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FIFA misled fans over carbon-neutral Qatar 2022 claims – Swiss regulator

Lusail Stadium hosts the 2022 World Cup match between Portugal and Uruguay

Featured image credit: Adnen1985/CC BY-SA 4.0/Edited for size

The Swiss Commission for Fairness in Commercial Communication (SLK) has upheld complaints from five European countries against FIFA regarding the claims by world football’s governing body that Qatar’s 2022 World Cup was a carbon-neutral tournament.

The SLK, which handles complaints from consumers, competitors and other interested parties, in November received the five organisations’ protests initially submitted to their respective national advertising authorities.

The complainants were Fossil Free Football and Reclame Fossielvrij in the Netherlands, New Weather Institute in the UK, Alliance Climatique in Switzerland, Notre Affaire à tous in France and Carbon Market Watch in Belgium. Together with the complaint they sent a letter to FIFA, signed by Sparta Rotterdam player Bart Vriends, Rangers FC’s Tessel Middag and We Play Green founder and Union Berlin player Morten Thorsby.

The organisations submitting the complaint stated that FIFA’s claim that the World Cup in Qatar was ‘climate neutral’ was misleading. This was based on a report released by Carbon Market Watch, a non-profit association with expertise in carbon pricing, in May 2022 which questioned claims made by organisers of the World Cup that the tournament would be the first carbon-neutral event of its kind.

Research from Carbon Market Watch suggested that Qatar 2022’s goal would be achieved through “creative accounting” rather than actually reaching a carbon footprint of net zero. The report stated that calculations used by World Cup organisers ignored some “major sources of emissions” and that the credits being purchased to offset them have a “low level of environmental integrity”.

Carbon Market Watch cited the emissions associated with the construction of permanent new stadiums as one of the main reasons why Qatar 2022’s carbon-neutrality claim appeared “far-fetched”. The group said that the emissions impact could be understated by a factor of eight.

In September 2021, Qatar 2022 organisers detailed plans to deliver the first carbon-neutral World Cup in the history of the event. Organisers cited the short distance between stadiums and the use of solar power at venues as ways to achieve the carbon-neutral goal.

Following a ruling issued yesterday (Tuesday), the SLK today said it has upheld the complaints following an “arduous and complex process”. The complaints all related to the same theme – that FIFA, which is headquartered in the Swiss city of Zürich, made false statements in its communications about carbon neutrality at the World Cup.

When reaching its decision, the Commission said it considered in detail the requirements that must be fulfilled when advertising carbon neutrality. Factual claims must be accurate by law and must not be misleading. Strict standards must also apply when it comes to proving the accuracy of environmental claims. The SLK said it adhered to the relevant provisions stipulated in the Marketing and Advertising Code set out by the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC).

The SLK said in a statement: “In some instances, FIFA has used absolute statements in commercial communications, which have become the subject of the complaints. The complainants proposed that these statements give a false and misleading impression that the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar was climate-neutral or carbon-neutral before and during the tournament.

“The SLK concluded that it should not be claimed that sustainability goals have been achieved if there are no definitive and generally accepted methods for measuring sustainability or ensuring sustainability measures have been implemented. The burden of proof lies with the advertising company in each case. In the opinion of the Second Chamber, FIFA was not able to provide proof that the claims were accurate during the proceedings as required by the SLK.”

FIFA previously had a pre-tournament report drawn up that calculated projected emissions – 3.63 million tonnes of CO2 – on a provisional basis. However, the complainants claimed the estimation contained in the report was too low.

The SLK continued: “The SLK could not judge conclusively whether FIFA’s estimation was realistic or accurate. However, ‘generally accepted methods’ for measuring sustainability as defined by Art. D1 of the ICC Code were not in evidence. Even if the estimation eventually matched definitive figures, it was unclear to the SLK whether the promised level of CO2 compensation was realistic at all.

“FIFA has stated in its submissions that it had already compensated for an estimated 3.63 million tonnes of CO2 in advance. In addition, the football body has repeatedly promised to fully offset emissions that will be definitively calculated at a later date.

“However, it did not prove that the emissions stated in the ex-ante report had been offset and did not set out a plan to define how it will further offset emissions. Furthermore, it remained unclear whether the compensation measures would align with Swiss standards. Among other things, these standards call for a complete and permanent removal of CO2 from the atmosphere.”

The SLK has advised FIFA to refrain from making “unsubstantiated claims” in the future, particularly the claim that the 2022 World Cup was climate- or carbon-neutral. Commenting on the decision, which is not legally binding, Frank Huisingh of Fossil Free Football said: “This is a very important decision. FIFA can no longer mislead the world that its World Cup in Qatar was carbon neutral. 

“Serious climate action by FIFA is long overdue, hopefully this decision pushes them to do better. This must start with breaking ties with big polluters, such as their sponsors QatarEnergy and Qatar Airways.

“The next step is a serious plan to reduce the emissions of its tournaments. That includes choosing locations with existing infrastructure, ensuring fans can travel between host cities with low-carbon transport and focusing ticket sales on local fans.”

FIFA is a signatory to the UN Sports for Climate Action Framework, through which it is committed to a 50% reduction in emissions by 2030 and climate neutrality by 2040.

Femke Sleegers from Reclame Fossielvrij, added on the SLK’s ruling: “This is an important step. But more is needed in terms of climate action. All these decisions are taken after the fact. The marketing has already done its damage. Just like with tobacco, we need to prevent that harmful ads can even get the chance to influence society. For that we need a legal ban.”