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Transparency and accountability – addressing the FIFA World Cup’s sustainability claims

December 08 2022

The current FIFA World Cup in Qatar illustrates the challenges for governing bodies and hosts when trying to adopt sustainability strategies around major sports events.   Official claims of carbon neutrality by FIFA and the tournament’s local organising committee have been met by a wave of incredulity, threatening the credibility of both parties.

Transparency and accountability – addressing the FIFA World Cup’s sustainability claims

Environmental organisations and the international media have been quick to criticise the host country’s approach to stadium building, supporter accommodation, and ‘shuttle’ flights, as well as well-documented human rights violations and intolerance of LGBTQ+ rights. 

 In setting out to demonstrate their strong sustainability programmes both FIFA and the local organisers have opened themselves up to the complex challenges facing hosts and owners in trying to prove that large-scale sports event can be delivered in a sustainable way.

Sustainability plan

 The Qatari hosts of the 2022 World Cup have attempted to engage with the issue through an official sustainability strategy plan, published in 2019 and updated in 2020, which identified key sustainability issues and set out activities for addressing them.

 Their aims included designing, constructing, and operating sites that would ‘limit environmental impacts’; measuring, mitigating, and offsetting all emissions; ensuring decent working and living conditions for workers; and enabling a welcoming and respectful environment for fans. This strategy maps on to the UN Sustainable Development Goals and is aligned with the broader FIFA Climate Strategy. 

 Meanwhile, the tournament host website has published its own section on sustainability, claiming that the tournament will leave a lasting legacy of social, human, economic, and environmental development. FIFA are signatories to both the UN Sport for Climate Action initiative and the UN Sport for Climate Action on the Race to Zero programme.

 What is clear is that both FIFA and the Qatari hosts have attempted to engage with the question of sustainability in the broadest sense, as well as environmental sustainability more specifically. In an era of climate crisis, hosts of large-scale sporting events like the World Cup must acknowledge their responsibility for identifying and mitigating short- and long-term climate impacts. 

 However, do their claims of sustainability and carbon neutrality hold up? Furthermore, how can we accurately measure environmental impacts and attempts to mitigate them?

Challenges and accountability

 Looking at the official claims of the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022, alongside the critical responses that have been highlighted, there are two key takeaways: how challenging it is to hold an environmentally sustainable large-scale sporting event, and how difficult it is for journalists and environmental organisations to hold hosts and sponsors accountable.

 FIFA has claimed that this year’s tournament is the first to be fully carbon-neutral, with ‘carbon reduction projects’ used to offset approximately 3.6 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent. 

 Several climate scientists and environmental organisations, however, have questioned both the original accounting and the validity of the offsetting practices.

 A report published by Carbon Market Watch claimed that the actual carbon emissions of the event “may be underestimated by a factor of eight”, putting the real footprint at closer to 10 million tonnes. Meanwhile, Carbon Market Watch and climate scientists including Professor Mike Berners-Lee have also called into question whether or not the particular offset schemes chosen by the organisers will fully compensate for the emissions that the event will generate.

 This problem shows how difficult it can be to estimate accurately the environmental impact of such events. The GHG (Greenhouse Gas) Protocol identifies three levels of emissions: Scope 1, Scope 2, and Scope 3. 

 Scope 3 accounts for indirect emissions, such as travel, infrastructure, and accommodation. These emissions account for 98% of the World Cup’s total emissions, but they are also the most difficult to calculate, given the complex predictions involved. For example, the Carbon Market Watch report argues that the event organisers have massively underestimated the long-term impact of stadium use and temporary infrastructure.

Offsetting questions

 At the same time, others have questioned FIFA’s ‘questionable’ offsetting practices. To offset emissions, organisers have pledged to purchase 3.6 million carbon credits, which will be purchased from the newly-created Global Carbon Council (GCC), rather than the Verified Carbon Standard or the Gold Standard, which are more widely recognised certifying bodies.

 According to Le Monde, three weeks prior to the opening of the World Cup, the GCC had only approved carbon credits for three projects, totalling 176,918 credits. This approach means that the efficacy of carbon offsetting projects is difficult to validate, while the amount of carbon credits is still lagging well behind even the lower official estimates of emissions.

 The event organisers and sponsors have detailed many areas in which they have attempted to mitigate climate impact: by prioritising local and regional sourcing and renewable technologies; minimising local air pollution, waste, and water use; and facilitating long-term use of facilities after the event. 

 However, many have pointed out issues that call this commitment into question. To start, there are the emissions from air travel as fans fly in and out of Doha on daily ‘shuttle flights’, and the realities of limited future stadium use in such a small geographical area. This, as well as the problem of accounting for and accurately offsetting carbon emissions, demonstrates just how tricky it is to take a full and accurate account of the environmental impact.

World Cup lessons

 So what can we learn from the FIFA World Cup 2022? 

 If the goal is to achieve net zero carbon emissions from large-scale international sporting events, then we need clear and accurate accounting of both direct and indirect carbon emissions, as well as ensuring that offset schemes are standardised and recorded appropriately. 

 In 2023, a year in which Australia and New Zealand will co-host the FIFA Women’s World Cup, FIFA will publish a FIFA World Cup 2022 Sustainability Report, giving a full account of the impact of this year’s event, as well as the sustainability strategy for the FIFA World Cup 2026, which will take place across the United States, Mexico and Canada. 

 As we look to the events of the future, transparency and accountability will ensure that we can preserve both our planet and the joy of the football World Cup 

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