The World Cup Must Be Sustainable – But This Is Mostly Rhetoric

Construction site of the stadium Mané Garrincha

The plan was for the World Cup in Brazil to be environmentally friendly and carbon neutral. During the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, then President Lula da Silva made reference to hosting a “Green World Cup” that would leave an environmental legacy, in addition to a financial legacy. It is what led to the 2014 Agenda for a Sustainable World Cup, which was developed in conjunction with the ministries of Sports and the Environment. Sustainability, in this case, is translated as being the neutralization of carbon emissions, but there has not been enough of an emphasis on the lasting benefits for the population.

A study by the company Personal CO2 Zero estimated that total CO2 emissions during the preparations for and hosting of the World Cup in Brazil will reach 14.2 million tons. According to the study, 44.3 percent of the estimated total will be generated through the work on constructing stadiums, renovations, and other infrastructure projects; another 46.8 percent will be generated due to national and international transportation. The expected number of spectators during the World Cup is about 3.6 million visitors, of whom 600,000 are foreign tourists. The distances that the tourists and the teams will need to cover to get to the various locations hosting the games are greater than the distances that will need to be traveled within Russia for the 2018 World Cup – between 250 and 3,100 kilometers.

The Agenda for a Sustainable World Cup, a Brazilian government initiative, considers sustainability to be the neutralization of carbon, that is, greenhouse gases generated by the Cup should be reduced and then “reset.” A bill from the House of Representatives even requires the mandatory neutralization of greenhouse gas emissions produced during the World Cup. The Brazilian government has been open to financial instruments that combine market initiatives with environmental protection. At the same time, social actors criticize the trend of Brazil’s new “green economy” that is being applied to the mega-event.

Neutralization of carbon means that CO2 emissions are estimated, reduced as much as possible, and then neutralized through the purchase of certificates issued by those who created the emissions. The calculations are more or less as follows: Between April 2010 and November 2011, the company responsible for building the Arena Pantanal Cuiabá consumed 564,000 liters of diesel and 410,000 kWh of electricity. According to calculations by the experts, the project released 23,819.92 tons of CO2 equivalent. These emissions were compensated for with a reforestation project at the margins of the River Pantanal in the Santo Antonio neighborhood, where riverside inhabitants planted 171,504 trees. Each tree means a volume of 0.138 tons of CO2 equivalent will be captured by the trees within the next 30 years. This amount of CO2 was recorded in the form of certificates of emissions that the people responsible for building the arena acquired from those responsible for the reforestation project. Thus, the emissions resulting from the construction of the stadium were neutralized. The tendency to describe mega-events as neutral or even carbon-free is not new: The Olympic and Paralympic Games in London in 2012 are considered to have been the largest green sporting events to date. The “Green Cup” is part of the FIFA “Green Goal” program, which has been in place since the 2006 World Cup.  

Green Goal model in the last two World Cups

During the 2006 World Cup in Germany, there were about 92 tons of CO2 emissions, slightly below the expected 100,000 tons. The organizers were able to reduce the consumption of potable water and the volume of waste. However, they failed to reduce all emissions produced – for example, due to traveling between host cities – and had to buy licenses to reset the remaining emissions. The 2010 World Cup in South Africa produced nearly nine times more: a total of 896,662 tons of greenhouse gases. The reasons for this relate to what is happening in Brazil: In part, it was necessary to build new stadiums; in addition, there are large distances between the cities hosting the games, which increases the dependence on air transport.

Unlike the statistical offices in Germany, the South Africans added emissions produced by international arrivals and departures. Scientists estimate that this translates into 1,856,589 tons of additional emitted gases – in total, more than 2.75 million tons of CO2.  The South Africans did not reach the goal of carbon neutrality in 2010. After the World Cup in South Africa, representatives of the United Nations Environment Programme participated in the green strategy and recommended to FIFA and the Brazilian government that they begin planning well ahead of time. This would enable them to implement environmental policies in the cities, thereby representing sustainable commitments.

The idea of reducing emissions originated from the international negotiations on climate change. With the Kyoto Protocol (adopted in 1997, and in force since 2005), developed under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, a majority of the industrialized nations pledged to reduce emissions at the national level. As a developing country, Brazil has no commitments to reduce its emissions, but it promised voluntary reductions just before the Copenhagen conference in 2009. The Brazilian government is increasingly open to adopting market instruments to reduce and offset emissions. The “green economy” wants to combine environmental protection with economic stimuli. This approach has been increasingly criticized by civil society organizations in Brazil, which oppose the financial valuation of nature and the purchase and sale of emission certificates. At this time, the state parliaments are debating bills about REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) mechanisms and payments for environmental services (PSA). The two mechanisms are based on estimates of CO2 emissions. The plan of action of the Green Goal pilot project in Minas Gerais, for example, allows for, among other things, the use of REDD and PSA certificates to offset greenhouse gas emissions generated by the activities of the World Cup.

From the point of view of civil society, what primarily happens in the emission certificates market is that countries or institutions buy the right to continue polluting the environment without achieving significant reductions in emissions. Critics fear that the green rhetoric of the World Cup distracts from negative social effects of the mega-events.

How does Brazil reach the Green Goal?

