Can international events really be green?

Summary

The government of Brazil promised that the football World Cup, hosted by the country and starting today, would be an ecological event. A growing number of music festivals and other large gatherings now claim to pursue the same goal. But how far can the organisers really go in making their events green?

19Juin.
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“We want to score green goals,” Brazil’s Environment Minister Izabella Teixeira announced at a press conference on 28 May. Hosting a major sports event such as the football World Cup is in fact a huge challenge in terms of environmental consequences. Building stadiums and infrastructures, flying in the teams, the personnel and the public, hosting them, handling their waste, etc., all comes at a cost – and that cost is easily translatable into greenhouse gases emissions. Ms. Texeira said that the 2014 World Cup was expected to directly emit 59,000 metric tons of carbon – the figure rises to 1.4 billion metric tons when indirect emissions are taken into account. That is half the footprint of the 2012 London Olympics.

At times of economic and ecological crises, events such as the World Cup or the Olympics arouse criticism from local populations and foreign observers for being too expensive, or environmentally harmful – and often both. Brazil has seen strong protests in the past weeks and months, and is facing the tricky equation that every organiser of such events now has to deal with: how to reconcile the entertainment the public is expecting with the needs of local populations and environmental issues. In other words, how can it be made a win-win event for everyone?

The Cup has already offset its direct emissions

The question might not be new, but it has become more and more pressing over the past decade, while the public’s social and environmental awareness has been growing. In this context, organising a “green” event is a crucial issue involving reputation. The Brazilian government, faced with protests surrounding the building of a dam in Belo Monte, for instance, and the economical situation of its citizens, is well aware of this. It has thus announced a series of operations to curb the World Cup’s environmental impacts. Firstly, all 12 stadiums that were either built or renovated for the occasion have been made sustainable and have received LEED certification (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), announced Ms. Texeira. Brasilia’s stadium, for instance, has been entirely renovated and is the first 100% ecological sports venue in the world. It produces as much energy as it consumes, uses LED lights and collects rainwater to water the pitch. Its photovoltaic roof provides enough electricity to supply a thousand homes each day, and its structure includes a photo-catalytic membrane that captures polluting particles and improves the air quality.

Together with the United Nations Environment Programme, the government also launched the “green passport”: an app that recommends environmentally sustainable activities for tourists while they are visiting the country. About 600,000 foreigners and 3.1 million Brazilian tourists are expected to descend on the 12 host cities. Other initiatives to limit emissions include training garbage collectors on recycling, and selling local and organic food in host cities.

The government has also chosen to offset the carbon emissions that will be generated in spite of these efforts: they have asked companies to give out carbon credits in exchange for the right to advertise themselves as “green seal” World Cup sponsors. The United Nations’ blog “Climate Change” details: “The Government of Brazil has announced an initiative encouraging holders of carbon credits from the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM – this was established as part of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 – Ed.), called certified emission reductions (CERs), to donate them to organizers to offset emissions (…). All donated credits must originate from Brazilian CDM projects.” Ms. Texeira said that this programme had already made it possible to offset 115,000 metric tons of emissions. “The Cup will open having offset 100% of its direct emissions,” she stated.

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A global trend

“Brazil’s call for carbon credits to offset emissions from the world’s largest mass spectator event is a welcome move and part of a global trend by organisers to green big sporting events like football tournaments and the Olympics,” said Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), quoted by “Climate Change”. As a matter of fact, the 2014 World Cup is not the first or only event to mitigate its environmental impact. And the sports world is not the only one concerned.

In France, for instance, the music festival “We Love Green” has made it its trademark for three years to be a sustainable event, placing eco-design at the heart of its artistic direction. All aspects of an event involving crowds have been taken into account: the stage sets are recycled and/or recyclable, and their components are transformed or given away to other event organisers after the festival; “We Love Green” has its own solar power generator and the children’s playground gets its energy supply from dynamos in the toys and activities proposed; water fountains with returnable cups are dotted around the Bagatelle park, where the festival takes place; the food served is organic and locally-produced; waste is sorted and organic refuse is turned into energy or composted; and the festival also organises awareness events between concerts. And all other major music festivals, even if they have not put sustainability at the core of their approach, are following all or some of these examples to make their event “greener” and satisfy the public’s demand for more responsible entertainment.

But gigantic events such as the World Cup will probably never be able to claim being 100% sustainable, precisely because of their size. The main criticisms levied against the stadiums, for instance, is that they are far too big for the local football teams that will use them once the competition is over, and that the environmental and economical cost of building them will not be balanced by long-term benefits for the population. Generally speaking, it is politically difficult to justify massive investments that seem to be driven by short-term considerations. Not to mention the working conditions of the workers who built the infrastructures, or the forced evictions.

On the other hand, Brazil’s initiative could be just the first step towards turning all major sporting and cultural events greener: it is certainly better than nothing, and it is to be hoped that the communications operation led by the government around the project will inspire other organisers to take action too. The next World Cup will take place in 2022 in Qatar and is already arousing strong criticism as regards both its social and environmental implications. “I wish Brazil and FIFA every success in their endeavours and look forward to a rigorous assessment, after the final whistle blows, on what was actually achieved in terms of climate neutrality. Big sporting events are increasingly winning green medals for their environmental performance. In doing so they can inspire the wider society towards climate action in support of a better world,” said Ms. Figueres of the UNFCCC. Brazil may not be able to claim hosting a 100% sustainable World Cup, but it is surely opening up a new approach for designing and planning major gatherings.

Photo © Shutterstock /wavebreakmedia; Michal Durinik