In recent years, increased efforts have gone into making mega sporting events more sustainable, but will the pitches be the greenest part of World Cup 2018 in Russia?
While football is undoubtedly the most popular sport on the planet, the FIFA World Cup is facing a sustainability crisis. Not in terms of funding, but rather of concerns about sustainability and the impact a mega event such as this has upon the environment that stages it.
Hosts seek a lasting legacy that amounts to more than the decades of debt that used to saddle those staging mega events. The 1.5 million foreign tourists expected to visit Russia during the 2018 competition will provide a welcome boost to the economy but might, in environmental terms, be compared to a plague of locusts which land for a short time and leave having stripped precious local resources.
FIFA, football’s governing body, first tackled sustainability in 2006, by using carbon-offsetting programmes for the World Cup in Germany. Since then, it has developed extensive environmental and social programmes that range from the building of infrastructure through employment policies, energy and waste management and even ethical business practices. It also includes the legacy projects Football for the Planet (environmental) and Football for Hope (social).
Legacy in this case extends beyond the future uses of infrastructure to cover all aspects of environmental, social and governance (ESG) matters to ensure there are “…no adverse impacts on biodiversity”, that there is “increased environmental awareness” and that “the increase in the number of people partaking in physical activity will greatly vindicate all sustainability efforts,” according to this year’s Sustainability Strategy document.
The work of the United Nations Principles for Responsible Investment is considered by many as the gold standard for measuring sustainability. It is this body’s work that most politicians, investors and commentators will use to determine whether the World Cup – or any other major event or investment – has true ESG credentials or is hiding behind a layer of greenwash.
FIFA has been widely criticized for selecting Russia as host in 2018 and Qatar for 2022. Both nations are well known for violating human rights, while the concept of building stadiums in Qatar’s desert will be giving environmentalists sleepless nights.
In response, FIFA has developed new standards for venues to meet on energy, waste and water consumption. Yet, in spite of this focus, the Kaliningrad stadium has been built upon one of Russia’s last remaining wetlands. In this case, nature may yet have the last laugh. This new building is already sinking back into the swamp.
However, FIFA’s requirements and the need for new solutions have delivered a series of stadium designs for Qatar with highly efficient lighting systems, and ventilation systems that will reduce energy demand and areas of shade. These stadiums will also have a life after the event, as they have been designed to be easily adapted, converted or dismantled into smaller venues after the tournament.
Though FIFA’s extensive list of sustainability objectives does not map directly onto the PRI’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), it does capture a great many of them.
It wasn’t the environmental policies that attracted criticism and public protests at World Cup 2014 in Brazil, but the absence of lasting social investment.
Human capital is now better represented in FIFA’s sustainability policies, with the first four key issues governing: health and safety; decent work and capacity building; inclusivity, equality and social development; and healthy living and sporting agency. With ethical business practices and local economic development also heavily featured – and considered to be lacking in Brazil – people are placed at the heart of the strategy.
Whether that proves meaningful for the labourers building Qatar’s infrastructure remains to be seen. And, however good FIFA’s sustainability strategy, there are some things it cannot change, once a decision has been made, such as cultural attitudes. For instance, inclusivity policies will be stretched by cultural attitudes towards same-sex couples and people of colour in both Russia and Qatar.
There’s still some way to go before the World Cup may be considered, beyond the shadow of a doubt, "sustainable". To secure this prized label, all doubts concerning FIFA’s good intentions and squeaky-clean ethics at all levels would first have to be dispelled ...
That said, the 2018 World Cup could end up being the most successful global event yet in terms of "sustainability", managing even to have a positive cultural impact on the environment, society and economy of the host nation, even if there is still major room for improvement.