Organizers say the 2024 Paris Olympics will be “climate friendly”. The 2026 Men’s Soccer World Cup, to be held in Mexico, the United States and Canada, will be the “lowest carbon-emission tournament of the modern era” if all three countries follow through on their promises.
The World Cup in Qatar ends on Sunday, but what about the climate commitments made by the Gulf country – such as pledging a “carbon neutral” program – that were instrumental in enabling the hydrocarbon-rich Gulf nation to host the tournament?
Real differences between host countries affect contamination from one event versus another. The size of a country, how many stadiums it builds, whether public transport reaches event venues, and how clean (or dirty) the power grid is all play a role in climate impact.
But scientists, environmental advocates and other experts say mega-sporting events like the World Cup and the Olympics have grown to such a scale that they need to be made more sustainable to go far beyond what Qatar has done.
“We have to change the structure of these events,” says Walker Ross, a sport and sustainability researcher at the University of Edinburgh. “And that means some tough decisions have to be made about where they can be placed and who can keep them.”
Qatar built seven stadiums and renovated another for the World Cup. Such constructions generate a lot of carbon emissions, which stay in the air for more than a century, causing climate change. And the buildings were only a fraction of the construction put up by the Emirates to host the main event of international football. Qatar says it will completely demolish a stadium after the tournament.
Instead, Mexico, the United States and Canada all have stadiums set to host World Cup matches in 2026. Organizers of the Paris 2024 Olympic Games say 95% of the venues will come from temporary or existing infrastructure.
Andrew Zimbalist, an economics professor at Smith College in Massachusetts who has written several books on the economics of mega-sporting events, says finding potential World Cup hosts that already have infrastructure in place is easier than the Olympic Games.
The Summer Olympics may require more than 40 venues, says Zimbalist, “and these are not venues that are commonly used”. “Organising the World Cup is very easy,” he says.
Another idea: set up fixed venues for the Olympics and other events to avoid building costly infrastructure that often goes unused after the Games, such as the rest of the stadiums in South Africa, Brazil, and Russia after the World Cup. former host world.
Some experts say that the way countries can host games together, which could potentially reduce the distance fans travel to attend a tournament, could reduce emissions for any given event. is a major source.
The International Olympic Committee is considering the idea of a fixed group of host nations for the Winter Olympic Games. Earlier this month, the sports body said it would take more time to decide on a host for the 2030 Games.
Moving games “among a set of hosts” may also be a way of answering the challenge of finding suitable sites for winter games on a planet where reliable snow is becoming increasingly difficult to find.
Arnaud Brohe, chief executive of climate consulting firm Agendi and an expert on markets for carbon reductions, says reducing the distance fans travel to host countries is essential.
Qatar insists its World Cup will be sustainable in part because its relatively small size will mean fans will not have to travel long distances between matches, but thousands of fans will be able to travel almost as far by plane to neighboring Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. Had to wait 45 minutes. , due to the shortage of hotels and other accommodation in the Emirates.
And those distances may be surpassed by the distance that fans and teams will travel during the upcoming World Cup, where games will take place in North American cities including Houston, Los Angeles, Toronto and New York City, Mexico. In a bid for the 2026 tournament, organizers said they would seek to “bundle” the knockout rounds to reduce travel.
False promises like Qatar are becoming the norm.
“After last promising to be ‘carbon neutral’, you don’t want to be the country with a proposal that says ‘the environment isn’t really that important to us,'” explains Ross from the University of Edinburgh.
Experts say these plans rely heavily on promises known as “carbon offsets” to neutralize emissions. Organizers of the Paris Olympics say they will offset emissions they cannot avoid, such as those produced by fans traveling to France from other countries.
Such mechanisms promise to combat pollution by paying to soak up carbon underground, plant trees or avoid greenhouse gas emissions altogether, but it is unclear whether any sport or regulatory body will follow through with the plans. will follow or not. And many carbon experts remain unconvinced about carbon offsets.
“The more we think about sanitary bandages, the less we’re going to get there,” says Danny Cullenward, an energy economist and advocate who studies carbon emissions. “It’s a common problem, whether the event occurs in a very polluting country or a very less[polluting]one,” says the California resident.
Zimbalist believes sporting bodies should be more honest in their efforts to be sustainable, rather than using labels such as “climate positive” or “carbon neutral”, indicating that a mega-sporting event has The game would have little or no effect on the season, which is improbable.
“A more accurate way of saying it would be that they are less negative, not that they are positive.”
Suman Naishadham is on Twitter as @SumanNaishadham
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