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How Meaningful are Formula 1’s New ‘Sustainably-Fuelled’ Engines?

Increasingly, sustainability is featuring at the forefront of business directives. Consumers demand sustainable transitions and clear plans to execute them. Formula 1, with its iconic 1000-horsepower cars throttling around the world every weekend, has released its own plans. I spoke to a former commercial director for the sport and a junior factory engineer to uncover: just how meaningful are those plans as a whole and how does their flagship promise (‘100% sustainably fuelled hybrid engine[s]’ by 2025) [1] stack against the rest of the entertainment sector?

Before the COVID-19 pandemic intervened, Billie Eilish had announced a ‘green world tour’ for 2020, and Coldplay now plan to follow suit with a completely carbon-neutral, renewable tour of their latest album, Music of the Spheres, this year. Beneath the headlines, these two tours have telling differences. Because of digital streaming, artists are, more than ever, ‘increasingly reliant on live shows for income’ (EuroNews). Touring emissions – a combination of private jet travel for artists’ entourages and the countless cumulative miles of travelling fans – constitutes by far the greatest carbon footprint in the music industry. [2]

As artists become increasingly reliant on shows for income, the public is increasingly worried about climate change. (Click on image for article).

Judged according to this metric, Eilish’s ‘green’ tour (with plans for recycling at venues and merchandise made from organic materials) is not meaningfully comparable to Chris Marten’s plans. Coldplay intend to issue discounts for fans using public transport to venues and, more significantly, kill their own emissions: 50% offset by investment in carbon capture and 50% cut by ‘using the “absolute contraction” method’ (according to their website). There are clear issues with Coldplay’s approach – not least that climate scientists have long-bemoaned the kind of ham-fisted tree planting that the band promises.[3] In focussing their attention primarily on travel and carbon emissions, however, the band is at least addressing the most catastrophically damaging tenets of the music industry.

International sport finds itself facing the same dilemma. Athletes from Golf and Rugby to motor-racing face increasing scrutiny. Rory McIlroy expressed a ‘massive sense of guilt’ to Sky News last year, which the golfer assuaged by committing £150,000 to offsetting his plane travel in 2021. The same guilt undoubtedly inspired former all-star Wallaby David Pocock to speak out on film and podcast about the carbon footprint of travelling internationally. Like the music industry, the onus is on individual agents to account for their footprint, while governing bodies like World Rugby encourage the greater ‘rugby family’ to ‘Re-use [sic.] water bottles […] Order seasonal food […] Travel light’ to reduce fuel consumption on aircraft and ‘Take the stairs instead of the lift or escalator if possible’.[4] It is not necessarily a case of poor intentions, but certainly misguided ones. Whilst World Rugby focusses on what George Monbiot has famously termed ‘micro-consumerist bollocks’, the greatest emissions from the world of entertainment at large continue to come from travelling talent and equipment.

It is possible that sports fans traveling outside the EU could face higher ticket prices if airline and NGO proposals are implemented into law. (Click on image for article)

Because of the more technical sphere of Formula 1, it can be difficult to contextualise what changes constitute meaningful carbon reductions, and what are, relatively speaking, micro-consumerist. Since their introduction in 2014, the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FiA) has regulated hybrid engines in all of its F1 cars: ‘the most efficient [power units] in the world, delivering more power using less fuel, and therefore CO2, than any other car […] a game-changing moment’ reads the F1 website. Even more dramatically, as of 2025 each engine will run on sustainable fuel alone – with a fetching new green logo to boot so viewers are not in danger of forgetting.

