FIFA pledges climate neutrality by 2040, faces criticism on offset reliance

FIFA's climate neutrality goals have come under fire for its reliance on carbon offsets. EPA-EFE/Miguel Gutierrez

As national leaders pledged their countries’ adherence to climate targets of varying degrees of stringency at COP26 in Glasgow, the international governing football body FIFA made an ambitious pledge to become climate neutral by 2040.

“FIFA has developed a comprehensive climate strategy … to reduce emissions by 50% by 2030 and reach net-zero by 2040,” FIFA President Gianni Infantino said at COP26 in Glasgow on 3 November.

A leading EU lawmaker from the centre-right EPP group, Tomasz Frankowski, explained that like other sports, “football activities generate greenhouse gas emissions and those emissions have to be reduced to contribute to the international efforts to mitigate climate change”. 

To that extent, the FIFA Climate Strategy can be broken down into four pillars: education, adaptation, reduction, and investing.

FIFA plans to “educate the global football workforce on climate-related impacts and climate-friendly solutions,” explained Infantino. Specifically, FIFA wants to develop and implement a climate literacy programme for the FIFA workforce.

That would mean that the 720 FIFA employees would be made climate-literate via corporate training.

The football association also aims to “adapt football regulations and activities to be more resilient to current and anticipated impacts of climate change,” Infantino added. 

In order to adapt, FIFA will “develop a reduction plan and define science-based annual targets … for FIFA’s three emission hot spots, namely business travel, logistics and accommodation.”

And while these measures are expected to drive down internal FIFA emissions, there are doubts whether the FIFA emissions accounting goes far enough. MEP Frankowski noted that  “we have to acknowledge that it is extremely difficult to measure the greenhouse gas emissions of football overall”.

On the other hand, critics argue that it is hypocritical of FIFA to announce such ambitious climate targets and at the same time propose to have the World Cup every second year instead of every four, as has been the case so far.

FIFA has set ”minimum standards” for organising countries, as explained by Infantino –  “an environmental impact assessment, the sustainability of stadiums in terms of how they are designed, built and operated, and the reduction of and recycling of waste” – but they do not seem to tackle the main sources of emissions associated with FIFA World Cups.

The air travel associated with the 2022 Qatar world cup alone will cause 1.8 million tonnes of CO2-equivalent emissions or half of the total, while permanent venue construction is budgeted at 0.65 million tonnes of emissions, in all, emissions will be 3.6 million tonnes.

The offset issue

And since many of these emissions are located in so-called “hard to abate” sectors, FIFA wants to create an offsetting portfolio and purchase certified carbon credits to compensate the soccer body’s remaining emissions on an annual basis as of 2021, as per its climate strategy.

Offsets are a particularly contentious issue.

“FIFA buys its way out of climate protection by using accounting tricks. This does little to help climate protection,” criticised Michael Bloss, a Green lawmaker in the European Parliament.

“In doing so, it is following the same course as with human rights by leaving the responsibility for actual measures against this kind of modern slavery or exploitation to the respective host countries,” he added. 

The effectiveness of planting forests in order to offset carbon emissions has been called into question following the wildfires in the US this last summer, as large swathes of offset forests went up in flames, as reported by the NYT.

“FIFA should stick not to offsets but to direct investments in solar or wind power and tie conditions for world cup venues to the climate performance of member countries,” said Bloss.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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