The Qatar World Cup Controversies, From the Environmental Impact to Anti-LGBTQ Laws (Exclusive)

Sophie Hirsh - Author

Nov. 2 2022, Published 1:44 p.m. ET

Qatar World Cup Environmental Impact
Source: Getty Images

Fans wearing traditional local dress attend the Gharafa vs. Kharaitiyat Qatar Stars League football match at Al Gharafa Stadium on Oct. 23, 2011 in Doha, Qatar.

Professional soccer players from all around the world are preparing to play in the FIFA World Cup, which is being held this year in Qatar, a small country in the Persian Gulf region. However, a number of controversies surrounding the event, from the Qatar World Cup’s environmental impact to ethical issues presented by the country’s laws regarding homosexuality, have made many reluctant to support the tournament.

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So with the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 set to kick off on Nov. 20 and run through Dec. 18, we spoke with Alexis Normand, founder of carbon reporting startup Greenly, to learn more about the ways Qatar’s upcoming sporting event will impact the planet.

“I have always been a fan of football, but frankly, I am shocked by how little thought has been given to what has now become the No. 1 issue globally for this World Cup, and I will probably be watching less games as a result,” Normand tells Green Matters via email.

Qatar World Cup Environmental Impact
Source: Getty Images

England fans celebrate as England score the second of their two goals against Sweden as they watch the World Cup quarter finals at Ashton Gate World Cup fans village at the Bristol City football club on July 7, 2018 in Bristol, England.

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The Qatar World Cup’s environmental impact: The event is expected to emit 6 million tonnes of CO2.

Greenly estimates that the month-long tournament’s stadiums, digital broadcasting, and fan travel will be responsible for more than 6 million tonnes of CO2. That breaks down to about 5 tonnes of CO2 being emitted per audience member — which is equivalent to someone flying from New York to Paris five times.

As Normand tells Green Matters, Greenly came up with these calculations based on the new stadiums being built (which emitted 1.6 million tonnes of CO2), digital retransmission (somewhere between 1 and 2 million tonnes), and estimated travel (2.4 million tonnes).

“Travel is the factor with the highest possible emissions, with around 1.2 million World Cup supporters expected to attend,” Normand explains. “Additionally, new infrastructure being built and retransmission are high on the list.”

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More or less, these percentages align with the emissions breakdown provided by FIFA, which claims that travel is responsible for 51.7 percent of the games’ emissions, accommodations account for 20.1 percent, and permanent venue construction accounts for 18 percent. However, in that breakdown, FIFA also claims that the games will only emit 3.63 million tonnes of CO2E (carbon dioxide equivalent), which is far less than the 6 million tonnes that Greenly estimates.

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The FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 claims to be “carbon neutral.”

FIFA, the World Cup, and Qatar’s Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy claim that they “have committed to reducing and offsetting all carbon emissions” related to the games this year, and that they plan to put on a “carbon neutral FIFA World Cup.”

FIFA does have a climate strategy document detailing the efforts it has taken to reduce the impact of the games, such as achieving sustainable building certification for all new stadiums, building new "climate-friendly" public transport and charging stations for EVs, and offsetting by Qatar of all emissions related to fans' air travel, operations, and stadiums.

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However, the cup’s consumer-facing green initiatives seem to put the onus on soccer fans to be eco-friendly, rather than on the organizers behind the games. On its website, FIFA is advising those attending the games to “pledge to reduce your carbon footprint and protect the climate” by flying less often, eating more plants, shopping locally, and more.

While these are all positive changes individuals can make for the Earth, they have absolutely nothing to do with the World Cup.

“The fact is, no one is ‘carbon neutral’ unless the entire planet is ‘carbon neutral,’” Normand says. “Although their efforts are a step in the right direction, this claim by FIFA and Qatar is a classic example of greenwashing.”

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The Qatar World Cup’s human rights and environmental controversies are endless.

Even though Qatar is a small country, it has a high environmental impact due to its vast oil and gas reserves.

“Qatar is a leading exporter of fossil fuels and also the holder of the world record for CO2 emissions per person — 37 tonnes per capita in 2019,” Normand tells us. “Other ethical problems beyond emissions include the dire social conditions of foreign workers in Qatar and the Gulf as a whole.”

A February 2021 report found that an estimated 6,500 migrant workers from Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka have died in Qatar over the past 10 years, which is when the country won the right to host the World Cup, The Guardian reported. (Normand notes that this number refers to “total number of deaths listed in the consulate of the countries of origin of these migrant workers” — so it’s not confirmed that all 6,500 deaths were related to the World Cup’s preparations.)

Forbes asserts that Qatar hosting such a massive sporting event was likely part of an effort to “show off their culture and oiled-fuelled riches, while simultaneously making their authoritarian and repressive regime come off as a model government.”

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In Qatar, same-sex sexual activity is a felony that can be punished with death by stoning (though this sentence has never actually been given), according to the Human Dignity Trust. This has led some members of LGBTQ football fans to boycott the games, as reported by Bloomberg.

Another crime that can technically be punished with a death sentence in Qatar is blasphemy or “apostasy,” which refers to renouncing one’s religion, as per the End Blasphemy Laws campaign.

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Going forward, major sporting events should rely on existing infrastructure to reduce their environmental impacts.

Normand believes that using existing infrastructure from past events is a great way to reduce the impact of new events.

“Typically, such major events are an opportunity to fast-track infrastructure investments,” he tells us. “So in the age of climate change, one idea is to refurbish existing infrastructures, so that positive effects may outlast the event — this is what they are doing for the 2024 Paris Olympics.”

“I hope that this may be the last time that we miss such an opportunity to direct all this infrastructure spending towards the energy transition: greener transportation, greener building, cleaner energy sources,” Normand continues. “All this greenwashing must stop to get there.”

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