RIO DE JANEIRO -- Soccer is Brazil's first love. It even beats how they feel about the beach. Just.
So when the country's president said she wanted this June's tournament to be "the World Cup of World Cups" she meant it: Brazil is going all out to make it the best party, the best soccer, and with the best ever eco record.
But sustainability professionals ask whether it's a pledge too far.
The most famous soccer stadium in the world is the Maracana in Rio de Janeiro. And the sport's governing body FIFA is using it to show off a environmental makeover costing $390 million.
It features a ring of 1,500 gleaming solar panels around the roof, new eco-lighting systems and rainwater pitch irrigation. And -- proudly unveiled to the media -- this is the first ever stadium to have "intelligent bathrooms": urinals that only pump water during breaks in play, calculated on the number of spectators.
In the city of Belo Horizonte, City Hall claims it's taken construction recycling to a whole new level -- reusing all the debris in the building overhaul. Concrete has been turned into street paving, seats have been donated to smaller stadia, even the pitch will be reused: it was meticulously dug up, transported and relaid for users of a local social project.
"We are going beyond what's ever been done before," says Federico Addiechi, FIFA's head of corporate social responsibility. "It's our most comprehensive strategy, our biggest ever investment because we want to protect our planet."
But despite the passionate words, the organization predicts the tournament will still pump 2.72 million tons of greenhouse gases into the air by the end of the competition -- coming in at a third higher than the last World Cup held in South Africa in 2010.
In a country around the size of the United States, but with no viable public transport network, 81% of those heat-trapping gases will be generated by flights for supporters to get to and from matches. When this correspondent inquired at the long distance bus terminal, she was told that to get between games in Rio and Manaus in the Amazon, for example, the 2,800-kilometer trip would take two days on buses and then four days by boat.
Philippe Pernstich is a consultant advisor at the monitoring group The Carbon Trust. He says if the organizers were serious about the environment, then different decisions would have been made to reduce the travel, particularly with fans following their national team between games.
"Brazil elected for 12 distant venues [rather than a possible minimum of six] and building six new stadia -- far from ideal from an environmental perspective. The organizers could have opted to hold all group matches in a single region, which would have reduced fans' travel. Commercial factors have overridden the environmental."
And what of those extra stadia built especially for this summer's tournament? Sustainability professionals talk of "legacy": offsetting the resources used in construction and on-going energy load by ensuring the buildings have a long and useful lifetime. And then they point at the Arena da Amazonia.
"Dismal," Pernstich calls it.
The 43,000-seater stadium in the jungle city of Manaus will only host four matches during the World Cup. Running over-time and over-budget, the intricate design -- similar to Beijing's Bird Nest stadium -- has required 7,400 tons of smelted steel to be imported from Portugal, and transported through the rainforest. The extra-weight cranes to lift the metal had to be flown in from China and the U.S. And after the tournament? The local soccer team Nacional will take on the stadium, a side which usually gets around 600 supporters at matches.
It's not impressed Dan Epstein. He was the Head of Sustainability for the London Olympics and is now advisor to the Brazilian government.
"It's the classic 'white elephant.' That stadium will never be full again. How can you justify it? We've been saying, 'You need to plan to deliver real change.' The Brazilian team is highly intelligent, but there is just no culture of planning."
He has run a series of workshops for stadium managers but fears they didn't start work putting eco-plans into shape in time. Now it's a rush job, and construction over-runs aren't helping.
"It's a case of 'get the job done at any cost,' and sustainability has fallen off the agenda. Perhaps it was an unrealistic expectation in a developing economy, but there is no way this World Cup is going to be the greenest anything."
After the last goal is scored, the last party wound up, FIFA has pledged to fund projects to offset the final greenhouse emissions figure, guaranteeing this competition ultimately will be carbon-neutral. Wind energy and reforestation projects are likely to benefit.
"We have learned lessons," admits Federico Addiechi. "The sooner you start on work on these issues, the easier, the cheaper, the more impactful they are. We want to do more, but I'm very positive about it -- we are on the right track."
Photo: Alexandre Loureiro (FIFA/Getty Images)
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