To define fields of action for the Green Goal, the Ministry of the Environment compared the sources of greenhouse gas emissions from previous mega-events and the sectors in which there were emission reductions. In Brazil, the municipalities promoted the construction of sustainable and energy-efficient stadiums among other things. Certified building materials and modern technologies help reduce emissions during construction and during the future use of the stadiums, especially because four stadiums were built from scratch and eight others were renovated. In most stadiums, construction and renovation needed to comply with the criteria of LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification, an internationally recognized environmental standard well known in the construction industry. The Mané Garrincha stadium in Brasilia is considered exemplary in terms of sustainability: It has solar energy equipment, a system for collecting rainwater, natural ventilation systems, and recycled materials from the demolition of the old stadium. It received the Platinum LEED certification, the highest one.

A second priority for World Cup host cities is the improvement of the transit infrastructure to improve urban mobility. All the World Cup host cities are in the process of improving the road networks and, with the exception of Recife, improving airport capacity. Fortaleza, Manaus, Natal, Recife, Salvador, and Sao Paulo (Santos) are expanding their port facilities so that they can also be used for tourism. In Belo Horizonte and Fortaleza, the public can access the World Cup stadiums using new bike paths and dedicated lanes for pedestrians. In Belo Horizonte, Curitiba, Fortaleza, Recife, and Rio de Janeiro, the new bus system, called BRT (Bus Rapid Transit), is characterized by fewer stops, has dedicated lanes for existing lines, and should take passengers faster from one point to another. In Natal and Fortaleza, the light rail vehicles are being started for the World Cup. The urban planners announced the start of a light rail vehicle network in the old port area of Rio de Janeiro leading up to the 2016 Olympic Games. On the other hand, the subway, which is the most expensive means of transportation – although more efficient in terms of traffic engineering and the environment – has barely had any advanced planning. Only in Recife were the football fans able to go to the stadiums via the new subway lines during the Confederations Cup in 2013. At the subway worksites in São Paulo and Salvador, it is still not known whether the new stations will be open for the World Cup. Fortaleza has already opened a new line and other stations on other lines. Rio de Janeiro will expand its network by 4 km by 2016. Such investments will benefit not only tourists, but they should also optimize the network of public transportation in the long run and be regarded as a “legacy” of the World Cup.

The Green Cup considers sustainability to be compensation for greenhouse gas emissions. The methods and the dimensions by which the various states account for and measure emissions, however, differ greatly. It is not possible to identify a common method. In a pilot project, the state of Minas Gerais and its capital, Belo Horizonte, recorded the greenhouse gases generated by the FIFA Confederations Cup in 2013 and  projected the emissions levels for the 2014 World Cup. These methods of measurement, a plan of action for reducing emissions, and potential carbon-offset projects for Minas Gerais would then be transferred to other states and to the national sphere. So far, the plan is still only on paper. Among other delays, a study concerning the expected emissions at a national level, which the Ministry of the Environment was to publish in partnership with the United Nations Development Programme, has yet to be completed.

How sustainable is the 2014 World Cup?

In addition to reducing specific volumes of emissions, it would be much more significant if the measures brought lasting benefits to the majority of the population, while at the same time minimizing any negative environmental and social consequences. Sustainability means adopting and carrying out measures to increase opportunity and well-being. However, the aforementioned changes in the urban road network and the redevelopment of the Maracanã stadium’s surroundings in Rio de Janeiro produced the (forced) removal of large families. In the dossier titled “Mega Events and Human Rights Violations in Rio 2013,” the World Cup and the Rio de Janeiro Olympics Popular Committee notes that the mega-event is being sold as environmentally friendly, but that cities are circumventing environmental laws in order to carry out World Cup infrastructure projects. For the 13 km stretch of the BRT Transolímpica route, officials presented the required environmental report that examines the social and environmental effects and alternatives to the construction work. For the construction of the express BRT Transcarioca corridor, which is 26 miles longer, only a simplified environmental report with far fewer important demands was written. The Transcarioca should be ready in time for the 2014 World Cup. For Transolímpica, there is still time left until the 2016 Olympic Games.

The Green Goal program raises questions about the sustainable achievement of mega-events. There are many doubts about whether the investments that Brazil is making now with the construction of modern stadiums are technically sustainable, justifiable, or look after the interests of the population. Even considering that soccer is the most popular sport in Brazil, there is no certainty that the stadiums will continue to be used and maintained. The green mission of hosting the Cup, however, directs our gaze to the contribution of cities to climate change issues: 85 percent of the population lives in urban areas. For the Green Cup, it is currently being discussed in Brazil how the organizers and visitors that consume energy can reduce and recycle waste, and how the construction and transportation sectors affect the climate.

For the Olympic Games in 2016, the state government of Rio de Janeiro is developing strategies to ensure the carbon neutrality of the games, among other goals. The green strategy does not take into account how civil society actors can be democratically involved in establishing goals for a sustainable World Cup. Thus, the sustainability strategy is limited to rhetoric in order to legitimize changes in the cities’ structures that, in the long run, do not offer benefits to the majority of the population. For example, residents should participate in the debates about the proposal of the Brazilian architect and urban designer Maria do Carmo Bezerra, University of Brasília: Do not use the certificates issued to neutralize the CO2 from the World Cup, but sell them and invest the profits in health and education. The debate should also consider alternatives to the emission markets, so that people can use the World Cup for their own interests.