It's a stretch of the imagination that any large international event could be good for the environment, but South Africa is working to put the maximum green sheen on the 2010 FIFA World Cup.
Events that require millions of miles of transit will create substantial carbon footprints, but the "green ante" keeps getting raised. Live Earth stressed recycling and riding mass transit, China did its best to clean up Beijing before and after the 2008 Olympics, and even the Super Bowl was touted as carbon neutral.
Hosting the global soccer, er, football championship will more than double the amount of travelers to South Africa during 2010 to 20 million, said Dr. Danny Jordaan, the Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of the 2010 FIFA World Cup Organizing Committee, during a media briefing I attended in Johannesburg in December.
The majority of these fans will travel thousands of miles each from far-flung cities in Asia, the Americas and Europe. To put the young democracy's best face forward for these throngs of first-time visitors, South Africa's host cities are getting major upgrades in mass transit as well as urban landscape renewal. An international all-star team is donating expertise, technology and money for infrastructure upgrades in advance of the World Cup, which is now less than 500 days away.
Norway has donated $120,000 for tree planting in Johannesburg to offset a portion of the greenhouse gas generated in the city. Germany (which hosted the 2006 World Cup), along with the Global Environment Facility and the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) is participating in the "Green Goal" program for Cape Town that targets energy and water conservation, waste reduction, transportation, and green building.
FIFA (the Federation Internationale de Football Association), which governs the World Cup, teamed up with the UN and other international organizations to create a $70 million "Win in Africa with Africa" campaign focusing on social responsibility and sustainable development throughout the continent.
The South African government is making significant investment ($493 million) in mass transportation to streamline moving people around the nine host cities. Roads (which outside of the downtowns are in dire need of expansion, based on my travels around Johannesburg and Cape Town) are being paved and widened through the Public Transport Infrastructure Fund, which received a contribution of $11 million from the GEF. The goal of the program is to increase ridership on transit and by bicycle to reduce the number of car miles traveled, resulting in a net reduction of 423,000 tons of CO2 emissions during the next decade.
The country's first of several Bus Rapid Transit systems around the host cities launched recently in Johannesburg and will feature more than 100 stops. On top of these improvements, Jordaan said more taxis and 1,400 additional buses will be in service during the World Cup.
South Africa added a luxury Blue Train line running between four (Johannesburg, Durban, Pretoria and, via a 27-hour route, Cape Town) of the host cities. However, Jordaan said many fans looking to attend matches in multiple cities will likely choose to go by taxi or rent cars, and "a high number will choose to travel by air." (And as we know, flying is the most carbon intensive way to travel.)
These infrastructure improvement efforts are to be commended because they will provide lasting benefits to the people of South Africa as well as to the environment. Questions about the readiness of the country to host remain, but Jordaan recently proclaimed preparations are on track.
Unfortunately the carbon footprint per person of the World Cup will likely be higher than from similar events. Why? Because people will be flying further to get there, and South Africa is tied to a cheap and abundant supply of coal for energy and transport (via liquefied coal). The auspices of the World Cup could have been used to launch a wind or solar power industry, but sadly that didn't happen.
According to a November 2008 study sponsored by the National Commission on Energy Policy, the life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions from liquefying coal into a transportation fuel is approximately double that of conventional fuels. Coal provides nearly all of the electric power in South Africa, as well as most of its transport and heating fuel.
But rather than pointing the finger solely at a country struggling to shake off the economic shackles left over from apartheid, the responsibility to green an event starts with the organizer.
FIFA has a list of 17 "guarantees" that a hosting country must meet to be awarded the games. These requirements relate to transit, financing, communications and immigration, but none to sustainability or environmental stewardship. That needs to change for the World Cup to be declared an international winner.