Analysis

Latest study re-evaluates FIFA World Cup in Qatar’s carbon footprint

8th November 2022
Sheryl Miles

FIFA has announced that the upcoming World Cup in Qatar will produce a total of 3.6 million tonnes of CO2-equivalent emissions. However, some grey areas remain.

According to Carbon Market Watch, total emissions are estimated to be as many as 5 times higher (18 million tons of CO2-equivalent emissions). The climate tech Greenly, a specialist in carbon accounting, has investigated to establish the true impact of this controversial edition of the World Cup.

According to its report, FIFA estimates that the total carbon footprint of the World Cup in Qatar will be 3.6 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent, roughly approaching Iceland’s emissions for an entire year. The Rio Olympics in 2016 registered a similar carbon footprint. However, for Greenly, a specialist in measuring carbon footprint, this figure is largely underestimated.

The underestimated carbon footprint of World Cup infrastructure

Eight stadiums have been planned for the World Cup, of which only one existed prior to Qatar being named the host of the tournament: the Khalifa International Stadium, built in 1976 – the only non-air-conditioned stadium in the competition. Another stadium will be completely dismantled at the end of the competition. According to Carbon Market Watch, the construction of the six new permanent stadiums have generated a carbon footprint 8 times greater than FIFA's estimate.

In total, the actual figure would approach 1.6 million tonnes of CO2e compared to the 200,000 tonnes that have been computed on the basis that the stadiums would be used for 60 years of sporting competitions. Even if the air-conditioning system installed is 40% less energy-consuming – because it is powered by solar energy – these open-air stadiums can only be cooled using a considerable amount of energy (which is also difficult to quantify). Furthermore, the air-conditioning system broke down during the test match on 9 September.

Many peripheral constructions have been built to support this development, including roads, new hotels (many of them luxury), shopping complexes and theme parks. In the absence of precise data, although it is difficult to quantify their carbon footprint and their energy expenditure during and after the event, it is a fact that the construction sector is one of the most polluting sectors worldwide. In 2014, it accounted for 6% of the global carbon footprint.

The carbon footprint of transport and accommodation

According to Greenly's calculations, the air travel of the 1.2 million fans to the Arabian Gulf countries for the World Cup could amount to around 2.4 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent. Notwithstanding the 160 daily shuttle flights between Doha and its neighbouring cities to transport spectators to and from the sporting venues – approximately 1 plane every 10 minutes.

Assuming these flights are operated with Airbus A320s with a capacity of 150 passengers and occupied to 75% of their capacity (the average occupancy for a traditional flight), 160 round trips between Doha and Dubai would amount to 2,160 tonnes of CO2e. Filled to 100%, it would amount to 2,880 tonnes, or 83,520 tonnes of CO2e over the 29 days of the competition.

Furthermore, little is known about the situation with regards to the transport of the 32 delegations expected to attend the World Cup, particularly if they prefer to use private jets rather than regular flights. A private jet emits 5 to 14 times more CO2 on average than a regular commercial flight.

The invisible digital pollution

The Cup in Qatar is expected to attract an estimated 3.2 billion viewers, a figure similar to that of the previous World Cup in Russia in 2018.

According to FIFA's report, the latter recorded more than 34.66 billion viewing hours. However, it is important to note that the electricity production required to run TV sets is also a source of CO2 emissions, when such production involves the use of fossil fuels.

According to Total Energies, the average electricity consumption of an LCD television is 0.1kWh per viewing hour, while the world average carbon intensity of electricity is 475gCO2e/kWh. Greenly estimates that the carbon footprint of broadcasting and related activities alone will be in the region of one to two million tonnes of CO2 equivalent.

"It is important to remember that these are but estimates, and thus, should not be taken at face value. However, it shows that figures announced by Qatar fall short of reality by a significant degree," says Alexis Normand, CEO and co-founder of Greenly.

A World Cup far from carbon-neutral

This World Cup is being touted as the first carbon-neutral World Cup, even though the amount of CO2 emissions announced is higher than those of the Russian and Brazilian editions - 2 million tonnes of CO2 each.

Qatar intends to offset its emissions by buying carbon credits. However, with one month to go before the competition, only three carbon offset projects have been validated, representing 5% of the stated objective.

To validate the credibility of the projects, Qatar turned to the Global Carbon Council, a non-independent and non-internationally recognised body with different criteria from other existing systems.

In any case, even if Qatar buys 3.6 million carbon credits, the action will remain insufficient since the carbon footprint of this event remains largely underestimated.

Alexis Normand concludes: "It is impossible to accurately estimate the carbon footprint of the World Cup in Qatar. However, with our estimates alone, we are already close to 6 million tonnes of CO2e, which is almost double the emissions announced by Qatar. From an ecological point of view, the main criticism that can be made is that it seems rather irrational to hold such an event in a country with an unsuitable climate for this, which did not have the required infrastructure – which would anyway not have been used in normal times – nor the capacity to accommodate such an influx of spectators."

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