International Sports Need to Prioritize Sustainability

Climate researchers normally use megatons (millions of metric tons) to measure the annual emissions of entire countries, not sporting events. But the carbon footprint of this year’s World Cup will be measured in megatons: 3.6 of them to be exact.

As this month-long international soccer tournament comes to an end, it will be responsible for releasing more climate pollution into the atmosphere than the entire population of Iceland produces in a year.

Just over half of those emissions are expected to come from air travel, largely from international attendees. Fans have crossed oceans to arrive at the tournament, sometimes flying back and forth to their hotel between games, and then they will return home again. Other emissions (about one sixth) are coming from the construction of permanent infrastructure, such as stadiums, some of which may well sit unused after the tournament is over. Since every metric ton of carbon adds heat to our planet, it’s hard to justify such frivolous emissions.

It certainly is possible to run an international sports tournament with less pollution. The 2018 World Cup in Russia produced only 60 percent of the emissions of the Qatar event, so we don’t need to look far for examples of how to do things a little better.

But if you really wanted a major international sporting event to be sustainable, how would you do it?

To start, you’d make it smaller. Fewer fans, fewer side events and fewer journalists. A smaller event requires a little bit less of everything—fewer hotel rooms being cooled by AC, fewer aircraft burning fuel—and all of that goes a long way to curbing emissions. For the 2022 World Cup, media travel alone is expected to produce 46,000 metric tons of CO2–more than is created flying professional basketball players around North America for 1,230 regular-season NBA games. Those numbers could certainly be trimmed.

The next thing you would want to do is pick an optimal location: one where a lot of fans already live, so that travel is minimized. Preferably the host city would already have the necessary infrastructure. New stadiums require lots of steel and cement, and we have yet to figure out how to produce these without also making a lot of carbon pollution. If you are building more infrastructure, you want it to be public transport or housing that remain well used after all the players and fans have left.

So the perfect locations are those that have already held mega sporting events in the past. Olympic organizers currently use a nomadic approach to hosting, requiring the construction of bobsled tracks and various other “white elephant” infrastructure (expensive to build and maintain, but not very profitable) in a new city every four years. The sustainable option would be to rotate between the same set of host cities who are already well-equipped to run a World Cup or Olympic Games.

In many ways this runs counter to some basic ideas of fairness—letting everyone have a turn. Ideally you would want new cities and new nations hosting these games; European nations have hosted 11 World Cups compared to Africa’s one. But detonating a carbon bomb every four years and imposing the costs of that warming on the world’s most vulnerable people through flooding, heat waves and wildfires is not fair either.

Hosting events across multiple cities can help reduce the need to build unnecessary infrastructure. In 2026 the World Cup will be played in 16 North American cities, (the 2014 World Cup in Brazil was similar). This results in a lot more media and player travel during the tournament, but could potentially cut international travel if fans can choose a location closer to where they live. We’ll get a better idea of how this carbon trade-off works out for North America in four years, but one way to tip the scales is to allocate a much larger fraction of tickets to local residents, or even residents of neighboring countries, thereby eliminating many of the longest, most polluting journeys.

Location, travel, construction—those are the big things event organizers need to focus on. But there are also dozens of smaller considerations: food and beverages, merchandise and waste. You wouldn’t want to focus all your energy on those things, but you can’t ignore them either. One way for organizers to cover many details at once is to bring in an arms-length, neutral party (like an NGO) that contributes to selecting the host and overseeing some sustainability criteria.

But even a small, well-run tournament in a centralized city will produce some carbon. There will be air travel, and we have no good technologies to help us avoid those emissions at present. FIFA and the Qatari government have instead turned to carbon offsets, projects that compensate for climate pollution by reducing or removing greenhouse gases somewhere else. They chose a particularly suspect way to do this, funding renewable energy projects that are not verified by an independent organization. But even traditional approaches like tree-planting have major flaws, such as their literal flammability, and none of them can overcome the fact that while they are slowly atoning for burned carbon, that same carbon has spent the intervening years warming our planet.

There are better ways to spend money than sleight-of-hand efforts to earn a “carbon neutral” badge of honor. You could purchase credits for direct air capture, which sucks carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere or for sustainable aviation fuels which are low-carbon alternatives to jet fuel. I have no stake in either of these fledgling industries, but they could both arguably benefit from financial support.

The story of the 2022 World Cup thus far has been one of moral failings: alleged corruption in the selection process, followed by ongoing human rights failures and then a disappointing effort to make amends for unjustifiably large carbon emissions. As organizers of future mega sporting events reflect on what happened in Qatar, they should find many areas where they can improve. Unfortunately, improvement is all too easy if you set the 2022 World Cup as your baseline; there truly is nowhere to go but up.

This is an opinion and analysis article, and the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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