FIFA World Cup Series, Regional Studies

How the World Cup Impacts Sustainability in Qatar: Which Challenges Remain after the Tournament?

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The 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar was bid and awarded on the premise that it would be the first-ever carbon neutral World Cup. While this is a challenging task and exciting opportunity, the question remains: Is a truly credible carbon neutral FIFA World Cup in Qatar even possible?

Qatar intends to attract over one million global fans during the tournament. A carbon neutral World Cup amidst the climate crisis raises the stakes for scrutiny. Qatar ranks as the world’s highest carbon emitter per capita, with 38.82 tons in 2019. Despite its water scarcity and desert environment, Qatar also ranks top on water consumption per capita (557 L/day) and waste generation per capita (1.2 kg/day) in the world.

Qatar is putting its best foot forward to implement its Sustainability Strategy in every aspect of the planning, design, construction, and management of the tournament. Innovative construction methods, use of materials, and renewable energy for cooling help to eliminate or reduce carbon emissions. Qatar uses the Global Sustainability Assessment Systems (GSAS), developed by Gulf Organization for Research and Development (GORD), to certify buildings and stadia. All unavoidable carbon emissions, for instance from construction and travel, will have to be offset by either natural capital projects—such as mangroves, seagrass beds, or soil that actively sequester carbon emissions—or by carbon credits to arrive at carbon neutral status and to mitigate risks.

Credible carbon neutrality refers to the balance between reduced and eliminated emissions by converting from business-as-usual and offsetting emissions through meaningful sequestration projects versus simply purchasing carbon credits—the easy way out—that do not leave a legacy benefit for the country.

The single biggest accomplishment, perhaps, is that the tournament will take place in eight stadia instead of the originally planned twelve, avoiding emissions from construction. Onsite generated solar power and a new metro system connecting the stadia also contribute to reduced emissions. The small size of Qatar and the resulting compactness of the tournament, essentially placing all eight stadia within a thirty-minute travel distance, further contributes to reduced carbon emissions.

Remaining Challenges

Not all Qatar’s sustainability-based innovations will be realized for the tournament, however. One critical reality is that Qatar is a country with little fresh water. The average eighty millimeters of rain per year do not supply enough drinking water nor replenish aquifers. All drinking water comes from desalination, an energy intensive process that relies on burning fossil fuels and further contributes to Qatar’s carbon footprint.

Since Qatar won the hosting rights for the 2022 World Cup in 2010, twelve years of lead time and vast financial resources have been invested in research and development to attain natural grass and turf pitches that satisfy FIFA’s performance specifications. Are natural turf pitches, grown and irrigated with desalinated drinking water, really necessary?

Perhaps these recourses could have been diverted toward innovations on textiles and natural fibers, in collaboration with the fashion industry’s sustainability course correction, to invent natural fiber-based pitches to advance artificial turf. The return on investment would far outweigh the input not only monetarily but also in terms of reputation.

FIFA argued that the 2015 Women’s World Cup was played on artificial turf because “the extreme climate in the host country” does not support natural turf, whereas the men’s World Cup in Qatar’s extreme desert climate, which also does not support natural turf, will be played on natural turf.

The 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup in Canada could serve as a perfect segue to equalize the playing field for women and men’s World Cups and focus on a new gender-equal pitch design that also makes a difference to hosting climate-conscious sport events. Natural fiber-based pitches would demonstrate true vision, responsibility, and commitment to gender equality and would close the loop on Qatar’s stated climate concerns and commitment to carbon neutrality.

The fact is that Qatar’s severe climate, intense heat, and water scarcity—not gender—could have guided a new innovative textile pitch surface, contributing to a new high-performance, low-carbon tournament, legacy, and ultimate climate credibility. A textile pitch surface could enable any future World Cups to be played on even fewer than eight stadia because the limiting factor for the number of games played per stadium is the recovery time of natural turf. The cost savings would be significant.

Additional challenges for the actual event management are numerous, including transportation, waste management, building performance, accommodation, merchandise, and everything along the water-energy-food nexus, including cooling, drinking water supply, wastewater management, and food imports. The copious use of desalinated drinking water throughout the country in the form of water fountains and features may be beautiful and refreshing, but they pose increased liability and reputational risk.

Many questions remain. How is carbon neutrality calculated? And what does a carbon neutral mega sports event cost? Disclosing these data transparently, honestly, and credibly can inform future hosts and events.

Expect Amazing
The commitment to deliver a carbon neutral World Cup is a first milestone towards Qatar’s National Vision 2030. The pace and courage at which Qatar has tackled many challenges, from climate to logistics of hosting the tournament, is respectable.

Investing in sustainability and natural capital is the way toward a sustainable future. Only healthy ecosystems can support a thriving local and global economy and provide long-term benefits for human, social, environmental, and economic outcomes.

Article by Katrin Scholz-Barth, Principal of Katrin Scholz-Barth Consulting and President of SustainableQATAR.

Katrin Scholz-Barth is Principal of Katrin Scholz-Barth Consulting and President of SustainableQATAR, a Think and Do Tank that acts as a catalyst for climate action in Qatar, toward a more sustainable Qatar where the power of one—personal actions and informed consumer decisions—change behaviors and drive regenerative development. As part of the 2022 FIFA World Cup Qatar program from 2012–2015, she helped define and create the program-wide sustainability and innovation strategies. Scholz-Barth has taught at Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania and is coauthor of Green Roof Systems: A Guide to the Planning, Design and Construction of Building Over Structure (Wiley and Sons, 2009).

Read more about the Building a Legacy: Qatar FIFA World Cup 2022 project here.