Which is greener; cricket or F1?

Earlier this month, people thought the Melbourne Test, between Australia and New Zealand  might be unplayable because of the quality of the pitch. In fact, they should have been more concerned about the quality of the air. New South Wales was, and is still, burning.

It was more like the cricket traditionally can be in Delhi, where industrial fumes and agricultural burning create a thick haze and where the Sri-Lankan team recently played in face-masks and some other players threw up during a Test match in 2017.

Cricket ploughs through resources. Not just water for pitches or willow for bats or power for floodlights. There are the mountains of garbage left at stadiums, the innumerable cars carrying spectators, the thousands of flights transporting teams and support staff between series and international leagues; then there are the press boxes full of media and arenas full of supporters.

The last decade has been a litany of the hottest months on record, the hottest years, the hottest daily highs, adding new colours to heat charts, longer fire seasons overlapping California to Australia while droughts ravage both. The numbers are clear and unanswerable.

Sport is not an island, it exists in the world it is part of. Cricket is affected by, and is affecting the climate crisis, and the past few weeks in Australia have only served to highlight it more than ever.

I like cricket, a lot, but I have never been a fan of Formula 1. I was once invited to watch it in Estoril and it was a nightmare. The noise, the smell, the crowds, the heat and the inability to communicate made it one of my worst weekends ever. I have not watched F1 on TV ever since and struggle to call it a sport by any definition.

It is, in my opinion, symbolic of all that is wrong; it flaunts the raging gulf between the rich and and the poor (one of Bernie Ecclestone’s daughters had 50 million pounds-worth of jewellery stolen from an apartment today) and it acts with total contempt for the environment.

Kevin Magnussen is a Formula 1 driver and he says environmental concerns are the “biggest threat” to Formula 1. I have been saying the sport is unsustainable for years.

Lewis hamilton was panned for promoting his ‘green’ credentials, Haas driver Magnussen revealed that he too has become a vegan and says; “I’m a Formula 1 driver and I fly around the world, but at least I’ve started to have a bad conscience about it. It’s not an easy sport to turn green, but it is the biggest threat Formula 1 faces.”

So I decided to investigate and to throw the environmental book at Formula 1, but what I found surprised me, quite a bit.

As far as it was concerned, Formula 1 didn’t have a sustainability problem until Formula E came along. F1 was controlled by the CVC venture fund, whose aim was to squeeze every last drop of profitability out of its acquisition and it was micro-managed by an octogenarian (Ecclestone)  who, along with F1, raised two fingers at the real world.

Then an electric start-up arrived, Formula E, run by the same FIA that had governed F1 and founded by entrepreneur, Alejandro Agag. It spread its green credentials across the globe and motor manufacturers, who had left F1 following the global economic crisis, embraced it. Mainly because it was cheaper and an association with green always goes down well.

FE was so successful that it was predicted F1 would turn electric or converge with the newcomer, which holds exclusive rights until 2039.  

However, electric vehicles have real limitations and 90% of the 1.1 billion vehicles on the planet’s roads are powered by internal combustion engines (ICE), running on carbon fuels. Regardless of how FE eventually turns out, the series could, at best, only make a minor dent in the world’s ICE vehicle stock, and even that could take up to 30 years to take effect. Better, surely, to ensure that a billion cars have access to zero-carbon fuels than replace them with electric vehicles with their limitations. Imagine the environmental impact of a billion dumped cars.

This is where F1 plans to come into play. Its cars are already powered by the most efficient ICE-hybrid engines in the history of the car, which deliver record-setting thermal efficiencies. These power units are ideally placed to act as rolling laboratories for synthetic and bio-fuels.

Just as F1 engines of old acted as high-performance test beds, so new generation power units are poised to lead the low-emissions charge, whilst delivering a bigger and better aural sporting spectacle than FE.

It has taken F1 a decade to get a grip on the environmentally-friendly potential of its power unit. The hybrid engines were formulated in 2009 amid much criticism. But the sport’s new owners, Liberty Media, took less than a fifth of that time to recognise it, and formulated its zero-carbon sustainability plan in under 12 months.

F1’s major issue as a hydrocarbon-burning series is that its cars are perceived to be ‘dirty’ monsters, whereas FE is seen as whiter than snow. The truth is that just 0.7 per cent of F1’s carbon footprint of 256,551 annual tons is generated by its ICE engines. The rest is created by the ‘show’ and, in this regard, F1 ranks lower than the Olympics or the FIFA World Cup in terms of emissions.

So F1 recently formulated an extensive global sustainability programme, which stands on two ‘pedestals’: its own emissions, and ‘show’ emissions, with each pedestal aiming at stringent targets. In order to achieve the objectives, Liberty engaged environmental and sustainability experts to undertake in-depth studies, in the process canvassing teams, drivers, fans and promoters.