So far so good. Except that, like Billie Eilish, World Rugby and much of the rest of the entertainment industry, F1 still burns through most of its emissions not at events themselves, but in getting to and from the track. It was revealed that, in 2021, DHL covered 120,000km getting the various paraphernalia of an ‘The Circus’ to every event (even a year stripped back by COVID): ‘the equivalent,’ DW notes, ‘of three trips around the world.’[5] Estimates vary as to exactly how much carbon is emitted by travel and other global logistics, from 45% up to 72.7% for 2018 out of a total 256,551 tons (DW). That would mean, if the Chartered Management Institute’s highest estimate is correct, that travel alone accounted for over 186,000 tons of carbon annually. For perspective, that means simply moving the Circus from track to track each year has emitted the equivalent carbon of a Boeing 747 running constantly for 85 years.[6] Tellingly, flashy cars themselves generated no more than 0.7% of total emissions in 2019. Taken together, nothing else reveals quite as clearly that touting carbon-neutral racing fuel as a solution for F1’s future sustainability is either misleading by omission or downright disingenuous.

F1’s saving grace is the assurance that its sustainably fuelled engines will have the ‘global impact’ they hope for: ‘an additional path alongside electrification that could have a far bigger and beneficial impact for the environment.’ But the technology will have to scale particularly rapidly to their own freight and transportation requirements if they are to meet carbon-neutrality by 2030, as promised. Reducing freight transport does form part of F1’s published sustainability plan for the future, and in a statement to DW the FiA confirmed that COVID had forced it to reduce the equipment transported to each event by c.70 tonnes in 2020. In the context of almost 200,000 tonnes of carbon emissions annually, this improvement reads somewhat like World Rugby instructing fans to ‘pack light’.

Although not as speedy, rail freight produced significantly less co2 per km than air cargo or freight transported by road. (Click image for article).

Even if the new fuel scales to commercial use before 2030, F1 is damningly slow to implement change. Chris Travers worked as Director of Formula 1’s global partnerships for three years before leaving to join Formula E team, ROKiT Venturi. From across the aisle, Travers remembers F1 as ‘this mammoth’ which ‘takes time to change’. On sustainability: ‘I know Formula 1 have plans […] a lot of talk and plans but it can take a huge amount of time for that action to come to pass.’ Not necessarily out of ill-will, but ‘just because of the size and everything that comes with that.’

Related: Electric and Hybrid Vehicles (2020) (external link). 

More damningly, everything from factory waste to commercial partnerships suggest a culture which is not focussed on sustainability. A junior F1 engineer (who wished to stay anonymous) plant told me that, while sustainability is mentioned ‘a lot’ in the factory, there is still ‘outrageous’ wastage: ‘carbon parts used for wind tunnel and real-life testing, once used, are destroyed and thrown in the bin.’ These parts are discarded in far greater numbers than fans see totalled on racecourses and are, according to the source, ‘pretty [carbon] intensive to make’. This widely criticised (external link) practice, standard across F1 teams, perhaps explains the attitude causing almost 20% of emissions to come from F1 factories and headquarters (CMI) – over 27 times more carbon than the actual racing cars.

F1 is also funded by some of the planet’s most egregious polluters. Saudi Aramco is listed on the F1 sponsorship page as ‘the world’s leading integrated energy’ company and expressed Aramco’s fervent interest in ‘opportunities for the advancement of sustainable fuels’. But, this time last year, a Bloomberg Green investigation revealed that Aramco repeatedly ‘understates [its] carbon footprint by up to 50%’, making it in actuality one of the greatest polluters on the planet.[7] In 2019, it alone contributed nearly 5% of the entire planet’s emissions.[8] The difference with Formula E is clear. Suzie Wolff began Venturi, according to Travers, with ‘a very clear purpose in her mind, which was to tackle climate change and effectively harness the unique platform that Formula E has to highlight the possibilities of electric mobility.’

Sports Sponsorship is a complex and sensitive topic. Learn more about the practice in Routledge Handbook of Sports Marketing. (Click image for external link)
Related: (Financial Times and Economist Book of the Year) The World for Sale: Money, Power and the Traders Who Barter the Earth’s Resources (2021) (external link). 

