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.
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.
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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.
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