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World Cup 2022: The problem with Qatar’s ‘carbon neutral’ promise

The first “carbon neutral” World Cup was built from scratch by what one expert calls “a big oil company dressed up as a country.”

It will bring a million fans via airplane to a petrostate that emits more carbon per capita than any other nation on Earth.

Qatar, in preparing the 2022 World Cup, has genuinely impressed some climate scientists and activists with eco-friendly innovations. But its grand proclamations of sustainability and climate neutrality have been dogged by criticism of its carbon accounting and, most of all, by these inherent contradictions.

The tournament itself, organizers say, will have a net-zero impact on the environment — “though quite how this accounts for the hydrocarbon-soaked wealth that has made the show possible is unspoken,” David Goldblatt, a British author and academic, wrote in a 2020 report on sport and climate change.

Less than a century ago, Qatar was a tiny peninsular desert home to 20,000 people. The discovery of onshore oil, and later the world’s largest natural gas field just offshore, has transformed the former British protectorate into a bustling international hub. The liquified gas produced at Ras Laffan refineries and sold to the world has blessed Qatar with almost limitless riches — just as the world has begun to worry that gas, oil and coal are destroying the planet.

Enabled and emboldened by those riches, Qatar bid for and controversially won the right to host the 2022 World Cup. It spent an estimated $200 billion on the construction of roads, hotels and other infrastructure to remake Doha, its capital, into a modern city capable of welcoming a million soccer fans from around the globe. It now stands ready to stage an extravagant tournament that will burnish the fossil-fueled nation’s international image.

And yet, last decade, organizers also promised that the World Cup would be “carbon neutral” — meaning that any greenhouse gas emissions associated with it will be canceled out by the World Cup-funded removal of carbon from the atmosphere.

It was an ambitious, unprecedented and commendable commitment — and one that organizers say they’re “on track” to fulfill.

But they’ve been accused of “greenwashing” and grossly understating the 2022 World Cup’s true environmental impact.

“The event will have a large carbon footprint,” Carbon Market Watch researchers wrote in a May report commissioned by climate action advocates. “And the findings of this report suggest that the ‘carbon neutrality’ claim is not credible.”

Solar panels sit in front of Khalifa International Stadium, also known as Qatar's National and oldest Stadium, which will host matches during FIFA World Cup 2022, in Doha, Qatar, Saturday, Oct. 15, 2022. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)
Solar panels sit in front of Khalifa International Stadium, also known as Qatar's National and oldest Stadium, which will host matches during FIFA World Cup 2022, in Doha, Qatar, Saturday, Oct. 15, 2022. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)

Could Qatar actually 'offset' World Cup emissions?

To make good on its promise, Qatar’s World Cup organizing task force, the Supreme Committee, hired a team of foreign experts that industry insiders describe as “great” and “top-notch.” Their first task, as it is for any sporting organization interested in sustainability, was to devise a plan for emission reduction. They have used recycled and recyclable materials to build stadiums, one of which is fully demountable. They have planted thousands of trees and hundreds of thousands of shrubs, and created the world’s largest turf farm. An ultramodern metro system will mitigate the footprint of travel within Doha, as will “nearly 800 new electric buses,” the Supreme Committee says.

“They've done some really interesting things,” says Maddy Orr, a Canadian climate advocate and founder of the Sport Ecology Group. “They've done a phenomenal job of really being crafty with how they're building the facilities.”

In 2021 — and in collaboration with a Swiss carbon consultancy and Qatari project management firm — the Supreme Committee released its pre-World Cup greenhouse gas accounting report. It estimated that construction, fan and participant travel, and all other World Cup-related activities would spew 3.63 megatonnes of carbon dioxide and equivalent gasses (CO2e) into the atmosphere. (Each of the three previous men’s World Cups, by comparison, calculated a CO2e footprint under 3 MT.)

The standard practice, then, to achieve “carbon neutrality” is to “offset” those emissions by investing in “carbon capture” projects. For every tonne of CO2e emitted, the Supreme Committee would pay for a “carbon credit” that would, in theory, take one tonne out of the atmosphere — a segment of forest, for example, that would soak up carbon.

But the problem with this plan, experts say, is twofold: The 3.63 megatonnes are a significant underestimate; and the carbon credits purchased so far are “outdated and uncertain” — in other words, they likely won’t have the impact they purport to.

People gather at the Umm Al Seneem Park, which has the world's longest air-conditioned outdoor path, in Doha on November 2, 2022. (Photo by KARIM JAAFAR / AFP) (Photo by KARIM JAAFAR/AFP via Getty Images)
People gather at the Umm Al Seneem Park, which has the world's longest air-conditioned outdoor path, in Doha on November 2, 2022. (Photo by KARIM JAAFAR/AFP via Getty Images)

The 3.63 MT — which come primarily from travel (51.7%) and infrastructure construction and operation (24.2%) — do not include most of the $200 billion worth of construction, which technically falls outside the Supreme Committee’s remit. And it does not even include most of the emissions associated with stadium construction. World Cup organizers have only taken responsibility for a fraction of it, equivalent to the fraction of the stadiums’ lifespan during which FIFA and the Supreme Committee will operate them — because, the Committee argues, they’ve been “built to serve the community before and after the World Cup has ended.” But experts point out that this “is all kinds of problematic”; the World Cup might only account for 1% of the lifespan, but it’s almost 100% of the reason the stadiums have been built.

