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A More Constructive Way to Think About Carbon

The best approach to sustainable development is tackling its multiple aspects and complexity, not making it a single-issue objective, IKNS Program Director Christoph Meinrenken explained in a recent interview.

In a December 6, 2022, article in the Washington Post, Information & Knowledge Strategy (IKNS) Program Director and Associate Professor of Practice at the School of Professional Studies Christoph Meinrenken was interviewed about the climate impact of the recent World Cup and host country Qatar’s pledge to produce the first carbon-neutral iteration of the event. 

The article, ”For a Sweltering Petrostate, a ‘Carbon Neutral’ World Cup Is a Challenge,” examined Qatar’s pledge to produce the first carbon-neutral World Cup and addressed the issue of possible “greenwashing” by Qatar to distract attention from the other controversies surrounding the 2022 tournament, such as discrimination and human rights issues.

“Much of the criticism applies to the World Cup wherever it is held,” wrote the Post’s Claire Parker, author of the article. “And the 3.6 million metric tons of carbon emissions organizers estimate the games will produce are less than 0.007 percent of the annual global total, according to Christoph Meinrenken.” 

While objective scrutiny to foster discussion should always be welcomed, says Meinrenken, the focus should extend beyond Qatar, FIFA, and solely carbon emissions. In addition to being a professor and IKNS program director, Dr. Meinrenken is principal investigator at the Climate School and an affiliate of the Foundations of Data Science Center at the Data Science Institute. He is also co-chair of the Columbia University Seminar on Complexity Science, Modeling, and Sustainability. Meinrenken’s research focuses on computer modeling to elucidate and improve the techno-economic performance of low-carbon energy systems. He is currently working on the Carbon Catalogue, an ongoing research project to make carbon footprints more transparent and accessible. The Carbon Catalogue is a visualization of the carbon footprints of 866 products made by 145 companies in 28 countries and allows individuals to “explore the many ingenious ways to make better products with lower emissions.” Meinrenken teaches several courses at the Columbia School of Professional Studies (SPS)—among them, Theory & Practice of Life Cycle Assessment. 

Meinrenken recently shared his thoughts about the World Cup, Columbia’s multidisciplinary approach to sustainability research, and how we should think about sustainability beyond carbon. Excerpts:

Tell us about the conversation around the 2022 World Cup and sustainability.

Objective scrutiny of the Qatar games’ approach to mitigating carbon emissions is to be welcomed—for example, to generate a discussion in the general public about whether relying on carbon offsets is okay or whether instead, the more aggressive use of low-carbon construction practices and promotion of alternative aviation fuels offer a more sustainable alternative for future events. 

How should this issue be discussed?

A focus on only the carbon emissions and on only FIFA or Qatar is misguided. As I told Parker, to put things into perspective, the reported 3.6 million tonnes of carbon emissions from the games in Qatar are less than one 10,000th (or 0.007%) of annual global carbon emissions. Yet more than 20% of the countries competing in the games legally discriminate against members of the queer community, and dozens to hundreds of migrant workers are reported to have died during World Cup–related construction. Every one of them is one too many.

How do you examine these subjects in the courses you teach at Columbia?

We have learned the hard way that the best way to achieve sustainability—and sustainable development more specifically—is by tackling its multiple aspects and complexity. At Columbia SPS, we train students to think across silos and disciplines. Students leverage our multidisciplinary collaborations across Columbia University. Singling out carbon as a stand-alone issue, as often happened with the Qatar games, is simply in direct contrast to our approach.

How should we address these issues in the future?

We cannot rely on organizations such as FIFA or single actors like Qatar to serve us sustainable games on a silver platter. Instead, the entire ecosystem of sponsors, fans, and businesses who stand to benefit should share in the discussion. Just imagine how many of the soccer fans who flew to Qatar are themselves climate scientists or members of the queer community, or maybe experienced unsafe and inequitable labor conditions in their jobs. Yet they still saw value in going to the World Cup and hopefully sparked constructive discussions—but those discussions shouldn’t just be about carbon.


About the Program

The Columbia University M.S. in Information & Knowledge Strategy (IKNS) program provides students with foundations in information science, organizational psychology, and change management as well as practical skills in project management and executive leadership. The program is available part-time, full-time, on-campus, and online. 

Fall 2023 application deadlines for the M.S. in Information & Knowledge Strategy program are February 15, 2023, for the priority deadline; March 15 for applicants with international documents; and June 15 for the final deadline. Applications are reviewed and admission decisions released on a rolling basis. Learn more here.