When the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA), the world’s governing body for soccer, proclaimed that the 2022 World Cup in Qatar would be “a fully carbon-neutral event,” the collective chortle that emerged from environmentalists could have powered a wind farm. The environmental nonprofit Carbon Market Watch blasted what it called FIFA’s “creative accounting” and issued a report charging that World Cup organizers’ stated goal “to reach carbon neutrality before the tournament kicks off” was fanciful at best. Carbon footprint calculations, the report noted, “can only take place after the event,” so heralding net-zero status beforehand “is premature and unworkable.”
As the passions of soccer fandom spark into flame during the World Cup, it makes sense to slow down and rationally assess FIFA’s sustainability claims. The stakes are higher than ever: the effects of climate disruption continue to intensify across the globe, and the United Nations Environment Program is imploring nations to “urgently reduce greenhouse gas emissions to limit the impacts of climate change.” While the carbon footprint of 64 soccer matches played over a single month’s time might appear trifling, compared with the enormous climate challenge we collectively face, FIFA’s slippery stance symbolizes the all-too-common misleading practices that many organizations, companies and governments use to hoodwink people into thinking they are addressing climate change while instead doing little.
To many, World Cup organizers’ claim of “a fully carbon-neutral” tournament in Qatar carries the unmistakable tinge of greenwashing: a public display of concern for the environment and an inclination to claim credit for providing solutions while doing the bare minimum, if anything, to make actual ecological improvements. And this isn’t just an issue for soccer: most mega sporting events are carbon disasters. In short, this amounts to virtue signaling wrapped in a sporty green cloak, the type of “covert narcissism ... disguise[d] as altruism” that Taylor Swift warned us about in her song “Anti-Hero.” Not only is greenwashing rooted in deception, but it structures permission to press ahead with status-quo pollution when, in reality, we need urgent action.
The Qatar World Cup is shaping up to be a quintessential greenwash. In its recent report, Carbon Market Watch found that when FIFA tabulated the carbon footprint for building seven new stadiums, it ignored enormous sources of carbon, underestimating emissions by a factor of eight. The tournament’s matches will be staged in eight stadiums, only one of which predates the run-up to the World Cup. One of the new venues—called Stadium 974 because it was constructed with 974 shipping containers—will be disassembled for reuse after the mega event, a process that carries its own carbon load. Carbon Market Watch’s report noted that many of Qatar’s “legacy plans raise questions about how sustainable they will be in practice,” given their quixotic “accounting methodology,” which is rooted in assumptions about local demand for World Cup–quality stadiums in the wake of the tournament.
World Cup hosts often maintain that stadiums built for the tournament will remain in robust, perpetual use after its conclusion—a claim that allows them to spread their carbon footprint over many years versus all at once during construction and the event. A spokesperson for the Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy, one of the World Cup’s organizers, told Bloomberg that it is “working to ensure there will be no ‘white elephants’ after the tournament by developing legacy uses for all the tournament venues.” But it’s hard to believe claims that the cavernous FIFA-standard stadiums built for the event will be used regularly in the years to come—even if they are slightly downsized afterward. After all, Qatari soccer culture is relatively undeveloped. Even soccer-mad countries such as Russia, Brazil and South Africa—hosts of the previous three men’s World Cups—have been left with a herd of white-elephant stadiums.
In addition to the carbon cost of the stadiums, Qatar expects to see a whopping 1,300 daily flights to and from the country during the World Cup. But that’s not the only source of airplane emissions. The grass seeds to give rise to the tournament’s pristine pitches have been flown in from North America on climate-controlled planes. And these fields won’t water themselves. The groundskeepers who maintain the eight stadium pitches, as well as the 136 practice fields, douse each field with 10,000 liters of desalinated water every day in the winter. In the summer the pitches require a whopping 50,000 liters each. The energy-intensive desalination process—necessary in Qatar because of the country’s negligible surface and groundwater supplies—only adds to the carbon footprint.
