FIFA foments carbon offset campaign and makes green certification mandatory for stadiums. Environmentalists question contradictions in the organization’s sustainability policy

FIFA, soccer’s leading organizer, was the first international sports organization to join the “Climate Neutral Now” program, developed by the United Nations (UN) for offsetting carbon emissions after 2015’s Paris Agreement, which FIFA signed. FIFA’s commitment is to reduce the impact of carbon and neutralize their emissions completely by 2050.

To accomplish those requirements, the World Cup, held in Russia from June to July, was planned with extensive and strict measures and sustainable actions. Major examples are the carbon offset program and the prerequisite of environmental certifications for the 12 World Cup stadiums. However, according to European environmentalists, this was not enough: there are reports that some constructions were built on environmental reserves and that the competition was just a front for a global greenwashing scheme.

The balance of the World Cup in Brazil

The competition that featured national teams from 32 countries and which France won is a powerful carbon emitter. The sustainability Report produced by FIFA estimates that 2.17 million tCO2 (tons of carbon dioxide equivalents) will be emitted, an average of 2.9 tCO2e for each international attendee who went to Russia.

At first, there was an evolution from the carbon emission of the 2014 World Cup held in Brazil: that Cup had a total emission of 2.72 million tons of carbon, according to the official sustainability report of the competition. It was the first time FIFA estimated the carbon footprint of a competition and pledged to offset 251 thousand tCO2e (9.2% of the total), regarding emissions that were under operational control.

When it comes to the World Cup, the biggest “environmental villain” is transportation. In Brazil, 51% of all carbon emitted at the World Cup was the result of the international displacement of soccer fans and 29% from transportation within the Brazilian territory – plane trips were 50.6% of the total amount. And 91% of all these emissions occurred during the competition – not during preparation.

According to FIFA, the Cup in Brazil had an excellent index of material recycling. “The cooperatives collected and recycled 445 tons of paper, glass, metal and plastic waste [39% more than previously estimated]. The disposal was in line with the new Brazilian waste law, thereby contributing to our government’s ambitious waste management objectives,” said Ricardo Trade, CEO of the Local Organizing Committee, at the time.

From the accessibility and inclusion points of view, Fifa announced the distribution of 18.2% of tickets for disabled, elderly and low-income Brazilian residents. It also included 32 Brazilian social projects in the global “Football for Hope” project, which is present in 78 countries. Each organization received up to $50,000 from Fifa. In Russia, the numbers have not been released yet.

Carbon Offset program

Also, in Brazil, Fifa has launched a program to reduce the carbon impact generated by the World Cup. About 400 thousand ticket buyers were invited to evaluate the environmental impact of their trips and, therefore, be aware of the mitigation of these emissions and think about the consumption in the months preceding the competition.

In this program, soccer fans who bought tickets for the games and signed up would be eligible to compete for a pair of tickets for the World Cup final – in Brazil, held in Maracanã; in Russia, at the Lujniki stadium in Moscow.

Fifa repeated the strategy in Russia, but with a lower reach. The organization cut its resources to offset its own business emissions to 243,000 tCO2e (11.2% of total emissions) and limited the soccer fans program to 100,000 tCO2e; in other words, a limit of 34,500 fans – the total number of attendees is 3 million.

“The Earth’s climate is changing due to human activity. We need to reduce the emissions that enter the atmosphere,” said Fatma Samoura, Fifa’s Secretary General, about the emissions during the Russian competition. “Fifa takes its environmental responsibility very seriously. As part of a double strategy, Fifa and the Local Committee will compensate all their operational emissions, and through a climate action campaign, we will also support and engage with the fans, neutralizing the emissions from those who join us,” she explained.

Critics to Fifa and their sponsors

In an interview for environmental research platform DeSmog UK, Jesse Bragg, from the international organization Corporate Accountability, strongly criticized the sponsorship of the Russian natural gas company Gazprom, to the World Cup. “You cannot encourage climate action while taking money from industries driving the crisis. It’s like making commitments to public health while taking money from Big Tobacco — it just doesn’t pass the smell test,” he said.

