Cape Town Stadium panorama. World Cup 2010.

The 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa emitted 2,753,250 tonnes of CO2 equivalent.
Cape Town Stadium panorama by warrenski \ CC BY-SA 2.0   

With the 2014 FIFA World Cup happening right now in Brazil, the world has paused to enjoy its most popular sport. In Toronto it has been especially entertaining to watch neighbourhoods like the Danforth and Little Italy cheering on their respective teams. TVs have been set up in public areas and bar patios are overflowing as fans celebrate during these long summer days.

While the soccer pitches themselves may be green, the 2014 World Cup may be anything but. Despite lessons learned from previous tournaments in Germany and South Africa, FIFA’s Sustainability Strategy may fail to deliver. Increased greenhouse gas emissions, environmental degradation, habitat loss and water pollution are some of the major impacts of the World Cup in one of the world’s most pristine environments. Brazil is a shrinking biodiversity hotspot and we continue to accelerate toward a sixth great extinction event.

Some critics are already suggesting that the Brazil games are already proving to be environmentally unsustainable. Meanwhile, some venues out of the 12 host cities are under threat. In the months leading up to kickoff, water scarcity and rationing were a strong possibility as Sao Paulo struggled through its worst drought in more than 80 years. Meanwhile just before the start of the Cup in mid-June, a month’s equivalent of rain fell on the city of Natal in just two days causing extensive flooding, landslides, and sinkholes. Whether or not the extreme weather can be attributed to climate change, it serves as a reminder of the challenges urban areas will face in a rapidly warming world. 

In an earlier blog post, I discussed the role that major professional sports leagues play in achieving sustainability. FIFA, the global governing body for soccer, has pledged environmental responsibility in its Green Goal initiative. Implementing the Green Goal environmental initiatives falls to local organising committees (LOCs), where factors such as funding, long-term dedication, legitimacy and transparency may be suspect. For example, the Natural Resources Defence Council (NRDC) often works with major sports leagues and co-founded the Green Sports Alliance, as I’ve previously discussed. But in Brazil, the NRDC declined a request from FIFA to help work on the World Cup sustainability goals, stating “there was no way to assure the legitimacy of the environmental claims.”

Almost 70 per cent [of 2010 World Cup emissions were] from international transport.

Anticipating these challenges, in 2011 Ernst and Young published a comprehensive report exploring the social and economic impacts of the World Cup on Brazil. E&Y’s analysis provides a review of the carbon footprint of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, and development of key performance indicators for sustainability. Ernst and Young developed 7 steps to sustainability in Brazil with consideration to FIFA’s Green Goal, proposing a preliminary set of 49 quantitative indicators in the areas of energy conservation and climate change, water, waste management, transportation (though none for aviation), biodiversity, green buildings and sustainable lifestyles (see page 20 of the report for the recommendations).

The 2010 Cup emitted the equivalent of 2,753,250 tonnes of CO2, of which almost 70 per cent was from international transport (aviation emissions), and when intercity/intracity transport is included, transportation jumps to over 85 per cent of total emissions. Treehugger and The Guardian have made useful comparisons to put this total in perspective: the GHG emissions are equivalent to 6,000 space shuttle flights, one million cars driven over the course of a year or one billion cheeseburgers. 

RELATED: The challenges associated with reducing GHG emissions from international aviation.

Again, the real challenge for sustainability is in selecting the host cities for major sporting events. We remember the environmental destruction caused by the Sochi Winter Olympics earlier this year. Looking ahead to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar there isn’t much hope despite FIFA’s attempts at including environmental protection as a requirement in host city bidding agreements. New standardized assessment methods for selecting host cities are needed, as outlined in an article in HRBC Journal, as well as ways of managing our international aviation emissions.

If we hope to solve global problems like climate change, poverty and conflict we need to continue sporting events like the World Cup, which are crucial in bringing the world together to foster international cooperation and remind us that we all live together on our Pale Blue Dot. But any improvements in the venues such as LEED certification, energy efficient heating and cooling systems, innovative water collection and field watering systems and waste reduction are futile without consideration of international transport.

Dan is an environmental professional currently living in Toronto. Dan has previously published in Municipal World and Environmental Science and Engineering. He specializes in energy, transportation, and climate change policy, corporate sustainability, and environmental planning and assessments. He recently completed a Masters of Environmental Applied Science and Management at Ryerson University and has a Bachelors' degree in Environment and Business from the University of Waterloo. 

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