Front end sustainability in the entertainment industry – from sports engines to organic merchandise and recycling – is undoubtedly important. But in a context whereby polluters have disguised, distorted, and often lied about their emissions for decades, it is more important than ever to look  at the carbon which doesn’t make it onto press releases. Plans to utilise more efficient engines in the near future should not distract F1 fans from the far greater emissions between races and the sport’s thoroughgoing relationships with the very worst fossil fuel offenders.

Editors note: this article has been altered since its initial publication for the purposes of clarity, brevity, and other editorial considerations.

 

[1] Formula 1. 2021. Formula 1 plans for 100% sustainably fuelled hybrid engine. [online] Available at: <https://corp.formula1.com/formula-1-plans-for-100-sustainably-fuelled-hybrid-engine/> [Accessed 14 Jan 2022].

[2] This is true wherever you look in entertainment. A 2021 emissions report from Hollywood, for example, revealed that ‘Fuel […] typically was the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions’ at 48-58% of the industry’s total footprint. The report is available online at: <https://www.greenproductionguide.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/SPA-Carbon-Emissions-Report.pdf> [Accessed 14 Jan 2022].

[3] M. McGrath. 2020. Climate change: Planting new forests ‘can do more harm than good’. [online] Available at: <https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-53138178> [Accessed 12 Jan 2022].

[4] World Rugby. 2018. Rugby and Sustainability. [online] Available at: <https://www.world.rugby/sustainability> [Accessed 12 Jan 2022].

[5] Emission breakdown estimates taken from DW and CMI: J. Harding. 2021. How much longer can Formula 1 drive to survive?. [online] Available at: <https://www.dw.com/en/how-much-longer-can-formula-1-drive-to-survive/a-59722750> [Accessed 12 Dec 2021]; M. Gallagher. 2021. The climate race: Sustainability lessons from Formula One. [online] Available at: <https://www.managers.org.uk/knowledge-and-insights/article/the-climate-race-sustainability-lessons-from-formula-one/> [Accessed 12 Jan 2022].

[6] Calculated using Carbon Independent’s Aviation Calculator, which takes 90kg of CO2 emissions per hour of flight as the basis for its calculations. They publish their work (methodology) online at: <https://www.carbonindependent.org/22.html> [Accessed 14 Jan 2022].

[7] A. Rathi, M. Martin & A. Di Paola. 2021. Saudi Oil Giant Understates Carbon Footprint by Up to 50%. [online] Available at: <https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-01-21/how-much-does-aramco-pollute-missing-emissions-might-double-carbon-footprint> [Accessed 12 Jan 2022].

[8] M. Taylor & J. Watts. 2019. Revealed: the 20 firms behind a third of all carbon emissions. [online] Available at: <https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/oct/09/revealed-20-firms-third-carbon-emissions> [Accessed 12 Jan 2022].

Images:
 
Christopher Down (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Fernando_Alonso,_F1_British_Grand_Prix_2021.jpg), „Fernando Alonso, F1 British Grand Prix 2021“, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/legalcode
 
Raph_PH (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:ColdplayParis160717-23_(35716767140).jpg), „ColdplayParis160717-23 (35716767140)“, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode
 
Ken Fielding/https://www.flickr.com/photos/kenfielding (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:EI-DEO_3_Airbus_A320-214_Aer_Lingus_(Irish_Rugby_logojet)_MAN_12MAY15.jpg), „EI-DEO 3 Airbus A320-214 Aer Lingus (Irish Rugby logojet) MAN 12MAY15“, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/legalcode
 
Interceptor73 (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Nico_Prost,_Renault_e.Dams_Spark-Renault_Renault_Z.E_15,_2015_2016_Formula_E_Championship_R9,_Battersea_Park,_2nd_July_(27509412673).jpg), „Nico Prost, Renault e.Dams Spark-Renault Renault Z.E 15, 2015 2016 Formula E Championship R9, Battersea Park, 2nd July (27509412673)“, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode
 
Gil Abrantes from Portugal (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Catalunya_test_2011_-_34.jpg), „Catalunya test 2011 – 34“, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode

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