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Qatar made a carbon-neutral World Cup pledge. But is it possible?

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Qatar's bid to host the World Cup came with an ambitious environmental goal off the field. FIFA president Gianni Infantino touted it in a promotional video earlier this year.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GIANNI INFANTINO: FIFA is playing its part, with our aim to make the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 carbon neutral.

SHAPIRO: Carbon neutral - meaning net zero emissions - while building seven stadiums, a new metro system, an entirely new city in the desert and flying in fans and teams from around the world to Qatar.

SUMAN NAISHADHAM: It's a country that is an energy superpower. It's among the top three exporters of natural gas in the world. And so for a country whose wealth is built on exporting fossil fuel, it's a little far-fetched to say that it would host an event for which it had to build just an astronomical amount of infrastructure and have that be carbon neutral.

SHAPIRO: Climate reporter Suman Naishadham of the Associated Press went to Doha to check in on the climate impact of the tournament. After she got back, I asked her, is a carbon-neutral World Cup even possible?

NAISHADHAM: It's also unlikely that, even in a somewhat more green or clean setting, that hosting a mega-sporting event like this can actually be carbon neutral. And the reason scientists say that and experts say that is because the whole mechanism of offsetting emissions is very tricky. And most scientists agree that, for an event or something to not have an effect on the climate, those emissions should just not take place in the first place.

SHAPIRO: Offsetting emissions - that's like, well, I might fly around the world, but I'm going to plant enough trees that those trees will absorb the amount of carbon my round-the-world flight emitted, right?

NAISHADHAM: Right, exactly.

SHAPIRO: When you showed up in Doha and you looked at the infrastructure of the World Cup through the lens of emissions, what did you see? What stood out to you?

NAISHADHAM: So I wrote a story on the city of Lusail that Qatar built more or less within the last 12 years.

SHAPIRO: And that's where the finals are going to be held, right?

NAISHADHAM: Yes, that's right. And the city is just north of Doha. It's about 20 minutes north, and it is full of very unusual-looking skyscrapers. And there were just very, very few people around. Most of the people I saw were construction workers. And meanwhile, most of these buildings - whether they were commercial office space or apartments or residences - they're all branded as luxury.

A big criticism of these mega sporting events - not just in Qatar, but also in Brazil and South Africa before that - you know, is the idea of leaving white elephants, which are these stadiums that are built to much fanfare for an event like this, and then just never, you know, really get used after and definitely not to that capacity. In Qatar, the scale is kind of even larger because, you know, there's just so much infrastructure, whether that's hotels and high rises or this entire city that, you know, kind of raises questions of how much use it will get after this event.

SHAPIRO: When you confront the organizers of the World Cup with the reality compared to their promises, what do they say? How do they respond?

NAISHADHAM: Well, Qatari World Cup organizers, you know, responded by saying that their efforts should be recognized and not criticized. And, you know, I think that that makes sense from an organizer's standpoint a couple weeks before this event takes place. But, you know, they didn't really offer much information, and there's a lot of detail about their sustainability plans after the event that remain to be seen.

SHAPIRO: Do you think the organizers have a point, that making climate progress and keeping this in mind and putting on an event like this with an eye toward sustainability is a valuable goal and a worthy ambition that should be praised, even if they didn't meet the goal of carbon neutrality?

NAISHADHAM: I think yes and no. I think that some of the infrastructure that Qatar built for this World Cup is pretty sustainable and green. I think the biggest example would probably be a solar power plant that was connected to the grid right before the World Cup started that at full capacity can power some 10% of the country's energy needs. And those efforts, you know, should be recognized, but I'm not sure it's fair to say that those efforts mean you can just call an event like this carbon neutral. I think, you know, those are two different things. And we should remember that.

SHAPIRO: That's Suman Naishadham, a climate reporter for the Associated Press. Thanks a lot.

NAISHADHAM: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.