This year the football World Cup is being coined the first-ever carbon-neutral World Cup. FIFA claims that in order to deliver this pledge, it will reduce emissions and offset any unavoidable ones. Every ticket holder's flight will be offset, Qatar will ensure stadiums are close together to reduce travel, and public transport will be encouraged as much as possible.
But athletes and sports bodies have decried the claims in a letter to FIFA, and climate change organisations have deemed the accounting to be shoddy. Whilst fans are being lied to, who is holding FIFA accountable?
“Climate change is our fiercest opponent and every member of the team needs to bring their a-game.” - a joint letter from football players and organisations addressed to FIFA.
The False Claims
Investigations have revealed that the offsets planned to be used for the World Cup are some of the poorest quality available.
The tournament’s organisers are so far not showing any signs that would suggest they care about the quality of the carbon credits they are purchasing. The World Cup organisers have created their own offset quality standard that is much lower than globally recognised best practices (which are themselves far from perfect). This means that projects which would have happened anyway without carbon market finance, are used to offset emissions from the World Cup. Renewable energy projects in countries like Turkey or Serbia, where such projects are already profitable, are a key example of this.
FIFA announced recently that they will offset half of the emissions from the World Cup using a big solar plant that Qatar has been developing. But this solar plant does not seem to be registered with any offset verifiers, which means it’s likely not officially generating any carbon credits and won’t be offering any additional emissions reductions.
Large portions of the World Cup’s emissions have been entirely misrepresented in Qatar's accounting. A large number of new stadiums in a relatively small space are unlikely to be efficiently used after the tournament, yet the way their climate impact has been measured has underestimated emissions from most stadiums by a factor of eight, according to a report.
In addition, in 2021, FIFA announced it would become net zero by 2040, but given the lack of a detailed plan for how it intends to get there and the mega size of the 2026 World Cup in the United States, Canada and Mexico, it remains unclear whether FIFA is serious about this target or whether it will continue to use creative accounting to dodge truly tackling its climate impact.
Qatar claims that during the tournament, transport emissions will be low given the stadiums are close together, but during the actual tournament, shuttle flights were organised between the United Arab Emirates, Muscat, and Oman to get fans to and from matches. These flights have been estimated to be responsible for between 6,000 and 8,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide daily.
Carbon neutrality smoke screen
FIFA has worked with, and paid, sporting celebrities such as David Beckham, Tim Cahill and Ronald de Boer to promote the carbon neutrality claim of the World Cup. But in reality, FIFA and its flagship tournament continue to inflict an outsized impact on the climate.
Sport transcends national boundaries, politics and cultures in a way that nothing else on the planet does. Tackling the basic links to fossil fuels would send a strong message and tick off crucial actions needed for FIFA to become more sustainable.
Since the Paris Agreement came to fruition in 2015, major fossil fuel producers have dominated the hosting of the football World Cup. Russia hosted in 2018, who make up 14% of the global supply of fossil fuels. Qatar is the world's fourth biggest supplier of natural gas, and the USA, which is set to co-host in 2026, are the biggest global supplier of fossil fuels.
Fossil fuel sponsorship can still prominently be seen at the World Cup. This year, Qatar Energy is a flagship sponsor of the World Cup, despite the carbon neutrality claims.
A Blueprint for Combating Greenwashing
Wake up. Hold corporations accountable for their climate claims. End “net zero” and “carbon neutrality” claims over-reliant on false solutions, ambiguous targets and poor accounting.
Step up. Strengthen your strategies in line with the science. Slash real emissions, end your reliance on offsets, be transparent about your full carbon footprint, and join the call for proper accountability through regulation.
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