FIFA’s sustainability upgrades in Qatar won’t last beyond the World Cup

What does a 'carbon-neutral' World Cup mean for extreme living and working conditions in Qatar?
Light show in the night sky over a brightly lit Doha, Qatar during the 2022 World Cup
Light shows are as impermanent as some of FIFA's sustainability policies in Qatar during the World Cup. Alex Grimm/Getty Images

After more than a decade of preparations, scheduling around seasons, controversies around human rights, and multiple labor lawsuits, the 2022 World Cup is deep into the group matches in Doha, Qatar. But there are other reasons why the current tournament stands out from the last 21 contests. This year international soccer authorities promised to deliver “the first carbon-neutral World Cup in history,” according to the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™ Sustainability Strategy.

The five notable objectives stated in the plan start with constructing and operating the World Cup sites to limit environmental impacts, while building locally. It also includes offsetting all greenhouse gas emissions produced for and during the tournament, as well as minimizing air pollution, landfill rubbish, and water use. This involves advancing low-carbon solutions, promoting waste management, and access to cleaner technologies in Qatar.

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The strategy further elaborates how FIFA aims to make the four-week competition carbon neutral. But what has this journey to prepare for the World Cup looked like for those living in Qatar? And how will the sustainability policies affect them after the players, tourists, and tournament officials pack up? “The event itself won’t have a significant effect—the design of the new developments in and around Doha, such as Lusail Stadium, where the final will be hosted, is actually very sensitive to climate effects and is designed to reduce urban heat island effects,” says Natasha Iskander, a professor at New York University and author of Does Skill Make Us Human? Migrant Workers in 21st-Century Qatar and Beyond

“Qatar, through an accident of geography, is one of the fastest-warming places on the planet. The temperatures will very soon become life-threatening—and certainly already are to the workers who build the World Cup,” Iskander explains. Some estimates put the temperature rise since 2010, when Qatar began breaking ground on the stadiums, at 1 degree Celsius per year.

The World Cup is meant to be a climate bubble: 12 years of work for a month of perfection. But behind FIFA’s strategies is a more sobering picture of the role fossil fuels play, both in the region and on the international soccer stage. Iskander points out that the hydrocarbon industry that has bankrolled the construction of the World Cup has accelerated climate change. At a price tag of $200 billion, this is the most expensive World Cup for a host country to date.

A lot of this funding is due to Qatar’s superior position in the energy industry. In an Oxford Business Group interview, Abdulla Mubarak Al Khalifa, group CEO of Qatar National Bank said, “Qatar has one of the world’s largest reserves of natural gas and is the leading exporter of liquefied natural gas.” The country is only second to the US in terms of gas exports to the EU and UK; in 2022, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine led to an energy crisis, and subsequently, a huge rise in demand for Qatar’s fuel reserves.

According to The Financial Times, a majority of the money spent on the World Cup infrastructure came from QatarEnery, the country’s state-owned petroleum company. QatarEnergy’s liquefied natural gas) revenues paid largely for much of the World Cup’s infrastructure. Saad al-Kaabi, Qatar’s energy minister, also told The Financial Times that it was very much in the country’s energy prospects to expand the company internationally in upcoming years.

While oil and gas are in great supply in Qatar, water is not. With its arid desert climate, the nation draws 60 percent of its freshwater from desalination plants. The World Cup is a further strain on that resource: It takes 10,000 liters of water a day just to keep the turf in each stadium cool and lush. FIFA’s sustainability strategy mentions using recycling and drip irrigation in hotels and other tourist centers, but it lacks detail on how these water management practices will extend to Qataris and workers at the tournament. (The government does have its own climate change initiatives as well.)

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Water infrastructure has been a long-term debate in this part of the world: In fact, the Gulf Cooperation Council countries cover 43 percent of the global desalination scopeHowever, with such a large number of processing plants, comes the need to power them. According to The Guardian, “The southern coasts of the Gulf are dotted with more than 300 desalination plants—mostly in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait, and Bahrain.” In Qatar, there are plans to better integrate energy generation with desalination, but as of now, the thermal technology in the facilities depends on fossil fuels. So, while the World Cup claims to be carbon neutral, the desalination required to water the games and ceremonies themselves may already conflict with this claim.

FIFA estimates that Qatar will host 1.5 million foreigners over the course of the soccer tournament. But that’s eclipsed by the roughly 2 million laborers who raised the new parts of Doha from the ground, and the 3 million people who call the small peninsular country home. For them, sustainability needs to be long-lasting, even when the fame and fervor of the World Cup isn’t.