The Lusail Stadium in Doha. Photograph: Matthew Ashton/AMA/Getty Images
Organisers say the event will be net zero, but reaching that conclusion requires some very creative accounting
Has there ever been a more contentious World Cup finals than Qatar 2022? Probably the last one, which allowed the football community to happily tickle the tummy of Russia’s bear in advance of it rearing up viciously to slice a bloody “Z” across the face of its neighbour Ukraine. Since being unveiled in December 2010 as the future host of this most coveted sporting event, the upcoming tournament has been beset by issues and allegations that have centred on anti-LGBTIQ+ laws and the treatment of migrant workers.
But there are other alarming and divisive concerns to consider. The hosts have promised “the first carbon-neutral World Cup in history”. In January 2020, in tandem with the sport’s global governing body, the Qataris unveiled their sustainability strategy. “From the beginning, our preparation efforts for Qatar 2022 have been undertaken with the goal of building a sustainable and lasting legacy,” declared Abdulrahman Almuftah.
“The sustainability initiatives we have implemented in our projects contribute to Qatar National Vision 2030 and will also have a positive impact on the way future World Cups and other large-scale sporting events are organised around the world,” he promised. But how will they realise this landmark moment in the 92-year history of the competition?
“Achieving carbon neutrality is a process made up of four key components,” explained Almuftah. “Firstly, it required raising awareness among key stakeholders, including the general public. This was followed by us creating a detailed estimation of what our carbon footprint will be. The third step is the one that most people will hear about, and that is the measures taken to limit carbon emissions, which will lead us to the final part of the process, which is investing in green projects that will offset any of the remaining emissions associated with Qatar 2022.”
Given the manpower and disruption involved in delivering a World Cup in the Gulf desert peninsula, there have to be questions about how achievable this is. In June 2021, Fifa produced a report suggesting 3.6m tonnes of carbon dioxide will be produced during the tournament. That’s more than what some countries release in a year and 1.5m tonnes more than the total produced at Russia 2018.
Organisers are keen to emphasise the “compact” design of the tournament, which will see fans, players and officials fly into one airport and stay in one location. The longest distance between stadiums is 75km and five of the arenas are connected to the Doha Metro. But, equally, a recent report by Reuters highlighted the strategies required to support the tournament: “An elite corps of groundskeepers now maintains 144 green, lush fields – eight stadium pitches and 136 training grounds. They blast chilled air through nozzles directly at the turf, tending luxuriant patches of green dotted amid the dun or grey of Qatar’s desert and concrete. Qatar flies in 140 tonnes of grass seed annually from the United States on climate-controlled aircraft and pitches are watered with desalinated seawater, in an energy-intensive process burning the country’s wealth of natural gas. Each pitch requires 10,000 litres of desalinated water daily in winter and 50,000 litres in the summer.”
Given such stratospheric figures – and the industrial production techniques required to deliver such resources in the middle of a climate emergency – are these environmental ambitions credible?
Professor Simon Chadwick, global professor of sport at Emlyon Business School in Paris and a regular visitor to Qatar over the last decade, says: “Even if it is a net zero carbon tournament in that four-week period, there are questions to answer. Thinking of Qatar as a resource base – in terms of revenues derived from carbon fuels – goes back to the 1930s when extraction first took place. Fast forward to 2010 when they won the right to stage the tournament and you have to consider not just the stadiums but the infrastructure. This is crucial. For example, the metro system, road network, shopping malls, hotels etc. If this was truly a net zero carbon event, there would have been carbon offsetting from the outset.
“Various rankings over the last decade collecting the most polluted cities in the world have put Doha in the top 10. The reason is obviously the pollution coming from construction but also the disturbance to the natural environment. You’ve got lorries, cranes and diggers creating big holes in the ground and lots of sand and dust. If you’re talking about four weeks, Qatar has the resources and the inclination to make a zero-carbon tournament. But that is possibly somewhat disingenuous because you’ve had a 12-year period during which I sense there hasn’t been carbon offsetting and mitigation of environmental damage.”
When contemplating reports that organisers are “air conditioning” the grass and watering pitches in an “incredibly environmentally damaging and polluting” manner to improve turf quality, Chadwick addresses fears that Qatar 2022 is, fundamentally, an exercise in greenwashing. “There are external independent measures of whether a sport or an event has a net zero carbon status. In fairness to the Qataris, I know they take the United Nations sustainable development goals really seriously. They’ve got a legacy initiative – Generation Amazing – and these are the parameters within which this operates.
