Qatar promised a carbon-neutral World Cup. Climate advocates call that pledge misleading.


The Lusail Iconic Stadium near Doha, Qatar.

  • World Cup organisers will buy carbon offsets to help cancel out greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Climate advocates say the offsets aren’t backed by projects that truly reduce emissions. 
  • Qatar moved the World Cup to winter for the first time to protect attendees from blistering heat.
  • For more stories visit Business Insider.

This article is part of Insider’s weekly newsletter on sustainability, written by Catherine Boudreau, senior sustainability reporter.

Qatar World Cup organisers jumped into one of the most hotly debated climate issues when it announced the tournament would be “carbon neutral.”     

It’s a bold ambition for Qatar, a top producer of fossil fuels that moved the World Cup to winter for the first time to protect attendees from blistering heat in one of the fastest-warming regions of the world.

The most controversial part of the goal is that it rests on the purchase of carbon offsets tied to projects outside the World Cup. In theory, they would cancel out nearly half of the 3.6 million tons of greenhouse-gas emissions the tournament is estimated to generate from flights in and out of Doha, accommodations for players and fans, and infrastructure including seven new stadiums

Days before the World Cup kicked off, organizers said they expected that a new 800-megawatt solar farm would help avoid about 1.3 million tons of emissions. Free public transport in a compact area, stadiums built to green standards, efforts to divert waste from landfills, and a new tree nursery would also help reduce emissions, they said.

But climate advocates are skeptical following an analysis by Carbon Market Watch. The climate advocacy group found that the World Cup underestimated the emissions from building stadiums and that the carbon offsets purchased so far failed an integrity test: They’re backed by wind and hydropower projects in Serbia and Turkey that likely would have been constructed anyway. In climate circles, this issue is known as “additionality.”

“Renewable energy projects are economically competitive and viable in most regions around the world,” said Gilles Dufrasne, a researcher for Carbon Market Watch and author of the report. “Buying credits from these projects doesn’t make any difference to emissions because it just sends money to a project that doesn’t need the extra revenue.”

Qatar’s Supreme Committee, a government agency organizing the World Cup with FIFA, told Insider that sustainability defined all its planning and offered a blueprint for future tournaments and development in the country. The committee didn’t address questions about its purchase of carbon credits. The Global Carbon Council, the Qatar-based carbon-offset program supplying the credits, didn’t return a request for comment. But the council’s website states that it has approval from the United Nations International Civil Aviation Organization, which is overseeing a global effort to offset emissions from air travel. 

The two largest carbon-credit programs, Verified Carbon Standard and Gold Standard, no longer approve renewable-energy projects unless they’re in the least-developed countries. Steven Zwick, a representative for Verra, the company behind the Verified Carbon Standard, said that by 2019 most large-scale renewable-energy projects no longer needed carbon credits to attract investors. 

The controversy has underscored what little global regulation exists for carbon markets, which are exploding as countries and corporations try to achieve their own climate goals. The UN and other organizations are working on standards, but those efforts are dogged by similar concerns about integrity.

Even if the carbon offsets purchased for the World Cup did represent real emissions reductions, it still wouldn’t be enough to call the tournament “carbon neutral,” according to Dufrasne. His analysis found that organizers underestimated emissions from the permanent new stadiums, potentially by a factor of eight.

This is because the World Cup will only be responsible for emissions generated during the tournament, rather than the lifespan of the new stadiums. Dufrasne found a FIFA report mentioning that stadiums last 60 years.

That method only makes sense if stadiums weren’t solely constructed for the World Cup and would regularly be used in the future. But past tournaments have left behind many white elephants.

The Supreme Committee said Qatar is developing legacy uses for all tournament venues, such as local football teams, and will remove and donate nearly 170,000 seats to other countries in need of sports infrastructure. One stadium was built out of shipping containers and will be dismantled after the tournament and rebuilt overseas.

Karim Elgendy, an urban-sustainability consultant who worked on the Qatar World Cup, said Doha, the capital, doesn’t need seven stadiums in a country with a population of about 3 million. Elgendy said some of the emissions associated with building them should be attributed to the World Cup — but not all.

He added that scrutiny of the carbon-neutral pledge is fair, but organizers are trying to do the right thing. 

“I don’t think it’s greenwashing,” he told Insider, adding that no previous World Cup — nor any of the annual UN climate summits — had attempted to go carbon-neutral. He doubted that the US, Mexico, and Canada, which will jointly host the 2026 World Cup across 16 cities, would strive for the same goal. 

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