What would a more sustainable World Cup look like?

Experts say events like the World Cup and the Olympics have grown on such a scale that efforts to make them more sustainable need to go far beyond what was done in Qatar.

WASHINGTON (AP) — The 2024 Paris Olympics will be “climate positive,” organizers say. the men’s world cup in 2026, which will take place in Mexico, the US and Canada, it will be the “lowest carbon emission FIFA World Cup of the modern era”, if the promises are kept.

Qatar’s World Cup ends on Sunday, but climate promises such as its promise of a “carbon-neutral” event, central to the gas-rich Gulf nation’s bid, hold up in the world of mega-sports events.

Actual differences between host countries affect contamination from one event versus another. The size of a country, how many stadiums it builds, whether public transport reaches the venues, and how clean (or dirty) the electrical grid is, are all factors in climate impact.

But scientists, environmental advocates and other experts say sporting events like the World Cup and the Olympics have grown on such a scale that efforts to make them more sustainable need to go far beyond what was done in Qatar. .

“We have to change the structure of these events,” said Walker Ross, a sports and sustainability researcher at the University of Edinburgh. “And that means having to make some tough decisions about where they can be housed and who can house them.”


Qatar built seven stadiums and renovated another for the World Cup. A construction like this is extremely carbon intensive. The emissions remain in the air for more than a century, changing the climate. And the buildings were just a fraction of what the emirate built to house soccer’s main event. Qatar says that after the tournament, one stadium will be completely dismantled.

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Instead, all the stadiums that will host the World Cup matches in Mexico, the United States and Canada in 2026 already exist. The organizers of the Paris 2024 Olympic Games say that 95% of the venues will come from temporary or existing infrastructure.

Finding potential World Cup hosts that have the infrastructure is easier than for the Olympics, said Andrew Zimbalist, an economics professor at Smith College in Massachusetts who has written several books on the economics of mega-sporting events.

The Summer Olympics may require more than 40 venues, Zimbalist said, “and those are not venues that are normally used” again.

“It’s much easier to organize the World Cup,” he said.


Another idea: Establish fixed sites for the Olympics and other events to avoid building expensive infrastructure that often goes unused after the games, such as the stadiums left over from former World Cup hosts South Africa, Brazil and Russia. .

Some experts say countries could host games simultaneously in this way, potentially reducing the distances fans travel to a tournament, a major source of emissions for any event.

The International Olympic Committee is considering the idea of ​​a fixed group of host countries for the Winter Olympic Games. Earlier this month, the sports body said it would take longer to name a host for the 2030 games.

Rotating games “within a host group” could also be one way to answer the challenge of finding suitable sites for winter games on a planet where reliable snow is increasingly hard to find.


Reducing the distance fans travel to host countries and games is essential, said Arnaud Brohe, chief executive of climate consulting firm Agendi and an expert on carbon markets.

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Qatar insisted its World Cup would be sustainable in part because its small size meant fans wouldn’t have to travel far between matches. But thousands of fans have stayed in neighboring Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, about 45 minutes away by plane, due to a lack of accommodation in the emirate, which is about the size of the US state of Connecticut.

But those distances could be surpassed by the distance fans and teams will travel during the upcoming World Cup, where games will take place in North American cities as far apart as Houston, Los Angeles, Toronto and Mexico City. In the bid for the 2026 tournament, organizers said they would try to “bundle” the knockout rounds to minimize travel.


Wild promises like Qatar’s are becoming the norm.

“When the last one promised to be ‘carbon neutral’, you don’t want to be the bid that says the environment really isn’t that important to us,” said Ross of the University of Edinburgh.

Experts say these plans rely too heavily on promises known as “carbon offsets” to cancel emissions. Organizers of the Paris Olympics say they will offset emissions that cannot be avoided, such as those produced by fans traveling internationally to France.

The credits promise to counteract pollution by paying to bury carbon underground, plant trees, or prevent greenhouse gases from escaping in the first place.

But it’s not clear that any sporting body or regulator will follow up on plans after an event. And many carbon experts remain unconvinced about carbon offsets.

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“The more of that band-aid-oriented thinking we have, the less progress,” said Danny Cullenward, a California-based lawyer and energy economist who studies carbon emissions. “That’s a common problem, whether you’re locating the event in a high polluting country or a very low (polluting) country.”

Zimbalist said sports bodies should be more honest in their efforts to be sustainable, rather than using labels like “climate positive” or “carbon neutral” that suggest a mega-sporting event will have little or no impact on the climate, which it is impossible. .

“A more accurate way of saying it is that they are less negative, not that they are positive.”


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