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Foul play: Advertising regulator gives FIFA red card for billing World Cup as carbon neutral

In response to a complaint lodged by civil society, the Swiss advertising regulator has ordered FIFA, football’s governing body, to stop describing the 2022 World Cup as “carbon neutral” because the claim is “false and misleading”. This anti-greenwashing victory has worldwide implications for mega-sporting events, corporations and lawmakers.

The Swiss Fairness Commission, Switzerland advertising regulator, ordered Zurich-based FIFA to “refrain in the future from alleging that the 2022 football World Cup in Qatar would allegedly be climate and C02 neutral” because this “created the false and misleading impression that [it] had already achieved climate neutrality or carbon neutrality before and during the tournament”.

This landmark decision came in response to a complaint lodged last November by the Climate Defence Association (Avocats.e.s pour le Climat) on behalf of Alliance Climatique (Switzerland) and four civil society organisations from across Europe who had lodged complaints in their own jurisdiction which were redirected to Switzerland: Carbon Market Watch (Belgium), Notre Affaire à tous (France), New Weather Institute (UK), as well as Fossil Free Football and Reclame Fossielvrij (Netherlands).

“The decision of the Swiss Fairness Commission confirms the findings of our research and reinforces what we have been saying for the past year: FIFA’s messaging is misleading for the hundreds of millions of fans around the world who were pushed to believe that their favourite tournament has no impact on the climate,” says Gilles Dufrasne, CMW’s lead on global carbon markets. “It’s high time for this absurd greenwashing to end.”

“This is an incredible decision. It sends out a strong message to all companies that would like to engage in greenwashing,” echoes Quentin Cuendet of Avocats.e.s pour le Climat.

FIFA’s climate own goal

The complaints drew on the findings of Carbon Market Watch’s investigation into the tournament’s climate claims titled ‘Poor tackling: Yellow card for 2022 FIFA World Cup’s carbon neutrality claim’. 

One of the main reasons why the Qatar World Cup’s carbon-neutrality claim was far-fetched is due to the underestimation of the attributable emissions associated with the construction of permanent new stadiums, which were understated by as much as a factor of eight. 

This was down to creative accounting in which only a few weeks’ worth of emissions out of a claimed lifespan of 60 years for the stadium’s were attributed to the World Cup, even though these stadiums were purpose-built for the tournament and are unlikely to be utilised optimally in the years to come. Moreover, other sources of emissions were likely underestimated, such as those related to shuttle flights to and from the world cup matches.

Maxed-out credit

It is impossible, for a multitude of reasons, for a sporting event to credibly cancel out its climate impact through carbon offsets. One of the main problems relates to the quality and lack of climate benefits of the carbon credits used to supposedly neutralise the World Cup’s climate impact. 

The carbon credits used predominantly derived from renewable energy projects, which are no longer accepted by leading standards bodies in the carbon market because they have become economically feasible in their own right and, so, financing them through carbon credits offers no additional benefit for the climate. This may be one of the reasons behind the fact that a new standard, the Global Carbon Council, was created especially for the tournament, raising questions about the credibility and independence of this certification scheme.

Moreover, even though FIFA pledged to buy and use enough credits to cover the entirety of the World Cup’s emissions, this has yet to happen, a full half year after the tournament ended. “Now the world is no longer watching, FIFA has let its promise to offset the World Cup’s entire carbon footprint slip into oblivion, undermining its own questionable claim,” observes Lindsay Otis, CMW expert on global carbon markets. 

FIFA has retired (i.e. used) credits representing just under 1.1 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions. This amounts to less than a third of FIFA’s own (under)estimates of the World Cup’s carbon footprint, which it said would be around 3.6 million tonnes of CO2.

In addition, FIFA belatedly announced that it would offset half of the World Cup’s climate impact through emission reductions achieved by a solar power plant. However, this project is not registered under any existing carbon market standard, and has hence not generated any carbon credits. While such projects are useful and welcome, they provide no climate benefits that could not otherwise have been achieved in wealthy Qatar, and should hence not be considered as a valid carbon offset.

Time to act on greenwashing

This latest ruling highlights the importance that mega sporting events, as well as corporations, stop making preposterous carbon neutrality claims, to avoid the risk of reputational damage or legal challenges as the public becomes increasingly aware of and sceptical about these dodgy greenwashing practices.

It also sends a signal to governments and regulators to get their act together and impose an outright ban on terms that imply carbon or climate neutrality of products (goods and services) or companies. The EU, for example, has a golden opportunity to do so in its ‘Empowering Consumers for the Green Transition’ and Green Claims proposals. 

“The EU institutions must go the extra mile and enact a clear and total ban on carbon neutrality claims, because anything short of that will not only fail to protect consumers, but will also fail to push corporations towards truly sustainable practices,” urges Otis.

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