HE WON four consecutive Formula 1 driver’s championships in his prime years, but towards the tail-end of his illustrious career, Sebastian Vettel began to reflect on his carbon footprint, becoming more concerned with his sports environmental impact. Now, Vettel is explaining how it took more than occasional recycling and shorter showers to reduce his carbon footprint, and his efforts could serve as a blueprint for how F1 operates in the future.
They say it’s lonely at the top, and Vettel spent four years atop the world’s premier motor sport. It seems Vettel channelled his loneliness into self-reflection, ultimately forcing him to change his lifestyle. “A few years ago I started measuring my carbon footprint,” Vettel said to Red Bull. “I wrote down every car kilometre, every flight, every overnight stay. Seeing that number compared to that of the average Joe blew my mind! After that, I took steps to get the value down.”
“Most of the reduction was the elimination of flights,” Vettel explained. “With the exception of Silverstone and Budapest, I drove to all of the European races last season. I don’t want to dictate to anyone or portray myself as an angel, but that’s how I started with myself.”
It’s no surprise, considering how much pollution cars produce, that a sport based around the fastest land vehicles on the planet hasn’t been great for mother nature. However, most of the emissions produced by F1 don’t come from the actual cars on the track. According to Green Matters, power unit emissions (the type produced by F1 cars) only account for 0.7 per cent of the sports total carbon emissions.
Most F1 emissions come from logistics transport, which is necessary to move cars, teams and equipment to different events. Air travel is a massive producer of pollution–think back to when it was revealed Taylor Swift’s jet-setting habits produce over 8,000 tonnes of CO2 a year–so it’s no surprise that a sport with events across the globe generates more than its fair share of emissions. As such, Vettel has tried to fly less and opt for a more environmentally mode of transport.
“I started with 400 tonnes,” Vettel said of his previous carbon emissions. “In the end, I was down to 60 tonnes.” While Vettel’s efforts to reduce his carbon footprint are, at face value, worthy of praise, it’s important to remember that the average carbon footprint globally is only about 5 tonnes. So, as Vettel admits, he’s not an angel, and as it stands massive emissions are a necessary evil for motorsports to function. But aren’t there any alternatives?
What is F1 doing to reduce carbon emissions?
Back in 2019, F1 implemented a sustainability plan to reduce carbon emissions. A key promise in the plan is a pledge to switch to synthetic fuel, which is carbon neutral and sustainable, by 2026. These fuels are produced by the F1 research and development department and will be available to the general public. Meaning that not only will F1 cars produce less pollution, our own cars will also get the same treatment.
There is a caveat to this development. As we’ve mentioned, race-day fuel burning makes up a miniscule percentage of F1’s overall emissions, and as Vettel says, “It is even more important to get overall emissions under control.” Logistics transport, business travel, event operations and factory production make up the majority of F1 emissions, but are more difficult to reduce.
To get to F1 events, Vettel notes that “it would be super if everyone came by bike,” but let’s be honest, that’s not going to happen. In addition, with events all over the world and an identity as a global brand, it’s doubtful F1 will cancel events outside of Europe in favour of a more regionalised offering to reduce overall travel emissions.
What about other sports’ emissions?
F1 isn’t the only sporting organisation with a hefty carbon footprint. It’s estimated that football produces the most emissions, with 30 million tonnes of CO2 per year, which dwarfs the F1’s 256,000 tonnes. Although footballs emissions are contributed to by hundreds of different leagues and competitions across the world, not a single entity like F1. The Summer Olympics have the largest carbon footprint of a single sporting event, with just under 2 million tonnes of CO2 produced.
Can F1 exist in our eco-conscious world?
Despite a massive carbon footprint, F1 likely isn’t going anywhere. Motorsports are only growing in popularity and it’s going to take more than a handful of unhappy climate activists to slow them down. But increased popularity doesn’t remove F1 from scrutiny, if anything, it heightens critical judgement.
Even though F1 is making efforts to become more sustainable, its massive carbon footprint will become increasingly difficult to ignore as the world fights the climate crisis. While it is still central to his life, Vettel acknowledges that F1 isn’t all that important to many people. Vettel recognises that it’s an elite sport, and one that, while removed from the interests of the average person, is not removed from an ethical responsibility to preserve the average person’s environment.
F1 will do what is necessary to remain viable in our eco-conscious world. That could mean only holding events in Europe to reduce reliance on air travel, sacrificing speed for sustainability with eco-friendly cars, or even a radical transition to a virtual competition, but whatever happens, Formula One racing is here to stay.