Part of the Qatar World Cup’s legacy was decided in a Zurich courtroom, six months after the tournament’s conclusion.

There, in a ruling from the country’s advertising regulator, world football’s governing body FIFA was found to be in breach of Swiss Federal Law on Unfair Competition.

Ahead of the men’s tournament the previous November and December, both FIFA and the host nation’s organising Supreme Committee For Delivery And Legacy had claimed they were staging the first carbon-neutral World Cup.

For a complex issue, carbon neutrality can be defined simply — ensuring there is no overall release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, generally by using carbon offsetting schemes.

Qatar claimed to have done this through emission-reducing infrastructure projects, as well as heavy investment in offsetting schemes, mirroring the approach of the Winter Olympics. Organisers also highlighted there would be no need for internal flights at Qatar 2022, due to the country’s size.

This was all greeted with scepticism by environmental campaigners. One group, Carbon Market Watch, claimed emissions associated with tournament-related construction had been underestimated eightfold, and also questioned the integrity of the chosen carbon credits.

The Swiss regulator found those concerns were justified.

So, with FIFA’s next World Cup, the women’s version, getting underway this week in Australia and New Zealand what lessons, if any, have been learned?

In a lot of ways, Australia and New Zealand are very different hosts to Qatar. But Australia, in particular, has some similarities when it comes to environmental issues.

For example, in 2021, 81 per cent of Qatar’s revenue came from the oil and gas industry. Australia is the world’s largest exporter of gas and coal combined. Both face issues relating to desertification (the process by which fertile land becomes desert), and are considering how to diversify their economies.

Australia is beginning to take those steps — 35.9 per cent of its electricity grid came from renewable sources last year, up from just under 17 per cent in 2017. Co-host New Zealand already derives around 80 to 85 per cent from these sources. Australian prime minister Anthony Albanese outlined in April how he wanted the nation to become “a renewable energy superpower”.

Within this context, hosting the Women’s World Cup can be seen as an opportunity — a public stage on which to reaffirm their commitment to these ideals. FIFA has similar objectives. In November 2021, it agreed to join the United Nation’s Climate Action Framework, which includes an obligation to halve emissions by the year 2030, and reach net zero by 2040. Net zero differs from carbon neutral by attempting to reduce emissions to a minimum, rather than merely offsetting them with carbon credits.

FIFA’s sustainability strategy for the tournament, developed in conjunction with the two host nations, outlines four key pillars for it to deliver on. These are:

  1. Impact reduction — assessing and attempting to reduce emissions, along with raising fan awareness
  2. Minimising landfill waste — implementing waste-reduction strategies, particularly by ensuring litter is segregated to allow recycling to take place
  3. Sustainable design — promoting local expertise in ensuring tournament-related construction work is environmentally responsible and reusable
  4. Sustainable procurement — supporting local businesses, including women-led, First Nations, and Maori enterprises, for inclusive and sustainable economic development.

A FIFA spokesperson told The Athletic : “In connection with its major tournaments, a cornerstone requirement by FIFA for FIFA World Cup stadiums since 2018 is that they obtain a green building certification from a recognized certification entity.

“At the FWWC 2023, all tournament stadia have achieved green building certification for operations, making Australia & Aotearoa New Zealand 2023 the first FIFA Women’s World Cup entirely comprised of stadia that have achieved this goal, and creating a sustainable playing field for future major events planned to be hosted in both countries in the coming years.”

There has been further emergency support. This January, much of New Zealand’s North Island was hit with catastrophic flooding. Mangere, an Auckland suburb known for its indigenous population (84 per cent of inhabitants are from Maori or Pacific Island communities), was one of the worst-affected areas. Flooding, along with other extreme weather events, is considered a by-product of climate change. With 500 local homes damaged, the football community led the humanitarian response.

“Mum is the manager of the women’s team and she literally just messaged everyone in the group chat asking, ‘Is anyone affected? Is everyone OK?’,” said Tina Bonsu-Maro, Mangere United’s media officer. “Then we would get food, get clothing and drop it off at their houses.”

FIFA donated ticket revenue from February’s World Cup qualification play-off matches to the New Zealand Red Cross Disaster Fund, with sponsors such as Coca-Cola donating drinks to the affected community.