“They are trying to adhere to international standards but it is open to question what is being measured and how it is being measured. Let’s say we’ve got eight stadiums, a road and metro network and for all those people driving to the stadium they’ll plant a tree or whatever it might be. I can accept that in those terms this might be a net zero carbon event. However, it does feel like a micro moment in a longer-term flow of activity,” says Chadwick, pointing to the ongoing migration away from Russian gas as countries strike new deals with Qatar as a result of the Ukrainian conflict.
“It’s almost like a diversionary tactic and maybe that’s what greenwashing is. As a micro moment, it’s very easy to achieve that net zero ambition and it’s very easy to emphasise your credentials but it still doesn’t alter the fact that Qatar will have degraded the natural environment by preparing for the tournament and by its ongoing revenue generation and extraction of liquefied natural gas. One moment in time does not mark you out as a champion of the environment.”
At the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Scotland in November, Fifa presented its Climate Strategy, making a commitment to reduce football’s emissions and reach carbon neutrality by 2040. This ambition was first outlined in 2015’s Paris Agreement. How central is Qatar 2022 to these goals? “I don’t think any of these organisations can afford not to say or do something because obviously the imperative but also the narrative is such that you need to be seen to be doing something,” suggested Chadwick.
“But keep in mind, for example, that one of Fifa’s sponsors is Qatar Airways. Essentially, the only way into and out of Qatar for the vast majority of people is by Qatar Airways. Because Qatar only has one land border to Saudi Arabia and even then that land border is not close to Riyadh, Jeddah or any of the other big cities. You’re not going to have people driving there. There may be some cruise ships. But they are among the most polluting forms of transport in the world, beyond airlines.
“For Fifa and the Qataris to be talking about net zero carbon I would really want to know from them: why do you have that relationship with an airline? How are you going to get people to and from Qatar in a sustainable way? It’s even different to Russia, where you could have people taking trains from Germany or Poland. That option simply isn’t available. Maybe it’s greenwashing or maybe it’s just purely being disingenuous and not entirely clear. I think the vision and the intention are good but the practical realities don’t match with the rhetoric.”
Qatar will become the first Muslim and Arab country to host the World Cup, a welcome embrace of part of the world that football has tended to neglect. But, otherwise, the prevailing take from commentators has been negative. The construction of the tournament’s infrastructure has been a tale of vertiginous buildings and lowly realities.
Despite Fifa president Gianni Infantino’s claim earlier this year that just “three people” had died on stadium construction sites, migrant labourers have faced poor living conditions and thousands have died since the country was awarded the World Cup. Meanwhile, his predecessor Sepp Blatter previously said that gay fans travelling to Qatar, where homosexuality is illegal, should “refrain from sexual activity”.
What are the advantages to the World Cup being held in Qatar? “If you look at a brief history of contemporary globalisation,” Chadwick said, “what Fifa should have been doing through the 2000s is to say to people: ‘You do realise the World Cup is going to have to go to South Africa, to the Middle East, to parts of Asia that it’s not been to before?’ But Fifa wasn’t telling that story.
“The biggest derby in the world is the Tehran derby. More people go to that match than any other derby. It’s just across the Persian Gulf from Qatar. Look at Saudi Arabia. The Riyadh derby attracts 60-70,000 people. There is a football culture but I think Fifa did an incredibly bad job of explaining to people that because of globalisation, because the world is changing, they were going to have to go to new places and democratise the World Cup.”
He describes Qatar as “a hugely palatable version of the Middle East” and predicts “a fairly normal tournament experience” for fans. But he also feels there is a “very stark” conflict across society about the future make-up of the Arabian state: “The story of what’s happening inside Qatar is there are changes taking place and credit needs to be given for that. But have they gone far enough or fast enough? Will they continue once the World Cup has gone? Possibly not. You have to have doubts.”
This is an article by Ben Gilbert for The Blizzard. Guardian readers can claim 20% off the print and digital formats of the Best of the First Five Years, a collection of the best contributions from The Blizzard. Use coupon code GSNBEST at the checkout.