The Environmental Impact of the World Cup - Are FIFA Scoring Sustainability Goals?

The Environmental Impact of the World Cup - Are FIFA Scoring Sustainability Goals?

Posted by Leanne Sturrock on 12th Jul 2018

We’re just a few days away from the end of the World Cup, and this year’s games have been riveting to say the least. Certainly in England’s case, this is the closest the team have gotten to tasting victory since 1990 – in fact, their efforts demonstrate a marked improvement in performance once compared to their previous attempts in Brazil (2014). Spectators around the globe have been fixated on the World Cup, though not only for the game itself: from tales of psychic animals to the unfortunate inevitability of hooliganism (there’s always a few to ruin it for the rest of us…), our newspapers, television channels and social media platforms have been rife with stories related to the World Cup, its players, and its fans. But what comes after the ‘beautiful game’?

While the lead-up to the World Cup seems eternal, the event itself flies by in a flurry, with the in-between being a cacophony of enjoyment, disappointment, jubilation and woe. How the game will end remains to be seen, but there are certain things that can be predicted: as the final match comes to pass, the environmental aftermath is almost certain to leave its mark.

A Brief History

The World Cup may only take place every four years or so, but the lead-up to kick-off takes years of planning: while we already know that the next tournament will take place in Qatar (2022), it has also recently been announced that Canada, Mexico and the United States will jointly host the game in 2026. Eight years of foresight, similarly, means eight years of preparation for the would-be hosts – which gives us a good idea of the amount of time it takes for a suitable venue to be arranged, let alone one which matches back to the now-necessary environmental specifications. It does not appear that Mexico, the United States or Canada will have to build new venues from the ground up, though that does not mean that amendments will not be made. This has been the case for at least some of Russia’s stadiums, with this year’s host utilising some 12 venues for the sake of the Cup – while one stadium, the Ekaterinburg Arena, has undergone upgrades, a further six venues have been built for purpose.

While it is true that the World Cup hosts for any given year are indeed forthcoming with their sustainability proposals (certain regulations are put in place to ensure compliance with green-building standards, as well as efficient energy and waste management), one must ponder on the impact that mass construction, no matter how green, could have on the local environment and the globe overall. From plumes of black smoke filling the skies to areas of land being torn up to accommodate a slew of brand-new stadiums, one might wonder just how seriously Russia are taking their own sustainability guidelines. Take, for example, 'October’ Island in Kaliningrad: previously considered ‘a little corner of heaven’, this ecologically-sensitive destination has now become home to a monster of a stadium. The very site sits atop what was thought to be one of Kaliningrad’s last natural wetlands; one which protected water-bird colonies from industrial development. Since Kaliningrad no longer stands as a sanctuary for certain bird species, it begs the question of how many other species could be impacted or displaced during construction – and if the environmental quotas put in place by FIFA take long-term environmental sustainability into account, as opposed to the immediate impact of the game itself.

Kaliningrad stadium under construction

Russia's Kaliningrad stadium under construction

In today’s world, it is vital that environmental protection is taken seriously, yet FIFA’s history of sustainability has certainly been inconsistent. Looking back to 2014, Brazil’s so-called ‘Green Cup’ (Copa Verde) seemed determined to be the most environmentally-sound World Cup to date, even aiming to undo the environmental damage caused by previous hosts South Africa. Not only was the 2014 the costliest World Cup ever, but FIFA’s carbon footprint estimation was embarrassingly high once compared its predecessor: it is thought that Rio 2014 had generated 2.72m tonnes of CO2 emissions, while surprisingly, 2010’s World Cup in South Africa emitted 1.65m tonnes - far less than that of the supposedly eco-friendly Brazil. Alarmingly, the carbon dioxide dumped into Earth’s atmosphere during Rio 2014 was equivalent to the CO2 produced by 560,000 cars within the space of a year.

A glance towards 2022 (Qatar’s turn to host the World Cup), already, has left environmentalists somewhat concerned: due to the games taking place in the height of summer, the proposed Al Bayt stadium had been anticipated to use an ‘advanced air-conditioning technology’ as to provide safer, cooler grounds for the teams and spectators present. It’s this cooling technology which helped to secure Qatar’s position as hosts (though, understandably, the environmental impact of such technology has seen the proposal met with some disapproval); the notion that the stadium could be carbon-neutral is a good idea in theory (solar panels would be used to power water and air chillers), but the construction of such technology, in itself, would prove detrimental to the environment. Add to that the transportation of players and spectators alike: in Doha’s sweltering 40-degree+ heat, it’s hard to imagine how the games can remain carbon neutral. Because of these concerns, the games have been forced to be moved to November and December, but Qatar insist that they will push on with their proposals for the stadium.

