World Cup 2022: Qatar's 'carbon-neutral' tournament?

Qatar 2022 is finally upon us
Qatar 2022 is finally upon us / Image by Briony Painter - 90min

In February 2021, FIFA announced that the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar - the country with the highest carbon emissions per capita in the world - would be the first ever ‘carbon neutral’ World Cup.

A statement from the federation read: "FIFA is fully aware that climate change is one of the most pressing challenges of our time and believes it requires each of us to take immediate and sustainable climate action.

"For the very first time, FIFA and the host country Qatar have pledged to deliver a fully carbon-neutral World Cup. A comprehensive set of initiatives have been implemented to mitigate the tournament-related emissions, including energy-efficient stadiums and green-building certification of their design, construction and operations, low-emission transportation, and sustainable waste management practices."

David Goldblatt & Katie Rood join Shebahn Aherne to have football's climate conversation about the World Cup in Qatar!

Since that promise was made, climate experts and analysts have scrutinised FIFA and Qatar's 'carbon-neutrality'. From the insistence that offsetting methods such as sowing the seeds for the largest turf farm in the world, to claiming only 3.6 million tonnes of carbon needed to be offset - with Mike Berners-Lee of Lancaster University saying that the actual figure was closer to 10 million - every detail of the World Cup's 'carbon-neutral' claim has been put under the microscope.

In the first episode of 90min's 'The Climate Conversation' podcast, host Shebahn Aherne and guests David Goldblatt - Football for Future’s Chief Advisor and writer of Playing Against The Clock, a report which provided the first provisional estimate of the impact of global sport on the climate - and Katie Rood - Hearts & New Zealand striker, trustee and on the board for Football for Future, and one of the most forward-thinking and vocal sustainability advocates in sport - took an in-depth look at the Qatar World Cup and FIFA's climate claims.

Speaking about his initial thoughts of the World Cup's carbon neutrality, Goldblatt stated:

"Qatar 2022 will still emit and enormous amount of carbon. "

David Goldblatt

"On the one hand it's really, really good news that FIFA and the Qataris are committed to the notion of carbon neutrality, that they're prioritising the issue of climate and doing a bit of climate education around. Certainly compared to any World Cup that's been held before the environmental policy, and the environmental ambition of Qatar 2022 is in a different class so that is to be lauded and applauded and I'm really pleased about that.

"On the other hand, and this is not just for Qatar 2022, but a lot of people who claim carbon neutrality, it's a pretty problematic concept and that's before, first and foremost, Qatar 2022 will still emit an enormous amount of carbon.

"There will be no shortage of carbon, most of it coming from air travel of fans to and from as well as the construction of stadiums and energy use and so on. And what Qatar 2022 is doing to be carbon neutral is offsetting those carbon emissions which means that you're going to invest in projects of carbon sequestration which take carbon out of the atmosphere, or you're going to invest in re-forestation so that hopefully somewhere down the line those trees will absorb some carbon from the atmosphere. Or you invest in renewable energy projects which, again, reduces carbon emissions so the idea is that it will all balance out.

"The problem is, however, first and foremost that Qatar has massively underestimated the scale of emissions very seriously. Carbon Market Watch did a study recently of the plans and much of the construction, and the consequences of the construction, have not been included, a couple of million tonnes worth of carbon dioxide has probably been missed.

FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Previews
The Qatar World Cup / Dean Mouhtaropoulos/GettyImages

"And then there's the problem of offsets themselves, they're usually used as a get-out-of-jail-free card and it doesn't quite work like that. In the first place we desperately need to reduce emissions, and the concrete effect of those emissions, now and many of the re-forestation programmes in particular, if they work, are only going to take carbon out of the atmosphere 20-30 years hence. Given the kind of emergency we're in, it's a bit late.

"There are many problems with Qatar's re-forestation plan. Many don't result in trees growing but ultimately saplings dying and that's not helping anyone.

"And then finally, the problem with the renewable energy investments is that renewable energy is becoming very cheap - there's a lot of investment happening in renewable energy, so it's not clear that paying up into an offset for that is going to create more renewable energy. It's stuff that was already going to happen anyways, so we're not reducing the overall level of emissions by investing in it.

"On balance, I'm wondering if this really is a carbon-neutral event. I think we're some way short of that."

One of the most damning indictments of FIFA and Qatar to date has come from climate scientist professor Kevin Anderson of Manchester University, who said what FIFA have insisted is both 'deeply misleading' and 'incredibly dangerous'.

David, however, believes FIFA are not intentionally misleading the public, and are rather a victim of the issues surrounding carbon emission calculations.

"In defence of FIFA I'd say that everyone is having this struggle calculating carbon emissions, I mean this is the first time we've had a real proper go at tracking the carbon emissions of a World Cup and it's not a simple process.

"I think that the Qataris and FIFA have been over-optimistic in their underestimation, but I don't think it's entirely duplicitous."

