Brazil 2014: an environmental nightmare?

Fixtures spread far and wide, and construction of new stadia, mean that the 2014 FIFA World Cup will probably finish with one of the highest carbon footprints of any tournament.

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The Arena da Amazônia stadium in Manaus, one of several new stadia to be constructed especially for this year’s World Cup in Brazil. Photo courtesy of Reuters via BBC.

The FIFA 2014 World Cup is set to begin in Brazil next week, with the opening game in São Paulo on Thursday 12th June. Naturally, much of the global attention on the month-long tournament will be focused on the games themselves, and in particular the chances of the host nation and the eight other Latin American teams taking part. However, a lot of journalistic energy has also been spent – and no doubt will continue to be – on the political issues associated with the South American giant’s hosting of this major global event.

Among these are the protests that first rocked the country and its major cities during the Confederations Cup last year. They have continued to pop up at various points ever since, with many commentators expecting repeats when the World Cup finally gets underway. The protests have reflected widespread anger at alleged corruption throughout the political class, as well as at the billions spent on hosting the tournament. Activists claim that the money should have been spent instead on more schools, hospitals, and other public services in a country that still suffers from significant poverty and social inequality.

However, so far little attention has been paid to another area that threatens to leave the World Cup with a legacy far from that dreamt up by its organisers. To all intents and purposes, Brazil 2014 is at risk of being disastrous from an environmental perspective, with sky-high carbon emissions blighting any green credentials the tournament has ever claimed to have had, and the lingering spectre of drought-induced water and electricity shortages threatening to disrupt the smooth running of games.

Protests hit the warm-up Confederations Cup in June last year, with protesters arguing that the money spent on organising the World Cup should have gone to schools and hospitals instead. Photo courtesy of BBC.

For starters, from early on the organisers decided that matches, especially those in the group stages, would be dotted around the vast country, from the populous south-eastern regions such as São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro to the heart of the Amazon rainforest in Manaus, the venue of England’s opening fixture. From the point of view of officials organising a nation-wide event in a country where football has an almost religious following, with national players used to being treated like heroes, their motives should be applauded. Of course it is fair to allow as many of the 200 million Brazilians as possible to get the chance to witness the World Cup juggernaut first-hand, rather than restricting it to the more prosperous and tourist-friendly areas around Rio and other south-eastern population centres.

However, the obvious catch is that with such a geographical range of venues, everyone from the players and staff to the media and fans will be subjected to a series of medium- and long-haul flights. The United States and Croatia, for example, are set to have to travel more than 5,000km, according to a BBC report (link in Spanish). The extra number of chartered flights and other forms of travel are expected to be the main contributor to the tournament’s carbon footprint, given the carbon-intensive nature of passenger jets and the lack of cleaner, more efficient public transport systems for intra- and inter-city travel, such as those which were available to fans in the 2006 World Cup held in Germany, for example.

Travel, including medium- and long-haul flights, is expected to contribute up to 84% of the tournament’s carbon footprint. Photo courtesy of AP via BBC.

According to a study carried out by FIFA, this all adds up to a projected carbon footprint of some 2.72m metric tonnes, well above the 1.65m left by the last tournament in South Africa in 2010. Out of this, nearly 2.3m tonnes (83.7%) will be due to transportation, with international transportation alone accounting for 1.38m tonnes (50.6% of the total) and inter-city transportation accounting for 802,000 tonnes (29.5%).

Running the venues during matches, with associated activities including electricity usage and temporary construction of stalls and other facilities, will make up just under 10% of the tournament’s overall footprint, which does not include emissions related to the watching of matches on televisions and other electronic devices. It also omits calculations for the carbon footprint of the newly-built stadia, which in the case of Brazil 2014 has represented a significant portion of the pre-tournament preparation work, meaning that the final overall footprint is likely to be even higher than the figure given by FIFA.

However, the Brazilian government has released its own numbers suggesting that the World Cup’s carbon footprint will be equivalent to 1.4m tonnes, a figure significantly lower than FIFA’s. Furthermore, the environment minister Izabella Teixeira has argued that all of these carbon emissions have been accounted for and compensated through the issue and trade of carbon credits, under the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) established by the Kyoto Protocol, with carbon offsetting and reduction projects being promoted and carried out by the government. ‘The Cup will open having offset 100% of its direct emissions’, Teixeira has said, although this appears not to include the ‘indirect’ emissions such as the international travel that will bring an estimated 3.7m tourists to Brazil, or indeed the building works carried out prior to the tournament beginning.

Furthermore, during the tournament the Brazilian government will be promoting a scheme known as “Green Passport”, in association with the UN’s Environment Programme (UNEP). The Green Passport is, according to the UNEP, ‘an online mobile application aimed at promoting sustainable tourism during the 2014 World Cup in Brazil and beyond’, which ‘hopes to leverage the event’s immense popularity among millions of fans worldwide to promote a greener and more responsible travel culture; one that promotes attitudes and practices that are respectful of the environment and that support economic and social development at the host destination’.

Tournament organisers have chosen Fuleco the armadillo to be the official World Cup mascot, hoping to draw attention to the animal’s status as an endangered species in Brazil.

Nevertheless, some may argue that the huge amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases being coughed up into the atmosphere thanks to air travel and construction work, not to mention the social and ethical side-effects of clearing inner-city districts to make way for the stadia and other infrastructure, undo any of the good work that the government and World Cup organisers have done or will continue to do to boost the tournament’s green credentials.

And yet, if the warnings from numerous experts are to be heeded, Brazil 2014 is also at risk of having these negative environmental impacts coming back to haunt them during the tournament itself. Many parts of the country, including the south-eastern regions surrounding São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro and their tens of millions of residents, have been experiencing record drought and extremely high temperatures, quite possibly caused or aggravated by the effects of climate change. This has led to reservoirs drying up, a critical situation for a country that relies on hydroelectric power for more than 70% of its electricity, and one that could even lead to blackouts at crucial stages during the World Cup, due to the extra demand that this will place on the national grid.

Water has reportedly been rationed for months in some communities as reservoirs reach record lows, while authorities have been forced to fork out billions in order to subsidise emergency power generation from coal and gas plants. Needless to say, if Brazil’s water shortages were to reach such drastic levels as to let the lights go out during the World Cup, the tournament’s players, organisers and fans will be left highly unimpressed. Yet perhaps more significantly, Brazilians themselves will see it as a national shame, and yet another symptom of the government’s failings, adding fuel to the argument that hosting such a lavish event at the cost of attending to the country’s social and infrastructural needs was the wrong call.

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