The Qatar World Cup is a grotesque symbol for humanity’s continued failure to meaningfully address climate change, but major sporting events still offer us a unique chance to bring the planet together.
This November, two of the world’s most significant events take place in the Middle-East. At Sharm el Sheikh, the COP 27 summit has served us a fresh reminder of just how badly we’re pressing ahead with the eradication of a liveable climate. Scientists will stress the desperate urgency of the situation.
At the end of the summit, a procession of global leaders will perhaps succeed in bundling together a cursory dose of non-committal greenwashing.
The scientists’ foretelling’s of our impending doom will fade out of the news cycle once again, and across the other end of the Arabian Peninsula, humanity will give a grand demonstration of our seemingly boundless capacity to bury our heads in the sand and pretend the show can go on. I am of course talking about the Qatar World Cup, which started last Sunday.
Back in 2010, when FIFA’s evil emperor, Sepp Blatter, announced the gulf state as the host of the world’s largest sporting event, the prospect of a Qatar World Cup in the year 2022 seemed like some far-off dystopian nightmare, as something I hoped we’d come to realise was a terrible idea.
And, despite all the bad press – migrant worker deaths, oppression of women’s and LGBTQI rights, bribery, corruption, terrorist funding, religious fundamentalism – here we are.
The barbaric labour exploitation which built the shiny new stadiums has understandably grabbed a big chunk of the media attention and driven calls to boycott the tournament.
But given the calamitous and desperate climate situation – UN General Secretary Antonio Guterres recently said that only a “narrow shaft of light remains” in our hopes of preventing “collective suicide” – we should also be switching off in protest at the environmental vandalism the World Cup represents.
According to FIFA’s own calculations, which are likely hugely underestimated, the Qatar World Cup will emit 3.6m tonnes of carbon dioxide into the earth’s atmosphere.
For reference, this isn’t much shy of the 4.1m tonnes generated by the whole of France each year, while the 2018 edition held in Russia, a country not exactly renowned for its environmentalism, led to 2.1m tonnes of emissions. The tournament organisers have released the now obligatory “carbon-neutral” pledge, which NGO Carbon Market Watch has deemed “simply not credible”.
These cursory attempts at greenwashing are beyond laughable. Surely no-one involved in the process could claim with a straight face that the environment was ever a consideration.
All previous World Cups have been bad for the climate, but at the very least they have been held in countries with a good part of the required infrastructure already in place. For Qatar, everything had to be made from scratch, and it’s extremely questionable how much of it will ever be used again once the four-week event is over.
Furthermore, state airline Qatar Airways will fly an additional 160 flights per day to shuttle attendees in from neighbouring countries.
The original application envisaged that the tournament would be played in 50-degree heat in the summer, which was obviously insane, but despite the shift to winter, each stadium has been kitted out with giant air conditioning units. Hardly surprising then that Qatar is the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide per capita.
Indeed, the World Cup is intended to act as a victory lap for a state whose entire wealth and influence stands as a testament to our fossil fuel addiction and the exploitation wrapped up in it.
Since the discovery of vast natural gas reserves in the 1970s, Qatar has developed from an impoverished backwater, where Bedouin tribesmen eked out an existence on the edge of the desert through pearl diving, to one of the wealthiest nations in the world.
The population has skyrocketed from 110,000 in 1970 to almost 3 million today, of whom only 12% are Qatari citizens. And there is no sign the country’s immense wealth is going to dry up anytime soon; the war in Ukraine has left major industrial powers like Germany scrambling to find alternative gas sources to push economic growth, and the Qataris are only too happy to plug the gap, provided clients are willing to sign up to 20-year contracts.
Society is divided in a strict feudal pyramid reminiscent of a dystopian movie: on the top, you have a small, cosseted elite who live in obscene comfort and opulence. Beneath them, is a cadre of well-remunerated ex-pat types who provide the expertise to drive the country’s economic development.
Then, at the bottom, a mass of disenfranchised immigrant labourers who serve every domestic need of the cosseted upper-class and toil under brutal heat on the unrelenting construction projects.
In many ways, Qatari society looks like a dark reflection of the way humanity is heading in this era of dizzying inequality and climate breakdown: a well-off minority who benefited materially from industrial capitalism can shelter from the ravages of the heat in their air-conditioned homes, while the global majority who bear no responsibility for the devastation must face its consequences.
The Qatar World Cup is uniquely terrible in myriad ways, but the climate emergency poses wider questions about the validity of hosting large-scale entertainment events of all kinds.
We are at the point of environmental collapse where we need to radically transform all aspects of our society and economy to patch up some of the immense damage we have caused. Can we really justify the sprawling 2026 World Cup, which will be held across Mexico, the USA and Canada and will rack up huge air miles as teams and supporters jet across the American continent? The same applies to pan-European competitions like the Champions League.
The environmental movement already struggles enough to shake off the image of elitist killjoys, and football in and of itself shouldn’t be singled out for particular ire.
Many large music festivals depend on diesel generators and huge air miles to fly in artists, while film & TV productions lead to mountains of waste – see recent reports of the huge environmental damage caused by the Rings of Power production in New Zealand.
There is a tendency to cherry-pick things that are worthy, and others that aren’t. But we are all complicit to various degrees, whether our entertainment of choice is international football, film festivals or expensive TV shows. Is any of this stuff truly necessary?
Yes, sort of. From a strictly material perspective, no not really. But the freedom to create, experience and share arts and sport is a fundamental element of what makes us human. And I would argue that nothing is capable of uniting people across the globe in the same way as the World Cup.
Music and art hinge on a certain cultural specificity, but football has a universal beauty and appeal. In a splintering and perilous geo-political order, finding outlets for international unity is arguably more important than ever before.
The World Cup should be a cause for joy, a precious piece of our cultural legacy, a grand establishment that should be savoured and nurtured, one that gives us all a chance to come together and celebrate the grand diversity of our planet and its people.
In its current iteration, however, it’s hard to see it as anything other than a grim orgy of thoughtlessness and waste.
The Covid lockdown era is now widely looked back on as a weird fever dream that we’re all glad to have behind us. But at the very least, it proved that we can organise our society in a radically different way. And we still got to experience live sports, even if it wasn’t the same.
Concepts like the NBA bubble, which saw the league’s play-offs take place in one secure location, could point the way to a more environmentally friendly future for major sporting events. After all, as the world’s climate continues to collapse around us, we’ll still need some distraction and communal joy.
Featured Image Credit: MARCA (Twitter: @roadto2022es)