David Goldblatt

"We're learning, and they're learning, and I don't necessarily think that it's a conspiracy here. I think it's poor analysis and being rather over-optimistic.

"The best we can say, rather than making this a kind of endless fight over 'you're saying this, you're not saying this', let's all treat this as a collective learning process and recognise that the World Cup produces an enormous amount of carbon - it's a very carbon intensive spectacle. We all need to learn and tune into that as much as possible.

"I think that the Qataris and FIFA have been over-optimistic in their underestimation, but I don't think it's entirely duplicitous. I think it's also that everybody is just learning how this thing works."

David would add that the biggest concern around the tournament is whether or not an offset model can even work to combat the emissions of a huge sporting event - stating that, if it doesn't, the future of the World Cup tournament may be in danger.

"The real issue, or the really worrying thing, is not so much whether they got the numbers right but whether the offset model really works or not. If it doesn't, is it possible to have a carbon-neutral World Cup at all? And if that's the case, can we carry on having World Cups? That's a really key question, that's where we should be focusing our fire if you like.

"All of the predictions that I'm reading about the scale of climate change, and the scale of carbon emission reductions that we need to mobilise in order to make the planet habitable over the next 20-30 years, we may well have to think about this. I don't think it's entirely unfeasible.

"On the other hand I don't want to imagine a future where you don't have a cosmopolitan celebration through football. It would be tragic if we had reached a situation where we'd already blown so much carbon that events like this became unfeasible, but it is not inconceivable and that's all the more reason for sport in general, and football in particular, to be mobilising massive climate action within football and more widely because that's the only way we're going to keep this show on the road."

Key to preserving tournaments like the World Cup may very well be athletes speaking out and calling for clubs and organisations to take action. Katie Rood highlighted the impact an athlete can have, saying:

"If anyone who was a little bit of a hypocrite did nothing then we wouldn't get anything done, so I think we just need to embrace the hypocrisy and work towards change where we can."

Katie Rood

"I think there are more and more athletes who have started to speak up about it. Initially what I found was that it was more water-based athletes actually that were more tuned into the environmental crisis, but I think as a footballer at international level we tend to travel and see part of the world and you see the impact that us humans have had on the natural world and it's hard not to reconcile with that.

"I think it's coming more and more into focus, but I'd say for athletes that hardest thing is the hypocrisy around it. We do travel a lot, especially at the elite levels of the game, and it's hard to speak up about being an environmentalist when you do have a high-carbon lifestyle, but I think we just need to embrace that. If anyone who was a little bit of a hypocrite did nothing then we wouldn't get anything done, so I think we just need to embrace the hypocrisy and work towards change where we can."

Al Bayt Stadium / KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/GettyImages

A serious issue with Qatar's hosting of the World Cup has been the need to build eight new stadiums for the tournament. David, in discussing the issues with this, revealed a number of ways in which stadiums can, and should be, build in a more sustainable way.

"In the future, we're really going to have to going to have to build fewer stadiums, build less grandiose stadiums, but above all build different kinds of stadiums.

"Forest Green Rovers, on a small scale, are building Britain's first new wooden stadium for over 100 years. Wood technology in construction has changed a lot so you can now build a stadium out of wood. The carbon consequences of that, compared to one made of steel and concrete, are very different.

"The Climate Pledge Arena in Seattle that opened recently, instead of knocking it down, they rebuilt the arena, which again saves enormous quantities of carbon. They also reused giant amounts of steel and glass from the old arena when building it, so there's a lot of things that we can do to reduce the emissions associated with construction but we're going to have to make that a pre-requisite of hosting major events."

The onus isn't just on organisations to combat climate change however. As Katie Rood says, there are plenty of ways for individuals to make a real difference.

"Being a bit more sustainable in your every day choices is the way to go.

"I think the thing with football is that every club has a huge community around it, whether it's in the Premier League or in the lower leagues, and if a club can show the way in what they can do in investing in renewable energy and just shifting the culture to a more sustainable one around the club then there's no reason that they then can't extend that to the community.

"I was at Southampton recently and they have the Halo Effect where they plant trees for every academy player that gets their first team debut, and they integrate it into the club culture which is really cool and hopefully it's something we can see flourish around the football community worldwide.

Katie Rood
Katie Rood is using her platform to combat climate change / Bryn Lennon/GettyImages

"In terms of a personal level, my biggest introduction to sustainability was going plant-based. I've been vegan for seven-and-a-half years now so that's part of it, I also try not to fly back to New Zealand too often - I think COVID helped with that - but yeah, I haven't been back home too much.

"It's just everyday things and I'm just trying to find the most sustainable alternative. I don't buy new clothes, and when I get thrown new training gear I tend to pass them on to friends and stuff so just every little bit helps. I try and use my platform and voice to share ideas and inspire people to go about making those changes."