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

WASHINGTON (AP) – In the 12-year build-up to hosting the 2022 men’s World Cup, Qatar has had a savage building boom 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 was mostly made up of dust and sand a decade ago.

For years, Qatar promised something else to set this World Cup apart: it would be “carbon neutral” or have a negligible overall impact on climate. And for almost as long there have been skeptics — with outside experts saying Qatar’s and FIFA’s plan relies on handy accounting and projects that don’t counteract the event’s environmental footprint as they advertise.

“It’s not very helpful for events like this to market themselves as carbon neutral,” said Gilles Dufrasne, a researcher at the Brussels-based non-governmental organization Carbon Market Watch, who wrote a report detailing the sustainability plan of Qatar is being questioned. the impression that we can build huge state-of-the-art stadiums … and fly people from all over the world to watch football matches and that is somehow compatible with achieving climate goals.”


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

Qatar has famously moved the tournament to winter to protect players and spectators from extreme heat. Still, the gas-rich country will air-conditioned seven stadiums open to the sky. For water, it will rely primarily on energy-guzzling desalination plants that absorb ocean water and make it drinkable to satisfy the more than 1.2 million fans expected to land for the month-long event. The Gulf Arab Sheikhdom is home to 2.9 million people.

Qatar and FIFA say travel will be the biggest source of emissions – mostly the miles flown from abroad. That will make up 52% ​​of the total. Construction of the stadiums and training venues and their activities will account for 25%, the report said. Operating hotels and other accommodations for the five weeks, including the cruise ships that Qatar has hired as floating hotels, will contribute 20%.

But in its report, Carbon Market Watch said those numbers aren’t the whole story. It said Qatar has vastly underestimated the emissions from the construction of the seven stadiums by dividing the emissions of all that concrete and steel by the lifespan of the facilities in years, rather than simply adding them up.

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

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

“No other country has committed itself so closely to its citizens to ensure that a lasting legacy is left behind after a FIFA World Cup,” said a spokesman for the Qatari Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy.

But last-minute hitches continue to undermine the country’s climate pledges. Qatar said for years that the country’s small size would reduce the amount of travel between stadiums and matches. But despite all the construction work, the country is still short of hotel rooms and thousands of fans who can’t find shelter in Qatar will sleep in nearby Dubai – a 45-minute plane ride away – and other Gulf cities.

Qatari organizers have not responded 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 spokesperson for the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy called the methodology behind Qatar’s climate-neutral pledge “best in practice”.


Central to Qatar’s plan to cut emissions from the World Cup are carbon offsets. Sometimes referred to as carbon credits, these promise to neutralize or absorb the same amount of greenhouse gases emitted by a company or event, so that it appears as if the event has emitted nothing.

In theory, that would mean that every mile flown into land and every construction project associated with the games would be countered by an equal amount of carbon dioxide reduced by planting trees or making improvements elsewhere.

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

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

“They are arguably relying on some of the lowest-quality credit in existence today,” said Danny Cullenward, an energy economist and attorney who leads policy at CarbonPlan, a California-based nonprofit that evaluates climate programs. He said there are “serious problems with additionality” with the credits used by Qatar and FIFA, which he was evaluating.

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 whether the carbon offsetting strategy really makes sense,” Cullenward said.


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

“It has really improved the energy basket for Qatar,” said Saud Ghani, an engineering professor at the University of Qatar who designed the stadiums’ air conditioning systems. “We used to only burn gas to generate electricity.”

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

Karim Elgendy, a fellow at London think tank Chatham House who previously worked as a climate adviser 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 credentials, Elgendy said. Even if the country “does that in a way that suits them”.


Follow Suman Naishadham on Twitter: @SumanNaishadham


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