WASHINGTON (AP) — In the 12 years leading up to hosting the 2022 men’s World Cup soccer tournament, Qatar has been on a wild construction spree with few recent parallels.
It built seven of its eight World Cup stadiums, a new subway system, highways, high-rises and Lusail, a futuristic city that ten years ago was mostly dust and sand.
For years, Qatar has promised something else to set this World Cup apart from the rest: it would be “carbon neutral” or have a negligible overall impact on the climate. And for almost as long, there have been skeptics – with outside experts saying Qatar and FIFA’s plan is based on convenient accounting and projects that won’t offset the tournament’s carbon footprint as advertised.
“It’s not very helpful for this type of event to advertise itself as carbon neutral,” said Gilles Dufrasne, a researcher at the Brussels-based non-governmental organization Carbon Market Watch, which wrote a report challenging Qatar’s sustainability plan. the impression that we can build huge state-of-the-art stadiums… and fly people from all over the world to watch football matches and that is somehow compatible with meeting climate goals.’
MEASUREMENT OF EMISSIONS
In an official report estimating the event’s emissions, Qatari organizers and FIFA predicted the World Cup would generate around 3.6 million metric tons of carbon dioxide from tournament-related activities between 2011 and 2023. That’s roughly 3% of Qatar’s total emissions in 2019 of about 115 million metric tons, according to World Bank data.
Qatar moved the tournament to winter to protect players and spectators from extreme heat. Even so, the gas-rich nation will air-condition seven stadiums that are open to the sky. As for the water, it will rely primarily on energy-consuming desalination plants that take ocean water and make it drinkable to satisfy the more than 1.2 million fans expected to land for the month-long event. The Arab sheikhdom of the Gulf is usually home to 2.9 million people.
Qatar and FIFA say the biggest source of emissions will be travel – mainly miles flown from abroad. This will make up 52% of the total. Construction of stadiums and training grounds and their operations will account for 25 percent, the report said. Operating hotels and other accommodations for the five weeks, including cruise ships chartered by Qatar as floating hotels, will contribute 20 percent.
But in its report, Carbon Market Watch said these figures are not the whole story. He said Qatar greatly underestimated the emissions from building the seven stadiums by dividing the emissions from all that concrete and steel by the lifetime of the facilities in years, rather than simply adding them up.
“This is problematic,” said Carbon Market Watch, questioning the possibility that Qatar, which is smaller than the US state of Connecticut, would have built seven major stadiums without the World Cup.
Qatar defended its maths and said it has worked hard to avoid creating “white elephant” venues that often sit idle in host countries after a tournament ends. He says he has developed plans for each stage after the games are over.
“No other country has engaged so deeply with its citizens to ensure that a sustainable legacy is left behind after a FIFA World Cup,” said a spokesman for Qatar’s High Commission for Tradition and Heritage.
But the last-minute hiccup continues to undermine the country’s climate pledges. For years, Qatar said the country’s small size would reduce the amount of travel required between stadiums and games. But despite all the construction, the country still has a shortage of hotel rooms and thousands of fans unable to find accommodation in Qatar will sleep in nearby Dubai – a 45-minute plane ride away – and other Gulf cities.
Qatari organizers did not respond to a request for comment on whether they will count the flights in the pollution totals, instead saying in a statement that any discrepancies would be explained after the World Cup.
A spokesman for the High Commission for Tradition and Heritage called the methodology behind Qatar’s carbon neutral commitment “better in practice”.
QUESTION OF COAL PEOPLE
Central to Qatar’s plan to reduce World Cup emissions are carbon offsets. Sometimes called carbon credits, they promise to cancel or absorb the same amount of greenhouse gases emitted by a company or event so that it is as if the event emitted nothing.
In theory, this would mean that every mile we fly in the country and every race-related construction project would be offset by an equal amount of carbon dioxide that would be reduced by planting trees or improvements made elsewhere.
So far, Qatari organizers have pledged to buy 1.8 million carbon offsets from the World Coal Council, a Doha-based carbon credit registry where renewable energy projects are verified and recorded. A carbon credit is equal to one metric ton of carbon dioxide avoided or removed from the atmosphere.
But carbon analysts said the credits issued by the registry are of dubious quality because it is not clear that they are “additional” or fund carbon reduction projects that would not otherwise exist. As renewable energy infrastructure becomes cheaper and more common around the world, it becomes less likely that investing in it through carbon credits will actually benefit the environment, experts say. Approved projects signed up to World Cup organizers Qatar so far include wind and hydropower projects in Turkey and Serbia.
“They’re arguably based on some of the lowest quality credits available today,” said Danny Cullenward, an energy economist and attorney who directs policy at CarbonPlan, a California-based nonprofit that evaluates climate programs. He said there were “serious problems with additionality” with the credits used by Qatar and FIFA, which he assessed.
Cullenward and other experts say carbon credits often promise more than they deliver. The global market for carbon credits remains largely unregulated.
“It’s not clear that the strategy of carbon offsets is meaningful,” Cullenward said.
But Qatar’s organizers insist the country is on track to host the first carbon-neutral World Cup. They point to the conspicuously green elements of Qatar’s clean markets: 800 new electric buses, 16,000 trees and nearly 700,000 shrubs grown in nurseries, as well as a new 800-megawatt solar power plant that was recently connected to the grid.
“It’s really improved the energy basket for Qatar,” said Saud Ghani, an engineering professor at Qatar University who designed the stadiums’ air conditioning systems. “Before we only burned gas to generate energy.”
Organizers have repeatedly said the country’s decision to offset the event’s carbon emissions “should be acknowledged rather than criticized”.
Karim Elgendy, a fellow at London think tank Chatham House who previously worked as a climate consultant for the World Cup, said Qatar’s efforts to “green” the tournament “show a positive trend for a sporting event”.
It indicates that Qatar, one of the world’s top natural gas exporters, is taking steps to improve its climate credentials, Elgendy said. Even if the country “does this in a way that works with them.”
Follow Suman Naishadham on Twitter: @SumanNaishadham
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