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World Cup Touts 'More Sustainable Stadiums' But Some Were Built on Rare Wildlife Habitats

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The Kaliningrad Stadium for the 2018 World Cup was built on a rare urban wetlands, local activists say. Dmitry Rozhkov / CC BY-SA 4.0

When the World Cup kicks off in Russia Thursday, it will be the first World Cup whose stadiums were required by the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) to incorporate sustainability into their construction and renovation, according to the FIFA report More Sustainable Stadiums.


"Stadiums are key in our efforts to stage a successful and more sustainable FIFA World Cup, which is why FIFA has made green certification mandatory for all arenas used for the event," FIFA head of sustainability and diversity Federico Addiechi said in February, when FIFA announced that three Russian stadiums had already passed certification.

But local Russian activists say some of the green stadiums were nevertheless built on vulnerable ecosystems, ABC News reported Tuesday.

The Kaliningrad Stadium, for example, where England and Spain will play, was built with environmentally friendly materials and energy efficient heating, ventilation and electricity systems, according to a FIFA report.

It was also constructed on top of October Island, a haven for birds and one of Kaliningrad's last wetlands.

"It was a typical delta island, with peat and a wetland reed-bed. It was a little corner of heaven in the city, where birds lived," local ecologist Alexandra Korolyova, who campaigned against the stadium's construction, told ABC News. "Really, if Russia paid more attention to protecting the environment, it could potentially have become a reservation or national park within the city."

Instead, in 2014, part of the wetlands were covered with more than a million tons of sand to prepare the area for construction.

The Kazan Arena, which earned a "silver" according to the "RUSO. THE FOOTBALL STADIUMS" certification developed for the World Cup, was also the site of protests in 2016 due to plans to expand a nearby parking lot over a meadow that protesters said sheltered rare species, ABC News reported.

The stadium in Saransk was also built on a mix of old housing and marshland, but the local minister Alexei Merkushkin told the AP that the area was "the most horrible place in the city," ABC News reported.

"I think the World Cup gave a huge boost to improving the environment in our city even though it was already very good," he said.

Stadiums aren't the only point of contention when it comes to FIFA's efforts to go green.

FIFA was the first international sports organization to sign up to the UN Climate Change's Climate Neutral Now, pledging to offset the emissions of travel to the 2018 World Cup and to go carbon neutral by 2050. But environmental activists say this commitment is undercut by FIFA's sponsorship deal with Russian-owned natural gas company Gazprom, as well as deals with airlines and car companies, Desmog UK reported Monday.

"You cannot encourage climate action while taking money from industries driving the crisis. It's akin to making commitments to public health while taking money from Big Tobacco—it just doesn't pass the smell test," corporate accountability spokesperson Jesse Bragg told Desmog UK.

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Jessica Kourkounis / Stringer

The rallying cry to build it again and to build it better than before is inspiring after a natural disaster, but it may not be the best course of action, according to new research published in the journal Science.

"Faced with global warming, rising sea levels, and the climate-related extremes they intensify, the question is no longer whether some communities will retreat—moving people and assets out of harm's way—but why, where, when, and how they will retreat," the study begins.

The researchers suggest that it is time to rethink retreat, which is often seen as a last resort and a sign of weakness. Instead, it should be seen as the smart option and an opportunity to build new communities.

"We propose a reconceptualization of retreat as a suite of adaptation options that are both strategic and managed," the paper states. "Strategy integrates retreat into long-term development goals and identifies why retreat should occur and, in doing so, influences where and when."

The billions of dollars spent to rebuild the Jersey Shore and to create dunes to protect from future storms after Superstorm Sandy in 2012 may be a waste if sea level rise inundates the entire coastline.

"There's a definite rhetoric of, 'We're going to build it back better. We're going to win. We're going to beat this. Something technological is going to come and it's going to save us,'" said A.R. Siders, an assistant professor with the disaster research center at the University of Delaware and lead author of the paper, to the New York Times. "It's like, let's step back and think for a minute. You're in a fight with the ocean. You're fighting to hold the ocean in place. Maybe that's not the battle we want to pick."

Rethinking retreat could make it a strategic, efficient, and equitable way to adapt to the climate crisis, the study says.

Dr. Siders pointed out that it has happened before. She noted that in the 1970s, the small town of Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin moved itself out of the flood plain after one too many floods. The community found and reoriented the business district to take advantage of highway traffic and powered it entirely with solar energy, as the New York Times reported.

That's an important lesson now that rising sea levels pose a catastrophic risk around the world. Nearly 75 percent of the world's cities are along shorelines. In the U.S. alone coastline communities make up nearly 40 percent of the population— more than 123 million people, which is why Siders and her research team are so forthright about the urgency and the complexities of their findings, according to Harvard Magazine.

Some of those complexities include, coordinating moves across city, state or even international lines; cultural and social considerations like the importance of burial grounds or ancestral lands; reparations for losses or damage to historic practices; long-term social and psychological consequences; financial incentives that often contradict environmental imperatives; and the critical importance of managing retreat in a way that protects vulnerable and poor populations and that doesn't exacerbate past injustices, as Harvard Magazine reported.

If communities could practice strategic retreats, the study says, doing so would not only reduce the need for people to choose among bad options, but also improve their circumstances.

"It's a lot to think about," said Siders to Harvard Magazine. "And there are going to be hard choices. It will hurt—I mean, we have to get from here to some new future state, and that transition is going to be hard.…But the longer we put off making these decisions, the worse it will get, and the harder the decisions will become."

To help the transition, the paper recommends improved access to climate-hazard maps so communities can make informed choices about risk. And, the maps need to be improved and updated regularly, the paper said as the New York Times reported.


"It's not that everywhere should retreat," said Dr. Siders to the New York Times. "It's that retreat should be an option. It should be a real viable option on the table that some places will need to use."

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