Holding the 2022 World Cup in Qatar should make us question the carbon cost of sport

Robin Nicholson

The football season has begun again – although, being an Arsenal supporter, things didn’t start well. While, as a season ticket holder, entering the lower tier of the stadium never fails to thrill, as an architect I love the way this 60,000-seater has been elegantly inserted into the tight Victorian urban fabric so it is almost invisible from the Holloway Road, with good public transport links. And it was built on time and on budget without any fuss. 

Sustainability at Arsenal is more about finance and performance than carbon or energy and I don’t lose much sleep about the relatively few fans who fly in from around the globe to watch the Gunners. But bells began to ring when FA chairman Greg Dyke recently challenged the viability of the summer 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

With up to 70% of energy delivered to air-conditioned buildings being used to power the air-con, how sustainable can Qatar’s stadiums be?

Arup will have brought all their brilliance to bear on the design of the five air-conditioned stadiums planned to allow the players and fans some comfort when the local temperature in July can exceed 50°C. Money is clearly not a problem in Qatar but with up to 70% of all energy delivered to air-conditioned buildings being used to power the air-con, how sustainable can such stadiums be? And how will the spaces between the buildings work so spectators, with or without tickets, can mill around in what for many will be unaccustomed heat?

Buildings are only part of the carbon footprint – the spectators have to get there, too. I love my sport as much as anyone but I have long wondered about the carbon cost of flying to international sporting events, as we will go to enormous lengths to see Usain Bolt run or our teams play abroad. Many flew into London for the Olympics but how many more will be flying to the next World Cups - 2014 in Brazil, 2018 in Russia and 2022 in wherever. Just what will the carbon price of the 2022 World Cup be if Greg Dyke doesn’t persuade Fifa to move it to another country?

Robin Nicholson is a senior partner in Cullinan Studio