Sign In or Create an Account.

By continuing, you agree to the Terms of Service and acknowledge our Privacy Policy


A Climate Hero — and a Climate Laggard — Are Hosting the World Cup

New Zealand and Australia are at two very different stages in the energy transition.

A soccer player amid clean energy.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

I’ll drop any notion of journalistic objectivity for a moment: I would really, really like to see the United States win the Women’s World Cup.

Abby Wambach’s miracle goal in 2011, Carli Lloyd’s 2015 hat trick in the final, and Megan Rapinoe’s dominant 2019 tournament are all ineffable memories in my journey of soccer fandom. This year, as Alyssa Thompson, Sophia Smith, and Trinity Rodman take the baton for a new generation, I’ll be watching the tournament intently as it takes place in New Zealand and Australia.

But it’s also not lost on me that major sporting events like this are also often major emitting events. While all 10 host stadiums are LEED or Green Star certified (no new stadiums were purpose-built for the tournament), these tournaments are a test of every piece of a country’s infrastructure — and a barometer for nearly every element of their respective energy transition. Stadiums need electricity to keep floodlights on and beer refrigerators cold; fans fly from around the world for the tournament; cities construct new stadiums or retrofit old ones; countless tchotchkes are produced; and public transit systems snap into high gear.

Hosting the World Cup completely sustainably is probably impossible right now, in spite of what FIFA falsely claimed about its tournament in Qatar last fall, according to Swiss regulators. What this World Cup does offer, though, is a case study in two very different stages of paths towards decarbonization.

Get one great climate story in your inbox everyday:

* indicates required
  • Earlier this month, my colleague Robinson Meyer made a point about the diminishing marginal returns towards the end of the energy transition. As challenging as it is to get shovels in the ground, incentivizing new solar arrays and wind farms is in some ways easier than solving wicked problems: Cross-country travel, transitioning heavy duty vehicles away from fossil fuels, catalyzing a clean steel industry.

    New Zealand is in the enviable — and somewhat unusual — position of starting its work on decarbonization in the world of wicked problems.

    World Cups have had sustainably powered hosts before — France (Women’s World Cup 2019) boasts a nearly decarbonized grid in large part due to nuclear, and Canada’s electricity is primarily powered by hydropower and nuclear. Other hosts have had more mixed climate impacts. The 2014 host Brazil has an electricity sector dominated by hydropower, but it also built a brand new stadium in the middle of the rainforest that was effectively abandoned the moment the tournament ended.

    New Zealand can make a case as one of the most climate-friendly hosts of a World Cup ever. (This requires a key caveat from the outset: You need to consider hydropower an environmentally friendly renewable. Right now, most people in the energy world do — though researchers have raised questions about methane emissions from reservoirs and the broader impacts of disrupting an ecosystem.)

    The country’s electricity sector is overwhelmingly supplied by hydropower. Renewables in total generated 81% of the country’s electricity in 2021. Hydropower has made up a significant piece of New Zealand’s electric generation for more than a century — and while installing new facilities requires significant investment, the cost of generation itself is low. By one analysis, “business as usual” would still mean that 98% of the country’s generation will come from renewables by 2030, in large part driven by wind and solar.

    The country has also made significant climate pledges, albeit ones that have raised questions about their enforcement — including an emissions budget for 2022-2025 and net zero by 2050 (excluding biogenic methane). And its carbon credits have spurred the transformation of farmland to forestry.

    That leaves questions about energy and other emissions that most other countries have yet to act on. Watching a game in New Zealand is a reminder of the questions that remain: How can fans get between host cities without flights? How fast can the country kick its reliance on fossil fuels for heating and industry? And perhaps most importantly, how can New Zealand slash emissions from its extensive agriculture sector — especially when levying a tax on methane emissions from cows has proven a third rail among farmers?

    Still, if New Zealand has moved to the most challenging part of decarbonization, Australia is at the outset of its process — the easy part, in some ways. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has expressed the goal of the country becoming a “renewable energy superpower,” but that process is just starting.