Beyond this, FIFA’s sustainability claims are highly reliant on carbon-offset schemes. Offset programs, which allow people and businesses to purchase carbon credits that pay for environmental projects around the world in exchange for canceling out their own carbon footprint, are not only notorious for being ineffectual but also for jump-starting “carbon colonialism,” whereby countries in the Global South are charged with executing carbon-offset projects that only end up benefiting the environmental ledgers of the Global North. For example, an investigation by the Oakland Institute found that Green Resources, a forestry company registered in Norway, set up carbon-offset schemes in Uganda that led to the disruption of more than 8,000 people’s livelihoods through forced displacement and pollution.
Qatar World Cup organizers helped established their own carbon-offset agency called the Global Carbon Council, which has thus far authorized three projects: a hydroelectric plant and a wind farm in Turkey and a wind farm in Serbia. But Carbon Market Watch policy team member Gilles Dufrasne told Le Monde, “These are renewable energy projects that are generally excluded from the carbon market system. Buying these credits has no beneficial effect on the climate, since they do not change the viability of the project that generates them.”
FIFA’s greenwashing extends to sponsorship, too. Earlier this year QatarEnergy, one of the world’s largest purveyors of liquified natural gas, signed on as an official FIFA sponsor. According to a Natural Resources Defense Council report, liquified natural gas is not the vaunted “bridge fuel” that boosters promise: such gas can actually forestall the transition to renewables when people choose it rather than going straight to greener options such as wind or solar. Yet FIFA’s announcement of the deal stated that QatarEnergy is “responsible for the development of cleaner energy resources.” Hydrocarbon sponsorships are pure-grade greenwashing and have no place in the climate change era.
We are looking at a climate Qatarstrophe. The Qatar World Cup shows that FIFA-style sustainability is a bit like trying to buy Bigfoot with a bucket of cryptocurrency: just because you believe something is real does not make it so.
Sports mega events are popular with elected officials and well-positioned economic elites because they set the stage for grin-and-grip photo opportunities replete with back-room backslapping and deal cutting. With billions of dollars swishing through the global sport system, mega events provide proximity to money, power and prestige. Amid this high-stakes money shuffle, environmental concerns are often sidelined, relegated to an afterthought. Governments, sport bodies such as FIFA and their corporate partners continue to get away with it because there is almost no independent oversight and thus little accountability.
Soccer isn’t alone in this. Three recent Olympics—Tokyo 2020, Rio de Janeiro 2016 and Sochi 2014—earned some of the worst environmental sustainability scores. When it comes to sports mega events, sustainability claims are typically more aspirational than verifiable.
All this raises an important question: Is it even possible to stage a carbon-neutral sports mega event? The ever expanding size of these events likely puts net-zero emissions out of reach. One recent study found that between 1964 and 2018, the soccer World Cup and the Olympics grew some 60-fold in terms of the number of sports, athletes, journalists, spectators, marketing and costs involved. Mandating the elimination of fresh stadium construction could help limit emissions, but that would essentially mean creating a short list of potential hosts who are historically most responsible for global heating in the first place. The carbon footprint from travel—which FIFA says accounts for 52 percent of all Qatar World Cup emissions—is baked into the global tournament and hard to sidestep unless the number of traveling fans was curtailed, a prospect that is difficult to envision.
Sports mega events, as they are currently organized, are unsustainable. Since FIFA and the International Olympic Committee ramped up their environmental claims back in the 1990s, their events have only become bigger, and their impacts have only become more severe. Greenwashing anesthetizes the public to the environmental impacts of the sports mega events, duplicitously insinuating that individual consumer choices will ameliorate the unfolding ecological crisis. Greenwashing blunts the reality that sports mega events are shape-shifting vehicles for global capital that leave indelible marks on cities, ecosystems and our collective future.
This is an opinion and analysis article, and the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.