Outdoor air conditioning cools the World Cup – but is it sustainable?

When Qatar bid to host the men’s World Cup in 2009, many wondered how such a hot country – summer temperatures can exceed 110 degrees Fahrenheit – could host a football tournament. To address these concerns, Qatar built air-conditioned outdoor stadiums. This move could inspire other sports venues to adopt this technology to protect the health of athletes and fans. But this is a flawed solution that isn’t environmentally sound, experts say, despite efforts to power AC systems with green energy sources.

The idea of ​​installing energy-guzzling air conditioning in open-air, roofless stadiums has added to Qatar’s long list of controversies (from alleged bribery to reported human rights abuses). The host country promises that the air conditioning systems now in use in seven of its eight World Cup stadiums have been built sustainably. According to the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA), the governing body of global football, the outdoor ACs draw energy from solar panels and direct cool air only to the parts of the stadium that need it most — namely the seats and pitch.

However, experts doubt that air conditioning in outdoor stadiums could ever be truly sustainable. Shelie Miller, a sustainability expert at the University of Michigan who has studied refrigeration and air conditioning, says air conditioning is a major source of global greenhouse gas emissions. This is related to both the stress on the electricity grid and faulty air conditioning systems that are leaking refrigerant chemicals that are potent greenhouse gases. This emissions problem is likely to worsen over time as global use of indoor air conditioning increases rapidly. With outdoor AC technology readily available, it may sound like a simple solution to heat-related illness in sports competitions, a problem that plagued the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and will continue to affect other events as the climate crisis unfolds. But “from an energy standpoint, that’s a pretty bad idea,” Miller says, because a lot of the cold air escapes outside. “There’s a reason we close our windows when we’re running our air conditioners.”

One way to make stadium air conditioning more efficient would be to use it only in indoor stadiums, not open-air stadiums like in Qatar, says Jessica Murfree, a sports ecologist at Texas A&M University. But “it’s hard to imagine a world where all sports are indoors,” she admits. “It’s hard for me to imagine a football or baseball season without rain, snow, direct sunlight, and the occasional bird landing on the field.”

Miller acknowledges that Qatar’s engineers have tried to make the air conditioning systems more energy efficient, using “spot cooling” to direct cool air only to the areas where it’s needed. But “improving the energy efficiency of a huge power load still means you have a huge power load,” she says.

And while Qatar promises its air conditioning will use solar power, Miller doesn’t think that’s good enough. “The materials that make up renewable energy technologies aren’t infinite — so there are still planetary limits to our ability to create energy using renewable technologies,” she says. “Just because we have access to renewable technology doesn’t give us a blank check to use energy everywhere.” A FIFA spokesman contacted by Scientific American could not clarify whether the air conditioning systems for the stadiums in Qatar are fully or only partially powered by solar power.

Still, the cooling technology is attractive for a World Cup being held in one of the hottest countries on earth. Although FIFA has decided to break with tradition and move the Men’s World Cup from the scorching summer months in Qatar to the cooler winter, temperatures in Doha, Qatar are expected to be quite hot in the coming weeks, in the 70s and 80s degrees F. Even warm temperatures can increase your risk of heat illness, says Stephen Lewandowski, an environmental health and risk assessment expert at Uniformed Services University.

Lewandowski says heat illnesses exist along a spectrum, with each increase in F degrees leading to a greater risk of developing more severe conditions. At the lower end of the spectrum, exercising in warm temperatures can tax the cardiovascular system and put a strain on the kidneys, he explains. On the more extreme side, “the body becomes unable to balance heat and core body temperature rises. And that’s where you get to the really dangerous conditions, from heat exhaustion to possible heat stroke,” says Lewandowski.

A picture shows parts of the cooling system at Al-Janoub Stadium April 20, 2022 in Doha, which will host matches of the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Credit: KARIM JAAFAR/AFP via Getty Images

However, he points out that footballers are physically fit and therefore have fewer risk factors for heat stroke than the average person. Football fans in the stands, particularly young children, the elderly and those with pre-existing medical conditions, may be more vulnerable to heat hazards than players. “Having that air conditioning in the stadium that can bring the temperature down, along with potentially a little more air movement along the pitch, can protect athletes from heat stress” and create a more comfortable environment for fans and stadium staff, Lewandowski says. “Every degree cooler can reduce the risk of heat illness.”

In addition to keeping people safe, stadium air conditioning can also help players perform better, says Carl James, a sports scientist and physiologist at the Hong Kong Sports Institute. “There is a lot of evidence that in warmer climates [soccer players’] Physical performance is impaired,” he says. This can lead to tactical changes: “Players sprint less, pass more often, and passes tend to be shorter.” Using air conditioning should result in faster games where players have the physical confidence to sprint more and take greater risks enter, James suggests. “In really hot conditions, you just can’t afford to use that kind of energy because you’re going to feel awful for the next part of the game,” he says. But James adds those results would depend on the efficiency of Qatar’s stadium AC systems. He’d want to know, “How even is the airflow over them [field]?” and “How much is the drop in temperature?” he says. When contacted for a comment by Scientific American, FIFA spokesmen have not provided any concrete answers to these questions.

These benefits come at a high cost: Using outdoor air conditioning in response to a warming world is very expensive. Such solutions, Murfree says, would likely just make exercise less accessible. Climate control technologies like air conditioners “require more resources, money and time to manage and maintain, so fewer and fewer people will have access to them [sports]’ she says, as these advanced-level technologies become the norm for competition.

There are cheaper – and more sustainable – alternatives to protect athletes from heat stress. One important (and easy) option is to give players time to acclimate to hot temperatures, says James. The human body is resilient, and spending some time living and exercising in the heat before a tournament can go a long way in protecting players from heat-related illness. Unfortunately, many players didn’t have much of a settling-in period in November before the World Cup. “Because this World Cup is happening right in the middle of the usual European playing season… people are coming straight from a cold European winter to a warmer climate,” says James.

A less time-consuming option, Lewandowski suggests, would be to add more breaks to games when high heat becomes a real problem. He also points out a number of other simple fixes that can help players manage heat stress. Cooling vests and similar garments use ice packs, or the circulation of cool liquids, to keep wearers cool, although Lewandowski believes these may be too bulky to use during football games. Then there’s “extremity cooling, like dipping your arms in cold water before you go to an event, which can help you stay cool and maintain performance,” he explains. And of course, hydration is key: research is ongoing into what types of liquids (e.g. ice cream slush) are best at keeping the body cool.

In other words, there are many potential methods to help players beat the Heat. Stadium air conditioning is theoretically one of them – but it comes at a high cost to the environment. Miller describes “this giant positive feedback loop” where “air conditioners cause climate change and we need air conditioners to respond to climate change.” Including huge outdoor stadiums in this equation would only make the problem worse.

“If we’re really trying to achieve a sustainable future, cooling open-air stadiums isn’t the way to get there,” Miller says.

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