Sustainability and Greenwashing in Formula 1

Is sustainability truly achievable in a sport as expensive as Formula One, and are the sport’s steps towards sustainability truly genuine or hypocritical?

By Jasper Harvey – 12th grade.

Sebastian Vettel on Red Bull (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

With the impending retirement of four time Formula One World Champion and climate activist Sebastian Vettel at the end of the 2022 season, the future of environmental activism in the sport is in question now more than ever. Over the past half decade or so, Vettel’s advocacy about a number of issues has been a mainstay in Formula One. Somewhat ironically, he is the only driver in the sport who never drives to the races, opting instead for riding his bike. In spite of his activism, many fans and critics of the sport cannot help viewing it as somewhat hypocritical. One Canadian politician, Minister of Energy Sonya Savage critiqued Vettel’s activism before the Montreal Grand Prix, saying: “I have seen a lot of hypocrisy over the years, but this one takes the cake. A race car driver sponsored by Aston Martin, with financing from Aramco, complaining about the oilsands”.

While Savage may have a point, the blame for F!’s carbon emissions belong with the companies and officials behind F1 as opposed to the drivers, especially not with Vettel who out of all the drivers is responsible for the least amount of emissions, being quoted as having said: “Whenever a flight can be avoided, I take the train or the car. For example to Monza, to Imola or this week to Spielberg”. While Formula One’s commitment as a private corporation to developing sustainable fuels seems to be a promising step in the right direction, the truth is that their fuel consumption is no more than a single drop in the ocean of carbon emissions F1 produces. When all is said and done, “The emissions generated by the 10 teams’ vehicles across 21 Grands Prix, including races and testing, account for just 0.7% of Formula 1’s total emissions”.

The promise of sustainable fuels being used in the future is little more than greenwashing. It is the logistics of Formula 1 which account for the majority of its carbon emissions, while the air travel of all the employees and drivers comes in second. The transportation of all the cars, equipment and other vital elements of the sport make up 45% of the sport’s carbon emissions. While these emissions are necessary to the sport functioning, they could definitely be significantly reduced were the sport to properly commit itself to sustainability.  In July 2022, F1 released a statement detailing their “plans to build future F1 calendars to improve freight and travel logistics so the sport is moving more efficiently around the world”, although the addition of two extra races to the new 2023 calendar suggests otherwise. These 2 additional races bring the total number of races to a record-breaking 24 in a season, and would result in an estimated 15% increase in carbon emissions compared to the previous year.

If Formula One is truly serious about becoming more sustainable as a sport, then it must begin to place the interests of the environment over its own financial interests, something almost antithetical to the sport’s ethos. The 2023 calendar seen below, for example, could be much more streamlined. While obviously weather in different regions is taken into account when making the calendar, making four separate to North America and two back across the Atlantic is excessive. Making it so that all races in America occur in successive weeks would significantly decrease the carbon emissions travel to and from these four races. There seem to be many problems in the way of F1’s search for sustainability, many of which are results of the sport’s endless thirst for money, but developing sustainable fuels is little more than a red herring given to the public for them to ignore the sport’s real emitters. Making changes to the calendar wherever they can and resisting the temptation of adding even more races would be a step in the right direction towards sustainability in the sport.  

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