The World Cup Has It’s Environmental Disaster Moment
July 22, 2010

Nearly a month before the Spanish team donned their medals in victory at this summer’s World Cup, a Swedish research group released findings that this year’s version of the global soccer tournament would produce a carbon footprint six times the size of the 2006 Cup held in Germany. The reactionary outcry came swift, and the well-intentioned blogosphere—many of whom I suspect were not soccer fans—was soon, briefly, abuzz. In the most outlandish moment from the short-lived dyspepsia, Metropolis magazine described the games as an “ecological disaster.”  Then it moved onto the next crisis.

It should go without saying that it is in the public interest that earth’s air remain breathable, and therefore incumbent upon us all to find ways to systematically reduce carbon emissions (end disclaimer). Still, a little perspective is due. Stepping back from the “disaster” ledge, it is useful to frame the World Cup emissions within contemporary events. The BP spill—millions of gallons of oil pouring into the Gulf of Mexico—is an ecological disaster. The loss of coral reefs around the world is an ecological disaster. Rampant deforestation is an ecological disaster. The World Cup, with its millions of people flying around South Africa pouring money into a developing economy, doesn’t quite qualify. The World Cup a singular event that recurs every four years. It has a three-week shelf life. Though I’d love it if it were a continuous phenomenon, it’s unsustainable by definition. It’s a spectacle, and amid the depressing bean counting of every aspect of daily life—carbon, calories, and cents—a welcome form of entertainment that summons national unity for the precise reason that teams fly from all over the globe to play in cities that many Americans have never heard of. A zero emissions tournament Cup would only result in zero interest from fans.

But while we’re here, it’s worth parsing out where exactly this environmental damage is coming from. The study breaks out the emissions into six categories, the largest of which are international and inter-city travel. Those two categories comprise 85% of the total emissions associated with the games, with two-thirds resulting from transport into and out of South Africa. The southern tip of the African continent may be geographically inconvenient for European travelers (estimated at about 40% of Cup attendees), however large audiences travel from far and wide to attend the World Cup regardless of the host country, emitting carbon along the way. Restricting these events to the cities with established local and regional transportation connections such as Germany (which partially explains the huge jump in emissions), hardly fits the unifying global spirit of the games.

Nor is it logical (or even possible) to seek out and build stadiums in a constrained geographic area to accommodate crowds ranging from 70,000 to 100,000. Building large stadiums in close proximity to one another would in fact be the least “sustainable” strategy, as it would compromise their long-term viability. Of the ten stadiums used for the World Cup, five were renovated rather than built from scratch. The rehabilitation approach is perhaps the most prudent, as it uses international funding and resources for needs that would otherwise be deferred and completed sometime in the future.

The key to making the World Cup or any other global sporting event as sustainable as possible is probably not a task that can be measured in terms of carbon emissions. Instead, it’s about wise investment strategies, improving existing infrastructure, and installing new, efficient infrastructure such as mass transit as part of a larger growth strategy. Most of the emissions associated with the 2010 World Cup in South Africa were the result of geographic isolation. If anyone should atone for the games’ environmental impact, it is the World Cup site selection committee that bears responsibility. Blaming the host country is to succumb to knee-jerk environmentalism and fault South Africa for being, well… South Africa..