While praising FIFA’s invention in these cases, some environmental campaigners are still concerned about aspects of this tournament’s sustainability strategy. Organisers have not publicly outlined any specific emission reduction target. Though this may be seen as a lesson learned from Qatar 2022, it could also be deemed a step backwards when it comes to ambition, transparency, and quantifying the World Cup’s impact.

Frank Huisingh is the founder of Fossil Free Football, a group campaigning to rid the sport of major polluters.

“There was so much negative discussion around Qatar that FIFA wanted to spin something positive,” Huisingh says. “But in this Women’s World Cup, there are no defined goals or targets they wish to achieve, in terms of emissions reductions. It means it is difficult to track clear, measurable progress.”

FIFA did not confirm whether an internal target existed when contacted by The Athletic.

Another issue is sponsorship. Last winter, the official partners at the men’s World Cup included Qatar Airways, fossil fuel supplier QatarEnergy and Coca-Cola, the world’s largest supplier of single-use plastics and therefore its biggest plastic polluter.

FIFA is not alone in this. Football, in general, is awash with fossil fuel sponsorship. Premier League sponsor Barclays is one of the largest financiers of fossil fuel infrastructure in the world, while the Champions League was sponsored by energy firm Gazprom until the Russian invasion of Ukraine last year. Research by The Athletic last November revealed 16 of the largest 25 fossil fuel companies in the world have been actively involved in the sponsorship or ownership of football clubs and competitions within the past two years.



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From an environmental perspective, the upcoming tournament’s partners are an improvement. QatarEnergy and Qatar Airways are no longer involved, although Coca-Cola still is.

“FIFA lacks a policy on harmful polluting sponsors,” Huisingh says. “The World Cup provides one of the biggest platforms in the world. We banned smoking ads from sports, we should do the same for ads for polluting companies.

“The Paris Olympic Games (next summer) set an example on this, while not perfect in their list of sponsors (single-use plastics are banned and French fossil fuel giant TotalEnergies ruled out sponsorship after talks with mayor Anne Hidalgo). We’ve already seen how the women’s football community can mobilise with the Visit Saudi deal.”



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FIFA did not elaborate on its sponsorship policy when contacted by The Athletic.

Diving into specifics, FIFA’s sustainability report does not mention fan travel, which is typically the largest source of these emissions, especially with this tournament taking place around 14,000km (9,000 miles) away from Europe, which is supplying 12 of the 30 non-hosting sides. This was also ignored in the accounting for Qatar’s carbon-neutral pledge last winter. Asked whether this was now being considered by FIFA, the governing body did not reply.

This tournament’s remote location, relative to the rest of the world, means these issues are heightened. Though suggesting this should be a hosting consideration feels Euro-centric, some potential mitigations have been suggested.

“One sensible measure — especially when this tournament is so far away — could be to focus ticket sales on local fans, rather than international fans who have to fly,” says Huisingh. He points out the example of Netherlands coach Andries Jonker, who has called for some 200,000 New Zealanders with Dutch roots to support that side.

Though limiting fan travel to a World Cup is nobody’s ideal solution, the climate crisis means these are imperfect times.

Perhaps this is the time to bring up the growing number — and scale — of international tournaments. This is by no means an issue exclusive to the Women’s World Cup — and indeed, it is not women’s sport that should be the first to suffer — but it does raise questions about whether FIFA can meet its UN climate commitment under the present global footballing calendar.

The remodelled Club World Cup is an example of this. In December, FIFA confirmed plans to increase the tournament’s size from seven teams to 32. It will take place every four years rather than its current annual basis, with the first scheduled to occur in the United States in 2025. A yearly competition would still be held.



US to host first 32-team FIFA Club World Cup in 2025

A smaller expansion has also affected this World Cup, with the tournament also increasing to 32 teams, albeit only eight more sides than competed in France four years ago. Correspondingly, there are 12 more matches at this year’s finals than in 2019, with each bringing further emissions.

Asked whether it was on track to meet its commitment to halve emissions, FIFA did not comment.

(Top photo: Getty Images; design: Eamonn Dalton)