How can F1 emissions be driven down?

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Formula One has an image problem. Whilst F1 has always been at the forefront of improvements in the speed and safety of automobiles, its important role in sustainability through energy efficiency and design is only beginning to come to light. The concerns surrounding F1 that centre on the cars themselves demonstrate the commonly held, superficial understanding of the main contributors to emissions. The removal of F1 would, in fact, have negative impacts on innovation. Take, for example, the work to develop a 100% sustainable fuel to replace E10 in 2026: a new drop-in fuel that would be ready for use in standard engines without requiring conversion and would be especially beneficial in HGV emissions reductions as electrification isn’t yet possible. The fierce competition between engineering teams leads to rapid technological developments, with resultant climate benefits. Contrary to popular belief, the issue isn’t the sport itself: the race cars’ emissions accounted for only 0.7% of total emissions in 2018. 

So where are the emissions coming from? In the 2018 season, logistics made up 45% of the F1’s carbon footprint. This includes all road, sea and air logistics in the movement of team equipment. A further 27% of emissions were in business travel, including transportation and accommodation for F1 employees. Therefore, whilst changing race fuel makes small emissions cuts and may have future implications on fuel efficiency in normal cars, it is logistical changes that will tackle the large carbon footprint.

In the 2018 season, logistics made up 45% of F1’s carbon footprint

In 2019, F1 set its 2030 Net Zero Carbon goal. Within only a few years of announcing its sustainability targets, a fair amount of progress has been made. Remote broadcasting from COVID races has been retained, reducing travelling staff by 36% and freight by 70 tonnes. F1 offices are now run on 100% renewables. There are easy wins when it comes to increasing transport efficiency, such as the transition from the Boeing 747 aircraft to the lower-emissions 777 for equipment transport. Then there are the trickier, but vital, changes, of which calendar rationalisation is one.

Whilst international travel between tracks is required for the 24 races this season, the calendar this year is slightly different to those before. Races have been planned so that travel between events is reduced. For example, the Suzuka circuit will be moved from its September slot to April, sandwiched between the Melbourne and Shanghai circuits. This is the first step in a longer-term plan to split the Grands Prix into 4 regions: Europe, the Middle East, the Americas and the east Asia/Australia. Removing the current nonsensical calendar that sees teams criss-crossing the globe, this would also save freight and travel fees for teams.

As one might expect, there are several barriers to implementing this regionalisation. There are the unsolvable issues of weather windows, but also more negotiable hurdles. Each race has a promoter, who pays a sanctioning fee to the F1 for the teams to come and race. Despite contractual clauses for promoters to deliver sustainability plans, a regionalised schedule still faces opposition. There are fears of competition when races are held in close geographic and temporal proximity. This argument holds little sway though, as previous events have been held close together, such as the Dutch and Belgian GP, and still managed to sell out. It will likely be several years for complete implementation as existing contracts expire and calendar shifts become possible. 

An extended programme of races seems to take precedence over emissions targets

Certain races will require additional negotiations if date changes are to be made. Abu Dhabi pays a premium for its spot as the final GP of the season. This may be incompatible with the ideal schedule, especially when 7 of the 10 teams are UK-based. The distance from team bases to the first and last races needs to be considered alongside travel between Grands Prix. Head of Sustainability at F1, Ellen Jones acknowledged that what’s required is “a huge culture change shift” from all stakeholders and described rationalisation as “a key goal” ahead of last year’s Spanish GP.

At the end of the day, F1 is a business, and an extended programme of races seems to take precedence over emissions targets. The first World Championships consisted of 7 races. By the 90s, this had increased to 16. This year, we will see a record-high of 24 races. So, whilst there are carbon cuts being made in certain parts of F1, there have been overall increased emissions.

As the F1 comes under increasing pressure and scrutiny, changes need to address the deep-rooted logistical emissions. A fully reorganised calendar would create a much more logical and eco-friendly international tour. Whilst 2024 has seen alterations, distances are far from being minimised, with, for example, Round 9 in Montreal preceded by Monaco and followed by Barcelona. Without a doubt, F1 has the potential to reach their goal by 2030. But do they have the drive?

Image: Wastrick via Wikimedia Commons

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