It’s pretty clear the 2022 World Cup will be incredibly unique: it’s the first World Cup to be held in the Middle East and the first to be played in the winter.
It will also be the first carbon-neutral World Cup. Or at least, that’s what Qatar and FIFA claim.
Carbon neutrality is achieved by offsetting any carbon emissions through sustainable, quality projects. This isn’t the first time carbon neutrality has been invoked in the sporting context. The 2020 Tokyo Olympics were billed as the first carbon-neutral Olympics, and China conversely claimed the 2022 Beijing Olympics would be the first carbon-neutral Olympics.
Both of those claims are lies — neither event was carbon neutral. Carbon neutrality can only be truly determined after the event is over, when the full scope of the event’s carbon footprint can be understood. Claiming carbon neutrality prematurely is simply predictive and ultimately useless. Nevertheless, there are various reasons why Qatar’s “carbon-neutrality” claim is already problematic.
Qatar is the smallest host country for a World Cup, boasting only one major city — Doha. The country’s geographical area is seen as a massive environmental benefit, as, in a more compact area, travel emissions will be significantly reduced. This will certainly be true when compared to previous tournaments, like the 2018 World Cup, where fans and teams had to travel to different Russian cities for various games. Comparatively, the 2022 World Cup will be hosted in eight stadiums within Doha and its surrounding areas. As a result, players and fans no longer have to take flights between cities and can stay in the same accommodations throughout the entire tournament.
Yet this is also the source of a major problem — there are now eight massive stadiums within 55 kilometres of Doha. Qatar has built seven more stadiums, each with a minimum capacity of 40,000, which will host the tournament. The construction of this much new infrastructure is already environmentally devastating.
Furthermore, considering Qatar only had one major stadium before being named host, there is no guarantee that these stadiums will continue to be extensively used after the World Cup has ended. It’s a common problem that previous hosts have faced — after the 2014 Brazil World Cup, one stadium now partly serves as a bus parking lot. It is incredibly unsustainable to build so much new infrastructure with uncertain future value.
Additionally, Qatar Airways announced that they partnered with many regional carriers that will allow fans to stay in neighbouring countries and travel in and out of Qatar to attend the games. Furthermore, the 2026 World Cup will be the first to be hosted across three countries — Mexico, Canada, and the United States. If Qatar’s small size offers such a huge advantage, the plans for the next tournament and the announcement by Qatar Airways are completely contradictory.
Furthermore, to mitigate the carbon emissions, Qatar will create the largest large-scale tree-and-turf nursery in the world to absorb any carbon emissions. That nursery will also produce the grass for the stadiums. Yet this is still problematic. Carbon dioxide needs to remain within these green spaces for centuries before anyone can credibly claim that carbon emissions have been successfully mitigated. The trees and plants in this turf farm will likely be dead by then.
It should be obvious by now that Qatar and FIFA lacked integrity when announcing their sustainability plans.
“Football has the power to radically shift mindsets on climate change and mainstream climate action,” explained Isha Johansen, the president of the Sierra Leone Football Association and FIFA Council member, to the 2021 UN Climate Change Conference summit.
“We can amplify key messages that will help to educate fans on climate change and encourage them to play their part in protecting the planet and this beautiful game,” said Johansen.
Johansen is right — soccer has the power to create change. But right now FIFA is spreading a false message about the World Cup that is misleading for fans.
The decision to extend hosting privileges to a Middle Eastern country is an admirable one. Soccer is a global sport, so it’s only right that the World Cup is hosted in various locations, including the Middle East.
Yet, FIFA needs to be more responsible. This means establishing more strict regulations that allow for football to grow while also being environmentally friendly. Making global football a more sustainable sport is certainly going to be difficult — but it isn’t impossible.