As the 2022 FIFA World Cup kicks off in Qatar, climate change has become an integral part of the tournament.
Soccer players, fans, and outdoor workers face rising risks from exposure to extreme heat and humid heat.
Competition organizers, players’ unions, and teams are taking steps to reduce risks to player health and performance during extremely hot weather.
FIFA is also tracking emissions related to World Cup tournaments, with plans in place to offset record-high emissions during the 2022 World Cup.
Soccer in a warming world
Extreme heat and humidity. Shifting rainfall patterns. More sunny-day flooding. Air quality worsened by carbon pollution or wildfire smoke. These are all among the climate-related risks that soccer players, fans, facilities, and competitions now face, according to the governing body of world soccer, international players’ unions, and a growing number of scientific studies.
As the 2022 FIFA World Cup kicks off in Qatar, climate change has become an integral part of the tournament—from its timing and location, to new heat-related health and safety regulations, and the efforts of organizers to track and offset the event’s heat-trapping emissions.
Footballers feeling the heat (and humidity)
Global temperatures have climbed quickly since the first World Cup tournament in 1930. As warming has intensified, the world’s most popular sport is feeling the heat.
Among the primary concerns is the health, safety, and performance of athletes and on-field officials in extreme heat and humid heat—conditions that are likely to occur more frequently as global temperatures continue to rise.
In extremely hot weather, our bodies’ main cooling mechanism (sweating) may not cool us enough to prevent overheating. And when the relative humidity is above 60%, sweat evaporates more slowly, preventing quick cooling. These conditions can overwhelm the body’s temperature control system and lead to heat stress and illness ranging from heat exhaustion to heat stroke, hyperthermia, dehydration, and cramps.
Athletes face high risk of heat-related illness because the body produces 15 to 20 times more heat while exercising. Outdoor play and the limited number of substitutes allowed during matches can compound the heat-related risks to soccer players’ health and performance. A 2012 study found that soccer player body temperatures can rise by nearly 2°F in extreme heat compared to mild conditions, leading to dehydration and hyperthermia.
Heat competing with global competitions
Instances of soccer players suffering heat-related illness in recent years have been reported by FIFPRO, the international players’ union. In 2021, the final match of the women’s Olympic soccer tournament was delayed 10 hours due to extreme humid heat in Tokyo and related concern for player safety.
The 2022 World Cup location presents additional heat risks. A 2020 study indicates that the region around Qatar currently experiences some of the most extreme humid heat on the planet. And with continued warming, the Persian Gulf is projected to become a global hotspot for serious and life-threatening humid heat levels.
Heat-related risks to athlete health and performance will continue to be a concern for global sporting events hosted in relatively warm climates such as in Australia (2023 FIFA Women's World Cup), heat wave-prone parts of Europe (2024 Summer Olympics), and in parts of Mexico, the U.S., and Canada (2026 FIFA World Cup).
Heat risks faced by global events extend to national-level competitions and training in soccer and other outdoor sports. The warming stripes for each of the 32 countries competing in the 2022 World Cup illustrate the rapid warming on the home turf of each of the world’s elite soccer teams.
Humidity multiplies heat-related risks
The warming stripes only show temperature and therefore don’t reflect the additional risks from high humidity, which limits the body’s ability to cool itself through sweating. The effects of humid heat were seen in high rates of heat-related illness among athletes during the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 when temperatures averaged 90°F and were coupled with high humidity.
The American College of Sports Medicine recommends canceling practice or competition when a humid heat metric called the wet bulb globe temperature (WBGT) exceeds 90°F for acclimatized, fit, low-risk individuals (or 86-90°F for non-acclimatized or high-risk individuals).
Watching and working in extreme heat
As the biggest stage for the world’s most popular sport, the 2022 World Cup is expected to draw over one million spectators from around the globe. During extreme heat, spectators can also face health risks—especially those in vulnerable groups such as children and older adults, or those traveling from cooler regions who may not be acclimated to local conditions.
Hosting an event such as the World Cup also requires years of effort from thousands of workers, many of whom work outdoors constructing stadiums, housing, and other facilities. Outdoor workers face elevated health risks in extreme heat—a frequent occurrence in Qatar, which is one of the hottest and fastest-warming places on the planet.
Recent analysis by the UN’s International Labour Organization indicates that outdoor workers in Qatar face occupational heat stress during at least four months of the year, which may have contributed to mortality rates among migrant workers in Qatar in recent years.
