What would a green World Cup look like?

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umanity is deep in the throes of the World Cup. Billions of people are expected to tune in to at least one match of the 2022 Qatar tournament – a significant proportion of the global population.

With reach like this comes scrutiny, including on the climate impact of such a massive event. Qatar has built seven new stadiums and refurbished an eighth for the World Cup finals. It has also built a new airport, a metro system, new roads and around 100 new hotels. Some 1.2 million visitors are expected, the vast majority arriving by air, with many staying in nearby cities like Abu Dhabi and Dubai, then taking shuttle flights to matches.

In an attempt to make this World Cup the first that is “fully carbon neutral”, Qatar has promised to offset its carbon emissions (Read more about the limitations of carbon offsetting). But many are not convinced. One analysis found the tournament could end up with a carbon footprint three times higher than it claims. Another found the carbon footprint attributed to the new stadiums were in reality about eight times higher, and heavily criticised a new carbon credit standard set up by organisers for not complying with international standards. A set of advertising complaints have now been filed across several European countries over Fifa’s promotion of its carbon neutrality claims, while several footballers have sent an open letter to Fifa asking it to “ditch” the claim and only use offsets as a last resort.

It is hard to think of a different sector that attracts the attention of literally billions of human beings across the globe – Suki Hoagland

The scale of the challenge is undeniably vast. Some might question whether the World Cup as we know it now – with teams, fans and officials flying long distances and massive infrastructure development – can ever become sustainable. Would the basic model of the event need to change to become greener, and if so, what might that look like?

“It is hard to think of a different sector that attracts the attention of literally billions of human beings across the globe,” says Suki Hoagland, a lecturer at the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability in California. “It will be a bellwether of how the rest of society is responding.”

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