Can motorsport ever be truly environmental?

Written by Jem Wilcox

With the recent introduction of the eco-friendly Extreme E championship, the question raised is whether any racing series can be truly environmental.

This month saw the long-anticipated arrival of the Extreme E race series, a motorsport championship that aims to raise awareness of various threats to the environment. Five locations across the globe have been selected for their representation of different issues, through which drivers must compete for the most points, all while combating the extreme conditions of the area. At each location, a so-called Legacy Project will be established, in order to support local organisations in their conservation efforts.

The first race took place in Al-‘Ula, Saudi Arabia with the aim of drawing attention to the problems associated with desertification, including a projected increase in water scarcity, which could cause over two billion people worldwide to suffer long periods of limited water supply. As well as this, Extreme E has announced the Desert X Prix’s Legacy Project, a collaboration with the Ba’a Foundation to protect endangered turtle species along the Red Sea coastline, whose lives are threatened by plastic waste, coastal development, and climate change. Later in the year, the championship will head to Senegal, where it will be supported by NGO Oceanium in planting a million mangrove trees, and the penultimate race in Brazil will see a collaboration between Extreme E and The Nature Conservancy, which aims to save the Amazon rainforests from deforestation.

As promising as all of that sounds, it isn’t unreasonable to wonder: can motorsport ever truly be environmentally friendly? Cars, fuel, and global transport aren’t the type of images that come to mind when we talk about environmental consciousness. How can an activity that generates so many carbon emissions claim to be aiding the fight against climate change, while simultaneously contributing to the problem?

In light of these questions, Formula One announced in November 2019 its plan to be carbon neutral by 2021 and net-zero by 2030. An important distinction is to be made here: carbon neutrality entails purchasing ‘carbon credits’, which allow a company to emit a certain amount of greenhouse gases, whereas net zero requires a considerable reduction in carbon emissions and the removal of any unavoidable excess. The F1 website itself has described the plan as “ambitious, yet achievable” – but is it? With no detailed proposal of how Formula One expects to achieve net-zero status, it’s difficult to imagine a world in which global motorsport events such as these can be more sustainable. The number of emissions produced from the transportation of equipment to each race alone makes up 45% of Formula One’s yearly generation of more than 256,000 tonnes of carbon, with business travel for all employees being cited as the second-largest offender. Although it was recently announced that a new type of biofuel was being tested and validated for the championship, only 0.7% of its emissions are produced from the power units of the cars. 

As a result, the FIA (Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile, the governing body of motorsport events such as Formula One) has made little real commitment to reducing its emissions. Unless they can take further accountability and produce a more comprehensive account of what they are specifically going to do to make their events more energy-efficient and reduce the sport’s personal contribution to climate change, their plan will almost certainly remain more “ambitious” than “achievable”. 

One driver of Formula One fame who has attempted to promote a more environmentally conscious attitude, is Sir Lewis Hamilton. Following last year’s announcement that Hamilton had formed his own Extreme E team, a press release quoted him specifying the important value of sustainability as being a key motivation for his decision. The problem here is undoubtedly clear: how can a participant of a sport like Formula One, which admits its own colossal impact on the threat to the environment, claim to strive for sustainability? Although the Mercedes driver has used his online platform to promote the use of electric vehicles, which he announced last year would be his preferred form of transport wherever possible, Hamilton’s eco-conscious attitude would be worth more if he, alongside other drivers, were more vocal in demanding change from the FIA.

Extreme E has avoided some of the criticism faced by Formula One, by attempting to make every aspect of the championship environmentally friendly, from the transportation taken to each race all the way to the type of food eaten by the teams. Having refurbished the RMS St. Helena to serve as the base and paddock for all teams involved in Extreme E, the race series aims to reduce its carbon footprint by travelling via ship and offsetting any inevitable emissions. It’s also sponsored by the plant-based food company Neat Burger, who will provide meals on-board. While the scale of a Formula One race is much larger than that of Extreme E, it is worth considering whether some of its teams could lead by example and integrate similar approaches to transportation and food.

Even with these various initiatives in place, there are still some valid concerns to be raised with Extreme E. Not only are two race locations lacking commitment to a Legacy Project, but like Formula One, they have committed to being carbon neutral by the end of season – but is this enough? Should a project that wants to preserve the atmosphere not aim towards being carbon negative, rather than being satisfied with neutrality? To make matters even more complicated, even if each championship can successfully offset their own emissions, there is no guarantee that any sponsorship partners and fans attending events will do the same.

Although Extreme E as a race series is undoubtedly excelling at making a positive environmental impact, there is always room for improvement, especially in other events such as Formula One. As it stands, any motorsports event which races twenty-three times a year across the globe cannot be sustainable, and major changes must be made in the coming years if the FIA hopes to become net-zero in the next decade.

Featured image courtesy of Extreme-e.comCopyright © Sam Bloxham. No changes have been made to this image.

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