Artist's impression of Al Bayt stadium

Artist's impression of the proposed Al Bayt stadium

While we must wait to see if Qatar manage to fulfil their environmental promises, one previous host country continues to set an example which, so far, is yet to be beat. Germany’s turn at hosting the event back in 2006 has long-since been hailed as one of the most environmentally-sound tournaments to date, and also marked the first time that FIFA began to track their impact on the environment proficiently. Indeed, Germany may have had a step ahead of the game in that they didn’t have to build any new stadiums in the run-up to kick-off, but they worked to incentivise tourists, encouraging them to travel on free public transport as opposed to by car (a ticket to the game doubled as fare for buses and trains), and those that wished to cycle could park their bikes without cost. Similarly, multiple stadiums during the event used solar power and rainwater collection, using the latter to keep the pitch hydrated or to return water back into the ground via infiltration. It is thought that the carbon emissions put into the atmosphere during Germany’s time at the helm were six to eight times less than that put out during South Africa’s hosting attempt – something which, on the one hand, is commendable…but on the other hand, should FIFA not be working harder to replicate such efforts? Similarly, should we all not be doing our bit to make the World Cup as environmentally-friendly as possible?

A Team Effort

Celebrations surrounding the World Cup take place all across the globe, making the period from June to July a pivotal time for a plethora of businesses. Soft drinks companies, especially, get to enjoy the financial benefit of the event, their sponsorships of the games offering them a prime placement in front of the eyes of consumers. Brands such as Coca Cola have historically done well across major sports events, with their products being sold in their millions in pubs, bars and supermarkets around the world. Add to this the beers bought in pubs and for at-home consumption, as well as takeouts such as pizza (a favourite at football parties), and you can imagine just how lucrative the World Cup can be for these companies.

Plastic cup of beer

But what happens to the waste left behind after each game? Whether enjoying a drink or snack at home, in the pub, or at a game, odds are your produce of choice will come contained in plastic or, at the very least, there will be some folk out there who simply do not attempt to recycle materials such as cardboard (pizza boxes, for example). Over the course of the World Cup, streets have become littered with waste, despite pleas from local councils to keep cities clean. Indeed, it is true that FIFA themselves have set in place some impressive recycling initiatives (there have been tailor-made waste collection and recycling processes at various sites across the event, and the organisation has also championed the recycling of artificial pitches), but it still falls down to the fans to get involved in this sense of sustainability too. One country setting the standard for the rest of us is Japan: over the course of the World Cup, fans of the East Asian team have captured the attention and hearts of the world, spending time after each match collecting rubbish left behind in the stands, even after their team were removed from the competition. This warm gesture (typical of Japanese natives) soon caught on, with fans of opposing teams soon looking to join in with the efforts and asking the Japanese fans if they, too, could use the bags they had brought into the stadium.

Japan fans clean up World Cup

The positive press around the fans’ recycling habits could well have had a positive impact on those of us at home, too – but sadly, in some cases, attempts can be somewhat futile: some recycling centres across England are opting to close early to allow their staff to watch the games; something which seems lighthearted, but may ultimately be problematic…as well as being contrary to FIFA’s own stance on recycling. That the notion of rushing home to watch the game appears paramount even to the recycling centres themselves, sets a poor example to the rest of us, and is both frustrating and unfair to those who feel determined to do the right thing. Nobody is saying that our country’s supporters are forbidden from enjoying the match – it is just that, surely, things could have been handled a little better?

Similarly, the dialogue around sustainability and recycling initiatives this World Cup has been somewhat conflicting. Where people celebrate with a beer has, crucially, been a talking point: is it better to drink at home with your friends, or in the pub? Major outlets such as Vice have suggested that drinking in a pub is better than drinking at home, on account of each pint’s carbon footprint – but in the same breath, we are being told of the thousands of plastic cups used and left behind, and not necessarily being recycled. Of course, this is not just a symptom of the World Cup – any major event, such as Wimbledon or heavily-publicised boxing events, result in (serious and detrimental) plastic waste – but the pressure for bars, pubs, restaurants and, yes, recycling centres, is surely mounting. In light of 2018’s focus on plastic pollution, only time will tell if environmental initiatives around 2022’s games will be better planned, and if recyclable products will eventually become compulsory.

So, What Comes After?

As we edge ever-nearer to the culmination of the World Cup, celebrations will reach fever-pitch and it is unlikely that ‘saving the environment’ will be at the forefront of our minds. Parties will be had, drinks will be consumed, and thousands of us will make our respective journeys home from bars, friends’ apartments, or even stadiums themselves. Our cars and taxis will pump out emissions destined to clog our atmosphere, and the planes transporting our sporting heroes back home will emit the worst of it all. Looking back upon all the World Cups to take place since 2006, it’s easy to predict the environmental damage left behind. FIFA’s efforts to reduce this impact have been, at times, commendable – after all, bids to helm the event do come with an environmental caveat in that all host countries must submit a sustainability plan and report – but there is always work to be done. Can we really stand by and believe in an environmental plan which, in the same breath as boasting green-building standards, still falls foul to tearing up natural areas on which to build upon? How sustainable, really, can this year’s report be when the grass on the Luzhniki Stadium’s pitch has grown only with the help of ever-running, heated lamps? It certainly does not go to say that the environmental impact of the World Cup will only ever be a tale of doom and gloom – Germany’s attempts remain testament to that – but in the time that it takes for us to gear up for 2022’s games, it is certainly hoped that the lasting impact of the games are given the utmost of consideration, and that we all play our role in creating a better, healthier world in which to enjoy such unifying experiences as the next World Cup.


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