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

In 2009, when Qatar applied to host the Men’s World Cup, many wondered how a country so hot – summer temperatures can exceed 110 degrees Fahrenheit – could host a soccer tournament. To allay these concerns, Qatar has built air-conditioned outdoor stadiums. This decision could inspire other sports venues to use this technology to protect the health of athletes and fans. But it is an imperfect solution that is not environmentally sustainable, experts say, despite efforts to power AC systems with green energy sources.

The idea of ​​installing energy-intensive air conditioning in roofless open-air stadiums has added to Qatar’s long list of controversies (ranging from alleged corruption to reported human rights abuses). The host nation promises that the air conditioning systems currently in use at seven of its eight World Cup stadiums have been built with sustainability in mind. According to the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), world football’s governing body, outdoor air conditioners will draw energy from solar panels and project cool air only into the parts of the stadium that need it most, know the seats and the terrain. .

But experts doubt that air conditioning systems in outdoor stadiums can really be sustainable. Shelie Miller, a sustainability expert at the University of Michigan who has studied refrigeration and air conditioning systems, says air conditioning is a major source of global greenhouse gas emissions. This is linked to both its strain on the power grid and faulty air conditioning units that leak refrigerant chemicals, which are potent greenhouse gases. This emissions problem is likely to worsen over time as the global use of indoor air conditioning expands rapidly. With outdoor AC technology readily available, this may seem like an easy fix for heat-related illness in sports competitions, an issue that plagued the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and will affect more events as the crisis unfolds. climate will continue. But “from an energy point of view, it’s a really bad idea,” says Miller, because a lot of the cold air escapes into the open environment. “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 closed stadiums, not open-top stadiums like the one in Qatar, says Jessica Murfree, a sports ecologist at Texas A&M University. But “it’s hard to imagine a world where all sports exist indoors,” she admits. “It’s hard for me to think of a football or baseball season without rain, without snow, without direct sunlight, without the occasional bird landing on the field.”

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

And although Qatar promises its air-conditioning systems will use solar power, Miller thinks that’s not enough. “The materials that renewable energy technologies are made of are not infinite, so there are still planetary limits to our ability to generate energy” with renewable technologies, she says. “Just because we have access to renewable technologies doesn’t mean we have a blank check to spend energy anywhere.” A FIFA spokesperson contacted by American scientist was unable to clarify whether the air conditioning systems in Qatar’s stadiums run entirely on solar energy or only partially.

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

Lewandowski says heat illness exists along a spectrum, where each increase in degrees F brings a greater risk of more serious illnesses. On the lower end of the spectrum, exercise in hot temperatures can put a strain on the cardiovascular system and cause kidney stress, he explains. On the more extreme side, “the body becomes unable to compensate for heat and the body’s core temperature increases. And that’s where you get to the really dangerous conditions, going from heat exhaustion to potential heatstroke,” says Lewandowski.

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

He points out, however, that soccer players are physically fit and therefore have fewer risk factors for heat illness than the average person. Football fans in the stands, especially young children, the elderly and people with underlying health conditions, could be more vulnerable to heat risks than players. “Having this air conditioning in the stadium, which can lower the temperature, while possibly providing a bit more air movement along the pitch, can protect athletes from heat stress” and create a more comfortable environment for fans and attendees. stadium employees, Lewandowski said. “Each degree cooler can reduce the risk of heat illness.”

As well as keeping people safe, air conditioning in stadiums can also help players perform better, says Carl James, a sports scientist and physiologist at the Hong Kong Sports Institute. “There is ample evidence that in warmer climates, [soccer players’] physical performance is impaired,” he says. This can lead to tactical changes: “players take fewer sprints, they choose to pass the ball more, and passes are generally shorter.” Using air conditioning should lead to faster games where players have the physical confidence to sprint more and take more risks, James suggests. “In really hot conditions you just can’t afford to expend that kind of energy because you’ll feel bad for the next part of the game,” he says. But James adds that these results would depend on the efficiency of the air conditioning systems in Qatar’s stadiums. He would like to know “How constant is the airflow through the [field]?” and “How important is temperature reduction? he said. When contacted for comment by American Scientist, FIFA spokespersons did not give specific answers to these questions.

These benefits come at a high price: the use of outdoor air conditioning in response to a warming world is very expensive. Such solutions, says Murfree, will only make the sport less accessible. Climate control technology like air conditioning “requires more resources, money and time to manage and maintain, so fewer and fewer people will have access to [sports]she says, if these technologies become the norm for competition at an advanced level.

There are cheaper and more durable alternatives to protect athletes from heat stress. An important (and simple) option is to give players time to acclimate to hot temperatures, James says. The human body is resilient, and spending time living and training in the heat before a tournament can go a long way in protecting players from heat-related illnesses. Unfortunately, many players haven’t had much acclimatization before the World Cup in November. “Because this World Cup is right in the middle of the usual European playing season…you have people coming from a cold European winter straight into a warmer climate,” James said.

A less time-consuming option, suggests Lewandowski, would be to add more breaks into games when high heat becomes a real concern. It also points to a number of other simple fixes that can help players deal with heat stress. Cooling vests and similar garments use ice packs or the circulation of cold liquids to keep wearers cool, although Lewandowski thinks they might be too bulky to use during football matches. Then there’s “extremity cooling, such as soaking your arms in cold water before entering an event, which can help keep you cool and maintain your performance,” he explains. And, of course, hydration is key: research is being done on the types of liquids (such as ice slurries) that might best keep the body cool.

In other words, there are many potential methods to help gamers beat the heat. Stadium air conditioning, in theory, is one of them, but it comes at a high cost to the environment. Miller describes “this huge positive feedback loop” where “air conditioning causes climate change, and we need air conditioning to respond to climate change.” Incorporating massive outdoor stadiums into this equation would only compound the problem.

“If we’re really trying to achieve a sustainable future, cooling outdoor stadiums is not the way to get there,” Miller says.

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

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