Qatar World Cup: FIFA’s $200b. missed opportunity for sustainability - opinion

FIFA cannot touch the world or build a better future without putting a sincere emphasis on sustainable practices that directly and indirectly impact all of us.

 WALES AND England play their World Cup match in Al Rayyan, Qatar on Tuesday. Stadium requirements are stringent: a regulated minimum capacity, specific grass types, instructions on retractable roofs and rules on where to allow extra space on the pitch. (photo credit: MARKO DJURICA/REUTERS)
WALES AND England play their World Cup match in Al Rayyan, Qatar on Tuesday. Stadium requirements are stringent: a regulated minimum capacity, specific grass types, instructions on retractable roofs and rules on where to allow extra space on the pitch.
(photo credit: MARKO DJURICA/REUTERS)

On November 20, Ecuador and Qatar kicked off a historic moment. For the first time, the World Cup is taking place in an Arab country. From the world-class athletes to the national anthems to the erupting stadiums, the pageantry and spectacle could be unmatched in sport.

But hidden behind the sleek new stadiums and the shiny boulevards, lies a disconcerting problem: FIFA chose one of the most arid countries in the world to host the world cup without any meaningful sustainability criteria.

FIFA’s lack of concern for sustainability can be illustrated particularly well if we look at Qatar’s water system. Qatar is one of the few countries in the world without any lakes, rivers or streams. If Qatar were to rely only on the sustainable yield from its aquifers, about 57 million cubic meters (MCM) for three million people, it would run out of water within a few weeks.

In 2010, while selection officials were congratulating themselves on their decision about the next World Cup host, Qatar only had 48 hours worth of water stored in case of emergency. Since FIFA’s announcement of Qatar’s World Cup selection in 2010, Qatar has been proactively developing its water infrastructure with four major desalination plants coming online. Today, Qatar’s desalination infrastructure can produce a total of 66 MCM per month.

Over the course of the World Cup, a predicted one-and-a-half million visitors will consume about 30 MCM of water. To prepare for this, Qatar is converting saltwater to freshwater via desalination. The desalinated water required to host the World Cup requires large amounts of natural gas and electricity, which carry a hefty carbon footprint. As the World Cup prepared to launch, world leaders gathered in Sharm e-Sheikh at the UN COP27 climate summit in an attempt to limit climate change to 1.5 °C. 

General view during the opening ceremony of the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022, Al Khor, Qatar, November 20, 2022 (credit: REUTERS/PAWEL KOPCZYNSKI)General view during the opening ceremony of the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022, Al Khor, Qatar, November 20, 2022 (credit: REUTERS/PAWEL KOPCZYNSKI)

It is abundantly clear that we have arrived at a crossroads in which we need to address extreme drought across the world and rapidly decarbonize global energy systems. Given the massive infrastructure investments needed to host the World Cup, FIFA’s selection of Qatar was a missed opportunity. Instead of revealing a low-carbon mega event demonstrating remarkable advances in energy technology, the World Cup exposed FIFA’s lackluster sustainability efforts.

FIFA World Cup regulations and sustainability

FIFA has set strict regulations that World Cup venues must uphold but what’s jarring is the contrast of scrutiny across different areas of the mega event. The stadium requirements are stringent - a regulated minimum capacity that varies for each individual stage of the event, specific grass types approved by FIFA, instructions on retractable roofs and directions on where to allow extra space on the pitch.

OTHER REGULATIONS are just as strict: for example, there must be at least two to four training sites per stadium, one to two referee base training sites, one to two referee-designated hotels, all within a required distance from each other, and a list of required amenities. 

The World Cup bidding guide and regulations report is a combined 104 pages. Curious about how much of that was about sustainability commitments? About two paragraphs, and what little information is included is rather vague. The document reads: “An explicit public commitment to follow sustainable event management principles and promote sustainable development in the host country... Compliance with relevant domestic regulations and international agreements related to the environment.”

“An explicit public commitment to follow sustainable event management principles and promote sustainable development in the host country... Compliance with relevant domestic regulations and international agreements related to the environment.”

FIFA World Cup bidding guide sustainability commitments

FIFA published its evaluation report of Qatar’s World Cup bid. The report totaled 38 pages of analysis detailing how Qatar would run its World Cup campaign. Of this, only about half a page, most of which was still vague, explained exactly how Qatar could address the environmental costs associated with hosting the World Cup.

Here’s FIFA’s anemic evaluation of Qatar’s environmental initiatives for the WC:

“The environment protection plan foresees the generation of excess renewable energy sources which would contribute to a carbon-neutral event and be used to offset all unavoidable emissions. Given Qatar’s climate, the activities would firstly concentrate on water and waste management and secondly, on minimizing carbon emissions through specific energy, transportation and procurement activities.”

Is this paragraph sufficient to ensure that the environment is given adequate consideration both during the selection process for the World Cup, throughout the $200 billion (NIS 688.2 b.) of new construction and during the event itself? The portrait painted by FIFA suggests that sustainability is an important organizational priority. At best, FIFA guidelines could be considered a shallow examination for an event carrying a remarkable environmental burden, at worst, it is simply greenwashing.

Qatar checked all of the necessary boxes for FIFA’s evaluation; but that’s precisely the problem. Despite FIFA’s main role as an athletic institution, we live in a time when informed decision-making regarding the future of energy and water use are vital. FIFA’s mission statement is “Develop the Game, Touch the World, build a Better Future.” 

Although it’s understandable that sport is the priority for the organization, FIFA cannot touch the world or build a better future without putting a sincere emphasis on sustainable practices that directly and indirectly impact all of us.

Benjamin Lobl is an Environmental Science student at University of Wisconsin-Madison. Dr. Michael Roth is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Belfer Institute for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University.