Nicolò Wojewoda, Europe’s leader of the environmental protection organization, also condemned Fifa’s relationship with the company. “FIFA is such a powerful brand and institution: this is the highest level of greenwashing. They get people to think that they continue their extractive activities because they are doing other good things such as sponsoring the football World Cup. But the reality is that they are responsible for the main climate catastrophe that we are heading into”, he said to DeSmog UK.

The argument of representatives of Corporate Accountability and is that Gazprom’s activity caused “unprecedented harm to people’s lives and livelihood through extractive activities and their emissions”, and that any effort of the entity or its supporters is minimal, compared to the company’s actions. “The World Cup brings people together, while these companies are tearing the world apart. It’s such a shame,” says Bragg.

What is greenwashing?

The term appeared for the first time in an essay written by American environmental activist Jay Westerveld in 1986. Derived from the expression “whitewashing” (political practice of covering up crimes), “greenwashing” means “green makeup” and refers to the practice of companies that use marketing and PR techniques to get a favorable opinion from the public, resorting to superficial actions from a sustainable and ecological point of view.

Estádio da Copa do Mundo. Crédito: Getty Images/Fifa

Green stadiums: certificates and controversies for the arenas

The Russian World Cup was the first of the 21 editions in which all stadiums were certified with sustainable building seals. “The stadiums are crucial in our efforts to organize a more sustainable FIFA World Cup, and that is why Fifa has made green certification mandatory for all arenas during the event,” said Federico Addiechi, director of Sustainability and Diversity.

In 2011, Fifa tested the implementation of green measures in the construction of arenas. At the 2011 Women’s World Cup, the German government supported ecologically appropriate actions and had a positive outcome: there was an average investment of € 700.000 per facility, but the average annual saving registered was € 300.000.

There was also an incentive for the arenas to present sustainable solutions at the 2014 World Cup. The most successful case was the installation of a 2.5 MW solar panel at Mané Garrincha National Stadium, in Brasília, with state funding, granted by the Brazilian Development Bank.

In Russia, investments in sustainability have been directed towards reducing carbon emissions and water and energy efficiency. Fifa’s stadium sustainability policy required:

  • implementation of energy-and water-efficient technologies, including the design of efficient engineering systems, constructions, technologies, and equipment;
  • use of energy-saving and durable materials;
  • well-planned organization of transport flows and use of low emission vehicles or alternative fuel vehicles;
  • effective waste management with maximal reuse and recycling.

The rule applies to the temporary facilities of Fan Fests – where soccer fans gather to watch games on big screens – and to all 12 stadiums that have hosted the Cup matches, including Luzhnniki and Ekaterinburg Arena, built in the 50’s – both are historical architectural heritage and have undergone careful remodeling.

All the arenas of the host country have international certifications in common, such as two seals: the Breeam (Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method) and the Leed (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design).

However, some arenas were rejected by local environmentalists. This is because 9 of the 12 stadiums are located in or near river or coastal water protection zones. Russian activists say that, although they have green certificates, these stadiums were built on vulnerable ecosystems.

The most emblematic case is the Kaliningrad Stadium, located 3 kilometers from the Ushakovsky Gulf in the Baltic Sea, alongside the Pregolya River. “It was a typical delta island, with peat and a wetland reed-bed. It was a little corner of heaven in the city, where birds lived,” said local ecologist Alexandra Korolyova to AP News agency. “Really, if Russia paid more attention to protecting the environment, it could potentially have become a reservation or national park within the city,” she complained.

Other stadiums criticized were the Kazan Arena, in Kazan (organizers built a parking lot in an environmental protection area) and the Mordovia Arena, in Saransk (built over a swamp region). According to the AP news agency, over 1 million tons of sand were used all over Russia to cover flooded areas while building the arenas.

“Theoretically, of course, you can call any swamp a very beautiful and environmentally clean place, but it’s not really correct in relation to the city infrastructure and the cities [we built],” said Arkady Dvorkovich, Chair of the World Cup Organizing Committee. “Everything was done in accordance with best practice,” he guarantees.

Content published in July 18, 2018

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