Reducing risks and adapting to change
Organizers of major sporting events are taking measures to reduce the serious health and safety risks to athletes, spectators, and outdoor workers in our warming world.
Guidelines for athletes and workers: Rising temperatures call for science-based health and safety guidelines designed to reduce risks. For elite athletes, the International Olympic Committee recommends a set of unified regulations for sporting events during heat. For outdoor workers, the United Nations recommends labor standards and mitigation measures to reduce exposure to harmful conditions as temperatures rise.
Heat-triggered breaks: In World Cup soccer, FIFA introduced water breaks for the first time in 2014—now requiring water and cooling breaks around the 30th and 75th minute of matches when the WBGT reaches 89.6°F. The FIFPRO union seeks more frequent breaks starting at lower WBGT levels to further reduce risks to player health and performance. Extending half-time breaks in soccer by five minutes has been shown to further reduce core temperatures.
Rescheduling to reduce risk: Qatar’s extreme summer heat also led FIFA to reschedule the 2022 World Cup to November and December—a first in the tournament’s 89-year history. If the 2022 World Cup had taken place in June and July as is typical, players, spectators and workers would have experienced 50–70% more hours with WBGT above 86°F, and 15–23% more hours with WBGT exceeding 89.6°F than during November and December.
Shading, misting, icing, air conditioning: Competition organizers rely on an expanding set of approaches to reduce heat exposure. The 2022 World Cup’s energy-intensive air conditioned stadiums are designed to regulate ambient temperatures and reduce harmful heat exposure on the pitch and in the stands.
Training for the heat: Soccer teams have also taken measures to reduce player risk. For example, ahead of the Tokyo Olympics in 2021, the U.S. women’s soccer team trained in high heat to help players acclimate to conditions expected in Tokyo.
Football’s carbon footprint
Major events like the World Cup also require a lot of energy, materials, and transport. As a result, these events cause their own heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions.
FIFA anticipates that all activities relating to the 2022 World Cup (from 2011 to 2023) will emit about 3.6 million metric tons of CO2 equivalents—equal to the annual emissions from over 775,000 gasoline-powered cars, according to the EPA. That’s also more than a 70% increase relative to the 2018 World Cup, and the highest FIFA-reported World Cup emissions since reporting began in 2010.
The largest shares of heat-trapping emissions from the 2022 World Cup are expected to come from travel (52%, primarily from international air travel), infrastructure construction and operation (24%), and accommodations (20%).
Despite record-high emissions, FIFA has committed to making the 2022 World Cup the first carbon-neutral tournament—a goal that will rely heavily on carbon offsetting. But independent analysis by Carbon Market Watch suggests that FIFA’s accounting approach may underestimate emissions from stadium-building, and further questions the efficacy of the tournament’s carbon offsetting plans.
Reducing football’s carbon footprint will continue to be a priority in the coming decades. In 2018, FIFA signed on to the UN Sports for Climate Action Framework to reduce FIFA’s emissions by 50% by 2030 and reach net-zero by 2040. The FIFA Climate Strategy outlines plans to reach these goals.
POTENTIAL LOCAL STORY ANGLES
How is climate change impacting temperatures at the World Cup today?
Climate Central’s Global Climate Shift Index map tool shows the influence of climate change on daily temperatures around the globe. Use the tool to see how much climate change is influencing the temperatures that soccer players, fans, and outdoor workers are experiencing at the World Cup in Qatar today.
How are other climate-related flood risks affecting soccer around the world?
Climate Central’s Picturing Our Future tool visualizes how sea level rise could transform 190 sites around the world with different levels of warming. Explore visualizations for soccer stadiums in Recife and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, home of the most successful national team in the history of the World Cup, or search for sites in upcoming World Cup host countries.
The SciLine service,500 Women Scientists or the press offices of local universities may be able to connect you with local scientists who have expertise on heat-related risks and climate change. The American Association of State Climatologists is a professional scientific organization composed of all state climatologists.
A recording of Columbia University's recent Soccer in a Warming World Workshop, hosted by Samantha Mewis and Dr. Maureen Raymo, is now available to view. Watch to learn more about the impacts of climate change on soccer players and competitions around the world.
Robert Huggins, PhD
Associate Research Professor, Department of Kinesiology
University of Connecticut
Related expertise: Exertional heat stroke, body cooling
Lead on Global Carbon Markets
Carbon Market Watch
Related expertise: Emissions accounting and offsetting
*Available for interviews in English, French, and Spanish