Qatar's World Cup sustainability promises are deficient

By Selina Donald, Founder and Chief Sustainability Advisor, The Bulb
Despite heralding itself as the first carbon neutral World Cup, there are many emission-rich aspects which officials have neglected to take into account

Despite claims of being carbon neutral, with the Qatar World Cup, there are more problems surrounding sustainability than meet the eye. Can you illustrate to our readers what some of these might be?

Qatar is claiming to be ‘on track to hosting a carbon-neutral World Cup.’  In order to justify their carbon neutral claim, the Organising Committee is heavily off-setting the emissions generated.  However, it’s been reported that the total amount of emissions claimed are underestimated by as much as 40%, and that the Qatar World Cup will emit more carbon dioxide than any other recent sporting event

Claims of carbon neutrality in large-scale events are controversial, particularly when they rest heavily on offsetting. Qatar will plant 16,000 trees - which once mature, will offset the annual carbon emissions of 11 Qatari citizens - not nearly enough to balance against building seven stadiums. Qatar organisers cited the ‘meaningful use of the stadiums for decades to come’ and claimed that ‘only a small fraction of emissions should be associated.’ But we must only look at previous World Cup hosts and observe empty shells of stadiums to know that these promises don’t often last long past the final whistle.

As well as stadiums, infrastructure to accommodate nearly 3 million spectators and personnel, required a vast increase in hotels and campsites.  A lot of fans were unable to book accommodation and have stayed in neighboring countries and are flying into Qatar for matches - with as many as 500 flights a day coming in and out of the country and which haven’t been accounted for in the predicted carbon footprint measurement.

Altogether, how much CO2 is due to be emitted over the course of the event?

The Qatar Organising Committee has estimated the total carbon footprint at 3.6 million tonnes of CO2 emissions, which is the equivalent of 775,689 petrol cars driven continuously for a year.

However, as mentioned above, this figure has been widely contested by climate scientists across the globe.  Renowned carbon specialist, Mike Berners-Lee, estimates that the figure is actually closer to 10 million tonnes - almost three times the amount claimed by FIFA. A closer inspection at the sustainability strategy shows that many items have been overlooked, including derigging post-event emissions, the fact that the grass seeds for the pitches were flown in from North America on climate-controlled planes and the 50,000 liters of energy-intensive water systems required to keep the grass in tip-top condition.

You have worked as a sustainability advisor for similar events like the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games. What can be done at such events to limit CO2 output?

Creating a robust strategy which includes measurable targets and KPIs at the start of the contract is key to embedding sustainability into every department.  It cannot be viewed in silo, sustainability must be seen as a behaviour, an approach and a decision making system.

For the Opening and Closing Ceremonies of the Commonwealth Games, we put in place reduction techniques from the outset:

  • Mandating sustainability as a contractual deliverable in all procurement contracts
  • Confirming suppliers based on sustainability and social responsibility evidence
  • Working with local suppliers to not only reduce carbon emissions through reduced mileage (31% of our suppliers were from the West Midlands and 58% of journeys were made within a 50-mile radius of the Alexander Stadium) but it also contributed £4mil to the local economy
  • We provided shuttle bus transportation between train stations, offices and venues which removed the need for workforce and cast to drive and reduced our travel emissions greatly.
  • We powered the entire rehearsal venue with HVO fuel rather than diesel, which reduced emissions by 90%.  The generators were also backed up by solar batteries which we switched to in the evening.


Taking a successful event such as that (or any of the others you have worked on), can you speak on a fundamental difference in approach between those and the Qatar World Cup?

From the outside looking at the Qatar World Cup, I would put forward the difference between transparency and accountability.  The Birmingham Commonwealth Games framed their carbon neutral goals as aiming for a carbon neutral legacy - recognising the impact of large-scale events and taking responsibility in a credible manner which not only included off-setting emissions through planting a 2022 acres woodland in the West Midlands but also through education and upskilling the local community and regenerating parts of Birmingham for generations to enjoy.

The FIFA World Cup is a global influential body, and Qatar had the budget and platform to set a sustainability precedent for the event industry.  Rather than making distracting claims of being a ‘carbon neutral Games’, it could have been transparent and showcased reduction techniques, scaled down consumption and invested in education to upskill the events industry and educate billions of viewers worldwide.

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