    The country has made some progress: 29% of electricity generation came from renewables in 2021, largely driven by solar and wind, better than the United States’ 21% but a far cry from New Zealand, much less France. Australia, thanks to friendly government policy, easy permitting and speedy grid connections, has also enjoyed a particularly robust deployment of rooftop solar. And recently, the country established its own emission reduction commitments (43% by 2030) that leave room for more action in later years — their most recent try at comprehensive climate policy, following the passage and repeal of a carbon tax in the 2010s.

    Australia, though, does not only rely on fossil fuels: It is also the world’s second-largest producer of coal, significantly ahead of any other country save for Indonesia. Coal dominates their energy use, with oil and natural gas making up the other major sources. And while Australia has signaled that they will transition away rapidly from coal, that transition could prove bumpy for both the grid and workers.

    While New Zealand is a climate leader with caveats to sort out, games hosted in Australia will take place in a country that has fallen well behind its neighbor and most other high-income countries in addressing climate change. On the other hand, Sam Kerr is likely to be so dominant that fans will have little time to think about anything else.

    Practically, what does this mean for the World Cup? In truth: Not much. As long as the lights stay on and the TV cameras work, we almost certainly won’t hear about the electric grid — and given that it’s winter in the southern hemisphere, the topic of climate change might not come up at all save for player-led activism. But as tournaments take place, they’ll offer a chance to check in on a given host country’s decarbonization efforts.

    The next World Cup after this? The 2026 men’s tournament — in Mexico, Canada, and the United States.

    Read more about climate and sports:

    Home Runs Are One Way Climate Change Affects Baseball. Here Are 11 More.


    Will Kubzansky profile image

    Will Kubzansky

    Will is an intern at Heatmap from Washington, D.C. He is also the editor-in-chief of the Brown Daily Herald. Previously, he interned at the Wisconsin State Journal and National Journal.


    The Electrolyzer Tech Business Is Booming

    A couple major manufacturers just scored big sources of new capital.

    Heatmap Illustration/Screenshot/YouTube

    While the latest hydrogen hype cycle may be waning, investment in the fundamental technologies needed to power the green hydrogen economy is holding strong. This past week, two major players in the space secured significant funding: $100 million in credit financing for Massachusetts-based Electric Hydrogen and $111 million for the Australian startup Hysata’s Series B round. Both companies manufacture electrolyzers, the clean energy-powered devices that produce green hydrogen by splitting water molecules apart.

    “There is greater clarity in the marketplace now generally about what's required, what it takes to build projects, what it takes to actually get product out there,” Patrick Molloy, a principal at the energy think tank RMI, told me. These investments show that the hydrogen industry is moving beyond the hubris and getting practical about scaling up, he said. “It bodes well for projects coming through the pipeline. It bodes well for the role and the value of this technology stream as we move towards deployment.”

    Keep reading...Show less
    Electric Vehicles

    Car Companies Are Energy Companies Now

    The major U.S. automakers are catching up on Tesla’s power game.

    A Silverado EV and power lines.
    Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

    It was my first truck-powered cocktail party.

    General Motors had gathered journalists at a Beverly Hills mansion last week for a vehicle-to-home show and tell. GM’s engineers outfitted the garage with all the components needed for an electric vehicle’s battery to back up the house’s power supply. Then they tripped the circuit breaker to cut off the home from grid power and let the plugged-in Chevy Silverado electric pickup run the home’s lights and other electrical systems for the remainder of the gathering.

    Keep reading...Show less

    AM Briefing: Biden’s Coal Lease Crackdown

    On the future of coal mining, critical minerals, and Microsoft’s emissions

    What To Know About Biden’s Coal Lease Crackdown
    Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

    Current conditions: Rain and cool temperatures are stalling wildfires in an oil-producing region of Canada • A record-setting May heat wave in Florida will linger through the weekend • It is 77 degrees Fahrenheit and sunny in Rome today, where the Vatican climate conference will come to a close.


    1. Severe storms in Houston kill 4

    At least four people were killed in Houston last night when severe storms tore through Texas. Wind speeds reached 100 mph, shattering skyscraper windows, destroying trees, and littering downtown Houston with debris. “Downtown is a mess. It’s dangerous,” said Houston Mayor John Whitmire. Outside Houston, winds toppled powerline towers. At one point 1 million customers were without power across the state, and many schools are closed today. The storm front moved into Louisiana this morning, prompting flash flood warnings in New Orleans.

    Keep reading...Show less