Qatar’s promise of ‘carbon-neutral’ World Cup raises doubts

WASHINGTON (AP) – In the 12 years leading up to hosting the men’s soccer World Cup in 2022, Qatar has been on a torrid construction spree with few recent parallels.

It built seven of its eight World Cup stadiums, a new subway system, highways, high-rises and Lusail, a futuristic city that ten years ago was mostly dust and sand.

For years, Qatar promised something different to distinguish this World Cup from the rest: It would be ‘carbon neutral’ or have a negligible overall impact on the climate. And for almost as long, there have been skeptics – with outside experts saying Qatar and FIFA’s plan rests on practical accounting and projects that won’t offset the event’s carbon footprint as they advertise.

“It’s not very helpful for this type of event to market itself as carbon neutral,” said Gilles Dufrasne, a researcher at the Brussels-based non-governmental organization Carbon Market Watch, which authored a report questioning Qatar’s sustainability plan . “It gives the impression that we can build massive state-of-the-art stadiums … and fly people from all over the world to watch football matches and that is somehow compatible with meeting the climate goals.”


In an official report estimating the event’s emissions, Qatar’s organizers and FIFA have projected that the World Cup will produce around 3.6 million tonnes of carbon dioxide from activities related to the tournament between 2011 and 2023. That’s around 3% of Qatar’s total emissions in 2019. around 115 million tonnes according to World Bank data.

Qatar famously moved the tournament to winter to protect players and spectators from extreme heat. Still, the gas-rich nation will air condition seven stadiums that are open to the sky. As for water, it will mostly rely on energy-guzzling desalination plants that take seawater and make it drinkable to satisfy the more than 1.2 million fans expected to descend on the month-long event. The Arab sheikhdom in the Gulf is usually home to 2.9 million people.

Qatar and FIFA say the biggest source of emissions will be travel – mostly the miles flown from abroad. This will make up 52% ​​of the total amount. The construction of stadiums and training grounds and their operation will account for 25%, the report states. Operating hotels and other accommodations during the five weeks, including the cruise ships Qatar chartered as floating hotels, will contribute 20%.

But in its report, Carbon Market Watch said those numbers are not the whole story. It said Qatar greatly underestimated the emissions from building the seven stadiums by dividing the emissions from all that concrete and steel by the life of the facilities in years, rather than simply adding them up.

“This is problematic,” Carbon Market Watch said, questioning the likelihood that Qatar, which is smaller than the US state of Connecticut, would have built seven major stadiums without the World Cup.

Qatar defended its maths, saying it has worked hard to avoid creating “white elephant” venues that often sit idle in host countries after a tournament ends. It says it has developed plans for each stadium after the games are over.

“No other country has engaged so deeply with its citizens to ensure a sustainable legacy is left after a FIFA World Cup,” said a spokesman for Qatar’s Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy.

But last-minute hiccups continue to undermine the country’s climate pledges. For years, Qatar said the country’s small size would reduce the amount of travel required between stadiums and matches. But despite all the construction, the country still lacks hotel rooms and thousands of fans unable to find accommodation in Qatar will sleep in nearby Dubai – 45 minutes away by plane – and other Golf towns.

Qatar’s organizers did not respond to a request for comment on whether they will count the flights in pollution totals, instead saying in a statement that any discrepancies would be explained after the World Cup.

A spokesman for the Supreme Committee on Delivery and Legacy called the methodology behind Qatar’s carbon neutral pledge “best in practice.”


Central to Qatar’s plan to reduce World Cup emissions is carbon offsets. Sometimes called carbon credits, these promise to cancel or absorb the same amount of greenhouse gases emitted by a business or event as if the event emitted nothing.

In theory, this would mean that every mile flown inland and any construction project related to the Games would be offset by an equal amount of carbon dioxide reduced by planting trees or improvements made elsewhere.

So far, Qatar’s organizers have pledged to buy 1.8 million carbon offsets from the Global Carbon Council, a Doha-based carbon credit registry where renewable projects are verified and listed. One carbon credit is equal to one metric ton of carbon dioxide avoided or removed from the atmosphere.

But carbon analysts have said that credits issued by the registry are of questionable quality because it is unclear that they are “additional” or finance carbon-reducing projects that would not otherwise have existed. As renewable energy infrastructure becomes cheaper and more common around the world, investing in them through carbon credits is becoming less likely to actually benefit the environment, experts say. Approved projects so far registered with Qatar’s World Cup organizers include wind and hydropower projects in Turkey and Serbia.

“They’re relying on arguably some of the lowest quality credits available today,” said Danny Cullenward, an energy economist and attorney who directs policy at CarbonPlan, a California nonprofit that evaluates climate programs. He said there are “serious issues of additionality” with the credits Qatar and FIFA use that he evaluated.

Cullenward and other experts say carbon credits often promise more than they deliver. The global carbon credit market remains largely unregulated.

“It’s not clear that the strategy of carbon offsets actually makes sense,” Cullenward said.


Still, Qatari organizers insist the country is on track to host the first carbon-neutral World Cup. They point to the visibly green elements of Qatar’s clean procurement: 800 new electric buses, 16,000 trees and nearly 700,000 shrubs grown in nurseries, plus a new 800-megawatt solar plant that was recently connected to the grid.

“It has really improved the energy curve for Qatar,” said Saud Ghani, an engineering professor at Qatar University who designed the stadiums’ air conditioning systems. “Before, we only burned gas to generate electricity.”

Organizers have repeatedly said the country’s decision to offset the event’s carbon emissions “should be recognized rather than criticized.”

Karim Elgendy, a fellow at the Chatham House think tank in London who previously worked as a climate consultant for the World Cup, said Qatar’s efforts to “green” the tournament “show a positive trend for a sporting event.”

It indicates that Qatar, one of the world’s largest natural gas exporters, is taking steps to improve its climate awareness, Elgendy said. Although the country is “doing it in a way that works with them.”


Follow Suman Naishadham on Twitter: @SumanNaishadham


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