To kill perceptions that F1 is a dirty simply because its cars run on hydrocarbon fuels, the objective is to move towards a net-zero carbon footprint, with the major focus being on power units, to be fuelled 100% by fully advanced, sustainable fuels by 2030. Whatever fuel is ultimately mandated will be second-generation, meaning it will not divert crops to fuel, whether directly or through land usage.

If synthetic and/or biofuels are developed for F1, these will eventually trickle down to road car usage, ultimately benefiting the planet.

But, regardless of how effective this initiative proves, it will impact on at most 0.7 per cent of F1’s overall footprint. Still, disposal of hybrid energy storage devices (batteries), remains a tricky area, although Formula E has a similar and potentially greater problem in this regard given its total reliance on batteries. F1 is in discussions with teams and their suppliers as to the best way forward.

Whichever battery disposal route is adopted will also benefit the hundreds of thousands of electric vehicle owners who will at some stage need to scrap batteries at the end of their useful life. As the electric vehicle ages, this problem will snowball.

Nearly half of F1’s carbon footprint is generated by the logistics and freight involved in taking the ‘show’ to its audience. Here F1 has a major advantage over other global sporting spectaculars, who expect their million-strong fan bases to travel to their ‘shows’, primarily by air, for extended periods. F1 is, to an extent, able to control its own footprint.

It plans to move towards regional hubs, using sea-freight where possible, with a switch to low-emission air transportation rather than relying on an ageing fleet of Boeing 747 aircraft being step two. Within Europe, road transportation will be by an advanced low-carbon fleet, while improved calendar efficiencies, which cluster events in close proximity to each other, will also come into play.

The next biggest footprint, at 28%, is created by travelling F1 personnel and team and partner employees, and, again, this is largely controllable, particularly when calendars are streamlined.

With approximately 20%  of the footprint generated by F1’s production processes, already exceedingly low given the efficiency of the vast factories operated by Mercedes and Ferrari, ever-more stringent restrictions placed on wind tunnel usage and simulations will further reduce emissions.

Internally, F1 plans to go completely carbon-neutral at its main sites within the next two months via 100% renewably-powered offices. Any gaps will be offset through breakthrough CO2 sequestration processes, which involves capturing and storing carbon dioxide. So there could be an element of tree planting.

As part of this process, F1 plans to target its on-event footprint; the emissions created by broadcasting, support races, Paddock Club operations, circuit energy use, generator use, etc.

In order to achieve its objective of being totally carbon-neutral by the end of the next decade, F1 will harness its technical expertise to pioneer solutions that either trap carbon, use it more efficiently, or, in the best case scenario, ‘scrub’ it from the atmosphere to ultimately benefit wider society.

Pedestal 1 commits F1 to manage its sporting activities to achieve zero-carbon status by 2030, the second pedestal provides the blueprint to ensure that every grand prix on the F1 calendar is totally sustainable in its own right by the middle of the next decade by focussing on off-track activities and those functions that do not directly involve the cars or F1 personnel.

By 2025, all materials used in the paddock, at grands prix and other events will be either sustainable, recycled or re-used, with an outright ban on the use of single-use plastics within the circuit perimeter.

While the footprint of fans is difficult to control, F1 plans to capitalise on the fact that F1 events travel to the fans. As a general rule, around 70% of fans at a grand prix come from the immediate area, with 20%  travelling from a nearby state or country.

Contrast this with the expected foreign interest at Qatar’s 2022 World Cup or actual attendance during Japan’s recent Rugby World Cup, and it is clear that F1 holds some advantages over massive single region events. However, F1 fans still travel to the circuit, so Liberty plans to offer incentives to people who use public or carbon-free means of transport, with optional carbon off-setting offered to the balance.

Finally, as part of the second pillar, F1 plans to involve local businesses and charities in staging events to ensure that they build sustainable local operations off the back of F1. For example, at present, all Paddock Club personnel are flown in from across Europe, while the security staff hail largely from Austria. There is a large potential carbon saving by using local staff instead.

Overall, F1’s sustainability plans are a step in the right direction image-wise, but crucial to the long-term survival of the sport, for already environmentally-conscious audiences were switching off due to perceptions about the cars, while sponsors and partners were heading to Formula E, lured by the category’s  ‘greenery’.

Liberty needs to convert its announcement into clear-cut action and now that the sport has chucked the environmental gauntlet at FE, the electric championship will no doubt respond with further activities and environmental action plans of its own.

These may spur F1 to greater heights, with the competition between the two premier FIA series resulting in ever-improving sustainability programmes, which will ultimately benefit all road users and, by extension, the greater world, regardless of whether their vehicles are powered by IC engines or electric motors.

I cannot believe that motorsport might find itself at the vanguard of global sustainability, but it might just be true.

So which is more sustainable; cricket or F1? Don’t be an idiot. Didn’t you watch SPOTY?



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