Will the World Cup in Qatar pollute much more than expected?

In recent weeks, hundreds of thousands of people have flocked to Qatar to watch the men’s soccer World Cup, scheduled between November 21 and December 18. To ensure the smooth running of the tournament and manage an unusual flow of tourists, starting from 2011 the country has built seven new stadiums, several hotels, roads and even an airport. In recent weeks, the tournament has been at the center of various controversies, caused for example by Qatar’s attitude towards human rights and the climatic impact of the event. Organizers have repeatedly sponsored the Worlds as a “carbon neutral” event, claiming that its CO2 and other greenhouse gases will all be offset. But considering the travel, the organization of matches, the management of an anomalous flow of tourists and the construction of numerous infrastructures, the promise seems difficult, if not impossible, to keep. How many emissions will the World Cup produce in Qatar? Giving a precise answer is not easy: we have taken stock of the situation, analyzing various estimates, official and unofficial.

The official estimates

In June 2021, the organizers of the tournament – FIFA, the FIFA World Cup Qatar Llc company and the Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy (SC), responsible for the organization and management of infrastructures – published an in-depth study on the environmental impacts of the event and the strategies that will be implemented to reduce them. Among other things, the report states that “organizing the tournament involves building and renovating major infrastructure, transporting thousands of people to games and events, providing accommodation, managing waste and broadcasting with more than 200 countries”. “The extent of this event inevitably entails an impact on the environment”, we read, which however can be “mitigated” by “efforts made from a sustainable perspective”. As mentioned, the World Cup has often been presented as a “carbon-neutral” or “net-zero” event, and the FIFA website states that the organizers “undertook to reduce and eliminate” all polluting emissions related to the event. According to the organizers, between 2011 and 2023 the organization and holding of the World Cup in Qatar will produce a total of 3.6 million tons of CO2 equivalent, a unit of measure used to aggregate all greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide (CO2), which contribute to global warming. This is more than that produced by a country like Iceland in an entire year, and about 1.4 million tons more than the 2.2 million total estimated by FIFA for the organization of the World Cup in Russia in 2018.

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95 percent of World Cup emissions in Qatar will be indirect, mainly generated by team and fan travel (1.9 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent), accommodation for football players, the public and staff (728 thousand tons) and the construction of infrastructure, such as stadiums (893 thousand tons). Collectively, according to official estimates, these three categories account for 96 percent of all estimated emissions.

Underestimated numbers?

The estimate of 3.6 million tons of CO2 An equivalent proposed by FIFA and the other organizers of the event has been challenged by various independent associations. Last May, for example, the Brussels-based non-governmental organization Carbon Market Watch (CMW) published a study in which it expressed “serious doubts” about the alleged climate neutrality of the tournament, stating that the data presented by the organizers regarding emissions “probably underestimate the real climate impact of the event”.

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CMW specifically considered the emissions related to the construction and maintenance of six new permanent stadiums and one temporary stadium over time. According to Fifa, the construction of the new temporary Stadium 974 would have involved the emission of almost 438,000 tonnes of CO2 equivalent, while the construction of the other six permanent structures only 206 thousand tons, of which 202 thousand related to demountable structures, such as the stands and other spaces designed for the tournament, and only 4.5 thousand to the actual construction of the buildings. As explained by CMW, this apparent contradiction – the construction of a single temporary stadium emits almost 440 thousand tons of CO2 equivalent, and that of six permanent stadiums weighing just 4.5 thousand tons – is justified by the fact that the organizers spread the environmental impact of the permanent stadiums over time, considering a potential period of use of around 60 years for each structure, but then included in the final count only the 46 days in which the World Cup is actually held in 2022 and another 24 days relating to the so-called “Club World Cup”, the 2019 and 2020 editions of which were held in Qatar, for a total of 70 days usage of stadiums in the last three years. Another report published by FIFA in February 2022 estimated that the construction of each new permanent stadium produces a total of over 270,000 tonnes of CO2 equivalent. This, according to CMW, would have been the data spread over the 60 years of potential use of each stadium, so as to result in a minimum quota for the only 70 days counted in the assessment of the tournament’s environmental impact.

Consequently, concluded the NGO, the impact of the six new stadiums would not be 206 thousand tons of CO2 equivalent, as indicated by Fifa, but of 1.6 million tons (270,000 tons multiplied by each of the six new stadiums): an amount almost eight times higher. “In this way the construction of infrastructure becomes by far the main cause of emissions for the 2022 World Cup, while now in the report [ufficiale] is indicated only in third place”, says the NGO. Recently, based on the criticisms of Carbon market watch, the news has circulated in Italy, also relaunched by some politicians, according to which the world championships would produce a quantity of CO emissions2 eight times as much as Iceland produces each year. As confirmed by Carbon market watch to Scoreboard Politics, this is a misunderstanding: the emissions related to the construction of the stadiums could be underestimated by eight times, but it is wrong to extend the calculation to the total polluting emissions produced by the tournament.

Emissions from travel and journeys

In addition to the construction of infrastructure, travel will also have a significant impact on the emissions of the 2022 World Cup. According to Fifa, these should in fact represent 51.7 percent of total emissions, equal to 1.9 million tons of CO2 equivalent, mainly due to the international flights that will take fans to Qatar. However, the official report does not seem to consider an important element: shuttle flights specially organized to connect neighboring countries with Doha, the capital of Qatar, in a few hours and allow even more people to attend the matches.
As recently pointed out by the BBC, 1.2 million tourists are expected to arrive in Qatar to attend the World Cup, but the country has only 30,000 hotel rooms available, most of which have been booked in advance for the teams and their staffs. As a result, many people have decided to stay in neighboring countries, such as the United Arab Emirates, and take flights of a few hours to go and watch matches. For example, already in May Qatar Airways had announced its intention to organize more than 160 flights a day to allow tourists to move quickly in the area of ​​the Arabian peninsula. FIFA had told CNN that the emissions produced by these flights will be added at a later time and will add up to the initial estimate of 3.6 million tons of CO2 equivalent. According to estimates by the French startup Greenly, which helps companies manage their environmental impact, the world championships could produce a total of 6 million tons of CO2, almost double what is officially forecast.

The mechanism for zeroing emissions

The organizers of the World Cup aim to eliminate the event’s emissions and achieve climate neutrality thanks to a compensatory mechanism, the so-called Global Carbon Council (Gcc), established in 2019 in collaboration with the Gulf Organization for research and development ( Gord). This should support various eco-sustainable projects in Qatar and in the Persian Gulf region, providing “credits” that FIFA and the other organizers of the World Cup can buy to offset – and therefore cancel, at least on paper – their emissions. For example, among the projects approved so far by the initiative and listed on its website, we find the construction of a wind farm in Serbia, which would reduce polluting emissions by around 402 thousand tons of CO2 equivalent per year. The mechanism should guarantee credits useful for canceling 1.8 million tons of CO2 equivalent, then half of the total officially budgeted for the tournament. As reported by the Gcc website, as of 6 December 2022, the six projects approved by the initiative would be able to reduce emissions by less than 800,000 tonnes. Hundreds of other projects have applied and are awaiting approval. Furthermore, various news agencies and NGOs, including Carbon Market Watch, have highlighted that many of these projects could be built independently of the World Cup in Qatar, a dispute that casts doubt on the effective impact of the credit trading mechanism.

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About David Martin

David Martin is the lead editor for Spark Chronicles. David has been working as a freelance journalist.

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