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Aled Rees | Why Covid-19 could prove the driving force behind Formula 1’s sustainability agenda

Aled Rees, managing director, strategy & consultancy at CSM Sport & Entertainment, takes a look at how environmental considerations will impact the future of F1

The natural world was under threat long before the recent wave of human crises. Call it climate change or environmental catastrophe, scientists are in agreement that it has the potential to wipe out all species, including humanity.

We’re living in a new world where health, economic recession, community issues, animal welfare and environmental issues will lead to a renewed sense of priorities. As The Economist so beautifully put it, now is the time to seize the moment and ‘flatten the climate curve’!

The Covid-19 crisis has produced some unexpected environmental and community benefits. Many of us have started to appreciate the decline in noise and pollution from aircraft and vehicles, especially in our cities. The enforced sacrifices have led to surprising results.

In all the pandemics, recessions and even wars in the past, there has never been a bigger drop in CO2 emissions. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), the drop in energy demand could be as much as 6 per cent in 2020 due to the shut down in travel and industry.

Governments face a difficult choice; do they prop up the old polluting businesses, or do they impose new environmentally conscious policies and investments? Frans Timmermans, vice-president of the European Commission, has already said that all Covid-19 recovery investments should go toward businesses that either help reduce carbon emissions or focus on digital commerce.  The major oil companies have already started the pivot to net-zero emissions, with a growing investment in renewables, especially solar and energy capacity.

Most people in the world – 71 per cent according to Ipsos MORI – think that climate change, in the long-term, is as serious a crisis as Covid-19. We have, after all, just had a glimpse at a future world in which our freedoms, purchasing power, industrial output and leisure travel have been severely curtailed and in which the main beneficiary has been the natural world.

The Centre for Research into Energy Demand Solutions has revealed that the top options for reducing an individual’s carbon footprint mainly involve transport. Those include living car free (2.04 tonnes CO2 per person per year); using a battery electric car ( 1.95 tonnes); taking one less long haul flight per year (1.68); using renewable energy (1.6); and using public transport (0.98).

Sustainability will become a greater consideration as we become increasingly aware of the link between humans and our impact on the natural world, shocked as we have been by the outbreak of a global novel, zoonotic coronavirus pandemic.

With the F1 calendar due to resume in less than two weeks’ time, what does this mean for motorsports, which could arguably become an anachronism in the post Covid-19 world?

Formula E and Extreme E, not to forget MotoE, are already addressing the issue but the world’s biggest and most popular championship, Formula 1, has a bigger problem. The Covid-19 inspired recession will, in all likelihood, cause a contraction in sponsorship and broadcast fees. Fortunately, the FIA and F1 have agreed an unprecedented cost cap of $145m per team. The current situation has led to changes that were previously impossible to achieve and the process of change has been turbo-charged by the crisis.

F1 recently announced an ambitious sustainability plan to have a net-zero carbon footprint by 2030. This will include initiatives to ensure F1 moves to ultra-efficient logistics and travel, and 100 per cent renewably-powered offices, facilities and factories. Already the 2020 races will see hugely reduced staff attending behind-closed-doors, back-to-back races.

By 2025 all events will be equipped through the use of sustainable materials, with single-use plastics being eliminated and all waste reused, recycled or composted. Most importantly, F1 will incentivise and provide tools to offer every fan a greener way to reach the race.

But the biggest benefits will come from F1’s unparalleled ability to innovate rapidly in a way that directly benefits the automotive industry. The accelerated progress and technological development of hybrid power units will reduce and eliminate carbon emissions from the current internal combustion engine (ICE). These already deliver more power, using less fuel, than any other car. This, combined with sustainable biofuels and energy recovery systems, presents a unique opportunity to change the carbon emission impact of 1 billion ICE powered vehicles around the world.

One characteristic of the motorsports industry that is not sufficiently acknowledged is its significant contribution to Energy Efficient and Low-Carbon (ELC) innovation. Engineers skilled in electrification and hybridisation, and the inherent requirement for expertise in rapid prototyping, has had a monumental impact on motorsports and by extension the automotive sector, benefiting all of us in the long term.

All of that said, we should not forget the other major impact of the Covid-19 crisis, namely the lack of televised sports which has challenged sports fans in a previously unimaginable way. The sense of community and the entertainment provided by F1 and other motorsports series, indeed sport in general, has been missing from our lives for too many months.

There’s a clear need for rapid momentum in motorsport sustainability moving forwards, and maybe Covid-19 could prove to be the accelerator of that for F1? We certainly welcome its return and look forward to a new era of sustainable racing. The fans and brands will demand it.

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