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Will Reform at FIFA Shrink the World Cup’s Environmental Footprint?

Cleat with no traction
Environmental priorities need better traction at FIFA (credit: Dan Klotz).

Pretty soon now, environmentalists won’t have Sepp Blatter to kick around anymore. But, surprisingly, they never really did.

Blatter resigned last week as President of FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association), the organization that runs the World Cup, the Women’s World Cup, the football (soccer) tournament at the Summer Olympics, and other international competitions. His announced departure came as a result of transnational corruption inquiries that stem from the bidding of the World Cup in 1998, 2010, 2014, 2018, and 2022.

And while the bidding for the 2006 Cup is not being investigated, allegations that the German government provided a shipment of rocket-propelled grenades to Saudi Arabia in return for the deciding vote now puts that process into question as well.

The competition for the honor and prestige of hosting a World Cup has long been questioned for its ethics, but it wasn’t until FIFA awarded the 2022 World Cup to Qatar that the questions turned into a feverish outcry. No logical and fair process, critics said, could award an outdoor sporting event played on fields of grass—not artificial turf—to a desert country that routinely experiences 120°F temperatures at the time of year that the event is held.

Qatar’s winning bid included the construction of 12 new stadiums, including the one where the finals will be played—in a city that doesn’t even exist yet. While the number of stadiums may be lowered to 10, the event may move to the winter (conflicting, however, with the European club season), and the stadiums may not be air-conditioned, it is a sure bet that the 2022 World Cup will be an environmental disaster.

At a time when the world is increasingly troubled by global warming and arguing over how to reduce environmental impacts, the ability of FIFA to escape serious and sustained criticism in this field is amazing.

Environmental sustainability has not been a priority for FIFA under Blatter’s leadership. And for its critics, there has always been plenty of other problems to focus on. The human rights impact of the 2022 Cup—more than 1,200 migrant workers have already died in the stadium construction effort—rightly overshadow everything. And let’s not even talk about the arms shipment allegations over the 2006 Cup. Or the lawsuit filed by 84 players from 13 countries for having to play the Womens World Cup on artificial turf.

But the environmental footprint of the World Cup produces an ankle-breaking divot that cannot be overlooked.  FIFA estimated that the 2014 Cup in Brazil would generate 2.72 million tons of carbon dioxide, the equivalent of burning 306 million gallons of gasoline. And this estimate did not include the emissions from building the stadiums or infrastructure to support the event. In comparison, the 2010 World Cup emitted 1.65 million tons, according to a United Nations Environment Programme analysis conducted after the event was held.

Environmental sustainability has become such a low priority for FIFA that a similar analysis after the 2014 Cup was either never conducted or never released. Instead, FIFA partnered with a not-for-profit offshoot of BP—the international petrochemical giant—to provide carbon offsets for the event’s emissions. Analysts who reviewed the transactions, however, say the offsets were completely insufficient.

The International Olympics Committee seems to have figured out how to produce a seminal and global event that emphasizes a low environmental footprint. The 2008 Beijing Olympics was a watershed moment for the national government, which used the momentum of the games to enact a number of clean air, clean water, and clean energy reforms in the years afterwards. The 2012 London Olympics was lauded for the sustainability standards it embraced, and shared its strategies for future Olympic Games and similar events to adopt.

Even the NFL—which governs the American version of football—has figured out how to run a sustainable mega-event. The most recent Superbowl, for example, was played under LED lights that were recently installed, cutting the electricity needed for lighting by 75 percent, and, as LED’s run cooler, the air-conditioning load was reduced by roughly 30 percent. Power for the game was generated by wind turbines and geothermal plants.

Environmentalists still have nine months to figure out how to give Blatter a red card for his record on sustainability, as his resignation does not actually take effect until March 2016. While the world waits for a new president at FIFA, there is much that could be done to start shrinking that footprint. But ultimately, it is his successor who must take on the responsibility of turning the World Cup into an event as green as the grass it is played on.

Regardless of who is in charge, however, and as questions regarding the bidding process of the 2022 World Cup (and others) continue to swirl around the pitch, perhaps the looming environmental catastrophe can finally force that dreaded result in all of sports: a do-over.