behind “carbon neutrality”, the “greenwashing” World Cup

Since Qatar was awarded the FIFA World Cup in 2010, it has never ceased to express high ambitions on the climate issue, even promising to make it “the first carbon-neutral World Cup “. If he has multiplied green initiatives to show his good faith, environmental defenders continue to denounce “greenwashing”.

The organization of a football World Cup is never without consequences for the planet. But the 2022 World Cup, which is due to start on November 20 in Qatar, with its air-conditioned stadiums just out of the ground and its 150 daily plane trips to transport supporters, will certainly remain decried by defenders of the environment as one of the of the greatest “ecological aberrations” in the history of the competition.

Its organizers have however shown high ambitions regarding the climate issue: in January 2020, Qatar promised to make it the first “carbon neutral” World Cup. A few months later, in September, he detailed his roadmap for meeting the challenge. “We will achieve this by measuring, reducing and offsetting all greenhouse gas emissions associated with the tournament”, explained its organizing committee at the time. Massive use of renewable energies, eco-responsible materials, compensation in carbon credits… “The World Cup in Qatar will have a positive impact on the way in which the next World Cups and other high-profile sporting events will be organised”, he repeated.

“This promise of carbon neutrality is absolutely not credible”, denounces Gilles Defrasne, author of a report on the subject for the Belgian NGO Carbon Market Watch. “We are in a blatant example of greenwashing.”

In June 2021, a Fifa report indicated that the 2022 World Cup would produce up to 3.6 million tonnes of carbon dioxide. By way of comparison, France releases about 4.2 million tonnes of it each year. The World Cup in Russia in 2018 generated 2.1 million tonnes of CO2. “It’s inherent in this type of competition which brings together fans from all over the world in one place. As things stand, a football World Cup cannot be ecological. Despite efforts, the environmental impact will remain important”, explains Gilles Dufrasne. “In my opinion, this is also the real problem. While it is high time to take this reality into account for the organization of the next Worlds, Fifa prefers to launch a greenwashing campaign.”

>> To read also: After Qatar, is a “greener” World Cup possible?

“In the heart of the desert, every human gesture has an impact”

The vast majority of CO2 emissions related to the World Cup are generated by transport and the construction of infrastructure. When the event was awarded in 2010, Qatar had the great argument of being able to limit travel by organizing a centralized competition, concentrated around an airport and in a single city, Doha.

Over the past ten years, Qatar has therefore tried to focus on reducing emissions by multiplying green initiatives. While this gas state ranks first in the world for CO2 emissions per capita – they reached 32.5 metric tons in 2019 according to the World Bank –, it notably announced a gigantic solar plan intended to cover 10% of its energy needs or another generalization of the use of electric cars by 2030.

A fortnight before the competition, the showcase of his efforts is undoubtedly the Msheireb eco-district, in the center of Doha, one of the biggest construction sites of the World Cup. Solar panels shine on the roofs of the buildings, all served by a tram. In the middle of hotels, shops and accommodation, planted trees and small bodies of water refresh the atmosphere.

A street in the Msheireb eco-district, built for the 2022 World Cup, in Qatar, June 28, 2022.
A street in the Msheireb eco-district, built for the 2022 World Cup, in Qatar, June 28, 2022. AFP – KARIM JAAFAR

Interesting and welcome initiatives, but which remain largely insufficient to compensate for the damage to the planet, according to Jonathan Piron, historian and author of “Qatar, the land of the wealthy: from the desert to the World Cup”. “We must not forget the geographical characteristics of Qatar. In this country in the heart of the desert, every human gesture has a greater impact than elsewhere on the environment,” he explains.

“Already because the country is not at all autonomous in access to raw materials. For each building built, it was certainly necessary to import, by plane, many materials”, he continues. “For example, installing solar panels is very good. But you have to build them and then recycle them when they are at the end of their life. However, in a climate like this, they deteriorate more quickly. has this been taken into account?

For the historian, the grass on which the players will meet from November 20 is a perfect illustration of the problem. “No matter how hard Fifa tried to meet the standards, hundreds of tons of grass seed had to be flown in from the United States, in air-conditioned planes. With the country running out of water, it then took grow them by watering them with desalinated seawater – a process that is expensive in energy and very disruptive to the ecosystem,” he laments. In total, each of the eight stadiums built for the World Cup requires 10,000 liters of desalinated water per day in winter, 50,000 liters in summer, according to a survey conducted by Reuters.

“When we talk about the environmental impact, we must not only consider the month when the teams and the public will be there. All the pollution generated for ten years to host the event counts”, he summarizes.

The reuse of the infrastructures in question

At the heart of the problem, therefore, is the question of the reuse of the infrastructures built for the occasion. “Who is the Msheireb eco-district intended for? What will become of it after the World Cup? Is it intended to accommodate expatriates? If so, are we sure that it will find a buyer?” , asks Jonathan Piron. In other words, is the pollution generated worth the cost?

The same question remains around stadiums. According to Carbon Market Watch, the carbon footprint around their construction may have been underestimated by a factor of eight. It would thus be necessary to count 1.6 million tonnes of CO2 instead of the 0.2 million displayed by Fifa and the authorities of Qatar.

“Doha believes that the carbon footprint of their construction must be divided by their sixty-year lifespan, ensuring that they will be used again”, explains Gilles Dufrasne. “But for the moment, the authorities remain very vague about what they are going to do with it. And in this country of only 2.4 million inhabitants, it is estimated that there is a real risk that they will not reserve only very occasionally.”

Qatar has already assured that these stadiums will be used to host the Asian Football Cup in the summer of 2023. Six of them will then be dedicated to general public use, for schools, hotels or clubs. The seventh will be completely dismantled. “This stadium also raises a lot of questions. It is supposed to be removable and transportable so that it can be used in future competitions around the world. At the moment, we have absolutely no information on where it could be reused. However, we also know that it is more costly in CO2… If it has to be made to travel thousands of kilometers to its next destination, it is not certain that the planet will gain.”

Added to these issues is the controversial air conditioning of stadiums, perceived in Western countries as the symbol of this “ecological aberration”. “In reality, it is relatively minimal compared to the total emissions even if obviously, it would be better if the stadiums were not air-conditioned at all”, assures Gilles Dufrasne.

A final source of pollution has disrupted the plans of the authorities: air transport. While they hoped to limit internal travel during the month of competition, spectators will constantly fly back and forth from neighboring countries. More than 150 daily return flights are already announced.

Compensation carbone

To keep their promise of carbon neutrality, Fifa and Qatar ensure that they will offset all their greenhouse gas emissions by buying carbon credits, that is to say by supporting programs to reduce or sequestration of CO2 all over the world. “Two weeks before the event, we are far from the mark”, says Gilles Dufrasne. One credit corresponds to one ton of CO2. Qatar must therefore buy 3.6 million credits. To date, he has only purchased 200,000.

“And at the moment, these credits are unlikely to have a positive impact on the climate,” he continues. “Particularly because they finance projects that had little need for it.” The three projects financed include the development of renewable energies in Turkey, “an economically viable project, which would have seen the light of day with or without the help of Qatar”, estimates Gilles Dufrasne.

“Not to mention that international carbon offset organizations already exist, but the World Cup preferred to create its own program,” he continues. “This raises a real question of transparency and credibility.”

Beyond that, the carbon offsetting system itself is subject to debate. “Financing good deeds elsewhere in the world does not repair the damage that we do”, laments Jonathan Piron. “Again, this is a textbook example of greenwashing.”

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