“In our estimation,” Carbon Market Watch researchers wrote, “the total footprint of the [six] permanent stadiums constructed for the World Cup might be underestimated by a factor of eight” — and the total footprint of the World Cup, therefore, might be upward of 5 MT, the biggest for any sporting event ever.

The offsets, meanwhile, have so far been investments in wind farms and other “grid-connected renewable energy projects” that, the researchers said, “are likely to happen regardless of whether they can sell carbon credits.” In other words, the carbon that the Qataris are supposedly removing from the atmosphere would probably be removed anyway, without their funding.

'The World Cup has amplified the climate conversation'

The counterargument to all this criticism is that “Qatar is not the culprit; the whole story of offsetting is the culprit,” as Neeshad Shafi, a Qatari climate activist, says. And whereas much of the sports industry, and much of the Gulf region, largely ignores environmental concerns, at least the Supreme Committee is talking about it.

The committee, for example, helped establish the Global Carbon Council, a first-of-its-kind Gulf-based offsetting program. “This is a part of the world where this kind of organization didn't previously exist to drive this kind of work,” Orr says. “They're going from 'we're a big oil company' … to 'we're gonna actually start doing this.' And is it perfect? Absolutely no. Is it overstated? Definitely. But, nonetheless, they're having the conversation. They're showing up to the table.”

And that, countless experts have said, is half the climate battle in sports. The carbon footprint of any sporting entity pales in comparison to its public messaging footprint. In Qatar, a decade ago, “I mean, nobody was interested, climate was not a topic anybody even knew,” Shafi says. Now, he sees “a lot of change,” and gets the occasional call from a young student asking: “Neeshad, we've been hearing that Qatar is having a carbon neutral World Cup. What is ‘carbon neutral’?”

His first instinct was to react incredulously: C’mon, you don't know?

“But I took the question another way: Wow. What a way of communicating,” he says. He “absolutely” thinks the World Cup has amplified the climate conversation in a country and region where it was once politically taboo. And organizers tout projects — such as a massive solar power plant that “will provide renewable energy for many years to come” — that will leave a sustainable legacy.

But the country’s economy, Shaafi acknowledges, is still “based on the fossil fuel industry.” The World Cup has been and will be a means of soft power, which Qatar can use to defend its ongoing production of the very gas that is harming the planet. Speaking at the United Nations General Assembly in September, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, Qatar’s emir, argued, via a translator: “Of course climate change and the protection of the environment compel us all to diversify energy sources. But in the meantime, we still have to supply energy. … As Qatar has continued to invest in liquefied natural gas, for decades now, we have been able to expand the North Gas Field. This will play a significant role in alleviating the energy crisis in many parts of the world.”

This picture taken on October 18, 2022 shows a view of solar panels at the newly-inaugurated al-Kharsaah solar power plant in Qatar. - Gas-rich Qatar inaugurated its first solar plant on October 18, which organisers of the World Cup have said will provide clean energy for its stadiums. The solar farm in al-Kharsaah, west of the capital, is
This picture taken on Oct. 18, 2022 shows a view of solar panels at the al-Kharsaah solar power plant in Qatar, which World Cup organizers have said will provide clean energy for its stadiums. (Photo by IVAN PISARENKO/AFP via Getty Images)

Western hypocrisy on carbon footprints

There is a separate counterargument, one made frequently in Qatar, that all of this Western scrutiny is hypocritical.

For example: One source of critique was the announcement earlier this year that Qatar, with insufficient hotel space, would house some World Cup visitors in neighboring countries and shuttle them in and out by plane. Flying, of course, is carbon-intensive; 500 extra flights per day will expand the footprint. But, on the contrary: The compact nature of this World Cup could actually reduce intra-country travel. The 2026 World Cup, held in the United States, Canada and Mexico, will require far more.

“You and I are gonna have a conversation in four years about how screwed up the U.S.-Canada-Mexico project is for a whole different [set] of reasons,” Orr acknowledged.

There is also the bigger picture: Qatar, despite its ludicrous per-capita consumption, has, over time, emitted less than 1% of the gasses that have warmed Earth. The U.S. is responsible for 20% of them. America has built its unmatched wealth on fossil fuels perhaps more so than any country in the world. So should others not be allowed to burn tiny fractions of what the U.S. has to catch up?

“I feel weird being like, ‘OK, I'm gonna be mad at you for doing something that Canada and the U.S. and the U.K. and like everybody else has done forever,” Orr says. “Are we gonna apply a new set of standards all of a sudden, because we're on a high horse in the West? I don't know that that's totally fair.”

But carbon is carbon, no matter who emits it or when. The contradiction of the “carbon neutral World Cup” is that it has helped elevate and legitimize a country whose economy incentivizes unconstrained emissions. And that economy is the only reason the World Cup is here, on this Connecticut-sized peninsula, in the first place.

“We're talking about a really big event that is largely funded by oil,” Orr says. “There's a lot of good things happening, but just hosting it there is complicated.”