How can football deliver on both expansion and sustainability?

With the 2026 FIFA World Cup set to grow from 32 to 48 teams, questions have been raised about how football’s greatest showpiece can deliver on carbon-neutral claims.
How can football deliver on both expansion and sustainability?

Source: Unsplash

Legacy of the Qatar World Cup

As memories linger of what was widely acclaimed to be the most dramatic FIFA World Cup final of all time, little thought is likely to be given by fans about the future of the venue where Argentina’s penalty shoot-out win against France was played in December.

The 80,000-capacity Lusail Stadium was the largest of the seven stadia Qatar built from scratch for the World Cup, and the country’s authorities have said it will now be turned into a community space featuring schools, cafes and health clinics.1

Qatar plans to dismantle and donate parts of other venues to neighbouring countries to improve their own sports arenas, with 170,000 seats in total to be removed and sent elsewhere. Stadium 974 – the first temporary ground to be used at a World Cup, made from 974 recycled shipping containers – is to be completely dismantled. 2

The country’s authorities, along with FIFA, claimed this World Cup would be carbon neutral – a statement which was widely discredited even before the tournament began. The organisers estimated the World Cup would emit 3.6 megatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (MtCO2e), which they said would be offset by several initiatives.

However, an analysis from Carbon Market Watch, published in October3, estimated that the total footprint of the permanent stadiums constructed for the World Cup might be underestimated by a factor of eight.

In an open letter from environmentalists to the World Cup organisers4 released in November, Mike Berners-Lee of Lancaster University wrote:

"We did a little digging into FIFA’s carbon footprint estimate and we think it's way over 10 million tonnes – so three times that, at least.”

As football expands into new regions – the tournament in Qatar was the first World Cup to take place in the Middle East – and the game’s international calendar becomes ever more crowded, the challenges around sustainability are only set to intensify.

Looking ahead to 2026

The USA, Canada and Mexico will co-host the next World Cup in 2026, and organisers have again touted its sustainability, promising a zero-waste and carbon-neutral tournament. The Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) linked to United 2026’s bid pointed out that there is no requirement to build any new stadia specifically for the tournament. 5 A number of the venues to be used are LEED certified, including the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, which became the first sports stadium in North America to receive LEED Platinum certification back in 2017.6

However, United 2026 admitted that the tournament would still generate an estimated 3.7 million tonnes of carbon. Of that estimate, travel would account for 85% of the emissions – with 51% from international travel and 34% from inter and intra-city travel. The top 10 purchasing countries of tickets sold at the 2022 World Cup were 7  Qatar, the USA, Saudi Arabia, England, Mexico, the UAE, Argentina, France, Brazil and Germany.

Estimates suggest roughly 146,000 fans travelled from the USA, and a study by Hometree8 found that an average 15-hour flight from the US to Doha would see American fans using up to 191,055 tonnes of CO2 emissions. Hometree calculated that 1,146,330 trees would need planting to offset these emissions. An estimated 91,000 fans flew to Doha from England for the 2022 tournament, which Hometree said amounted to 580.5kg of CO2 emissions per passenger per 6-hour 45-minute flight.

“This means that English fans are expected to produce 52,825.5 tonnes of CO2 emissions when travelling to the 2022 World Cup,” it said. “To offset England’s CO2 emissions, Hometree found that 316,953 trees would need to be planted.”

The 2026 event will be the first time the World Cup will include 48 national teams qualifying, expanded from the usual 32. “This raises questions on if this fits with FIFA’s net-zero pledge considering there will now be 80 games played,” Hometree said.

The emissions estimates for the North America bid were based on the assumption that all matches are sold out, equating to 5.9 million match tickets, compared to 3 million sold in Qatar.Factors which may help the organisers of the 2026 tournament include developments in air travel, particularly around sustainable aviation fuels. Often referred to as ‘biofuels’, they are synthesised from sustainable feedstocks such as plant matter, waste streams or used cooking oil.  

The Air Transport Action Group (ATAG) claims that “with the right policy support, around 5.6 million tonnes (7 billion litres) of the total aviation fuel supply could be fulfilled using sustainable aviation fuels by 2025.”10 However, it notes that in terms of demand, only “around 2% of total fuel demand could be covered by sustainable aviation fuels by 2025, with the right political will and investment.”

Despite the challenges, the hosts of the 2026 World Cup appear determined to deliver on sustainability promises

The EIA linked to United 2026’s bid, which ran to 97 pages, detailed how the USA, Canada and Mexico would intend to apply the mitigation hierarchy to “avoid, reduce, offset and enhance” the environmental impacts of the tournament.

Around transport, for example, key recommendations included all official vehicles to be electric/hybrid or use other alternative fuels; improvements in walking and cycling routes, particularly in the ‘last mile’ around stadiums; and a combi-ticket that allows match ticket holders to travel free of charge on match days on the entire public transport network of host cities.

The assessment also outlined plans around materials, food and waste, water conservation, air quality, and biodiversity. The document noted that:

“Carbon mitigation recommendations consider how the 2026 FIFA World Cup could leverage existing initiatives already proposed by the host cities, such as strategies to reduce carbon emissions by 80% by 2050, climate action plans and environmental and sustainability plans.”

Time will tell whether the large volume of carbon emissions, particularly from the travel associated with the 2026 World Cup, can be reduced or even offset. But as football continues to expand its fixture list and move into new territories, the challenge of how the world’s most popular sport can continue growing at its current pace – whilst being sustainable – is a problem that is not going away.


1 Lusail Stadium | Qatar 2022™
2 Stadium 974: What happens next to the first temporary World Cup stadium? - BBC Sport

3 Poor tackling: Yellow card for 2022 FIFA World Cup’s carbon neutrality claim - Updated - Carbon Market Watch

4 Qatar 2022: Open letter questions FIFA's carbon neutrality claims, argues that emissions calculations are inaccurate & efforts to offset "misleading" - Business & Human Rights Resource Centre (

5 Microsoft Word - EIA Report - United Bid.docx (

6 Mercedes-Benz Stadium Becomes North America's First LEED Platinum Professional Sports Stadium - HOK

7 Top 10 countries for FIFA World Cup ticket sales - Doha News | Qatar

8 How Much will it Cost to Power the World Cup this Winter? Hometree

9 Qatar World Cup ticket sales near 3 million, says Infantino | Reuters

10 Sustainable aviation fuels (

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