olympic Games must be “climate positive” from 2030 onwards - meaning that host cities would need to remove more carbon from the atmosphere than they emit during the event.

Jules Boykoff, a US academic and former football player, said human rights and environmental impacts should be key considerations in the awarding of future sporting events.

“We need to make change, we need to pivot toward a greener future,” said Boykoff, a professor of political science at Pacific University in Oregon. “If not, now, then when? If not through these sports … then how?”

This story was published with permission from Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women’s rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit

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