Formula E, which first launched in 2014, is in many ways at a crossroads as it seeks to become a mainstream sport. This year’s championship – its ninth – came to a close following the final two races, which were held in London on July 29th and 30th. Alongside the launch of Gen3 – dubbed the “world’s most efficient race car” – this year, the series has also expanded to India and Brazil. In all, this year’s championship featured 18 races in 13 cities, beating the previous record of 16 races in 10 cities in 2022. Beginning in Mexico City in January, the 2023 series moved on to Diriyah in Saudi Arabia and then Hyderabad, Cape Town, Sao Paulo, Berlin, Monaco, Jakarta, Portland and Rome.1
There has been a heavy focus on the new net zero carbon Gen3 vehicle, which Formula E claims is powered by electric motors that are “substantially more efficient than ICEs” as they can convert over 90% of the electrical energy into mechanical energy (motion) compared to approximately 40% in high-efficiency ICEs.2 The race organisers also point out that the tyres are composed of 26% sustainable materials, while all carbon fibre broken parts will be recycled into new fibres reusable for other applications.
Yet, while the new car has attracted much attention when it comes to emissions, the biggest challenges for the race organisers lie way beyond the vehicles being used. In its most recent Sustainability Report, Formula E provided a breakdown of its emissions for the 2022 series. Only 1% was accounted for by the racing cars themselves, with freight generating 73%, business travel 13%, operations 7%, spectator travel 4%, and food and drinks 2%.3 While Formula One breaks down its own footprint slightly differently, the way they are generated is similar. For F1, just 0.7% of its emissions are generated by the cars, with logistics – the movement of equipment by road, air or sea – accounting for 45%, business travel 27.7%, facilities and factories 19.3%, and event operations 7.3%.4
With F1 under pressure over the impact of its relentless growth – it has set the ambitious target of becoming net zero by 2030 – Formula E has also faced questions about how it can balance its sustainability efforts with global expansion following the new additions to the race calendar. Back in September 2021, Formula E became the first sport to join the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi) by setting science-based targets (SBTs) consistent with limiting warming to 1.5°C, the most ambitious goal of the Paris Agreement.5 The series committed to reducing its absolute Scope 1 & 2 emissions by 60% by 2030 and Scope 3 emissions by 27.5% by 2030, using Season 5 (2019) baselines.
According to Formula E’s breakdown of its footprint for the 2022 championship, just 1% was generated by Scope 1 emissions, with Scope 2 accounting for 0.2% and Scope 3 98.8%. Formula E claims that “given Season 8 results, we are on track to meet our near-term SBTs for Scopes 1 & 2 and are trending in the right direction to meet our Scope 3 near-term target.” Figures in its Sustainability Report show that overall Season 8 emissions were 33,800t CO2eq, a 24% reduction compared to the Season 5 baseline. It adds that, in line with its commitment to the SBTi, it is aiming to reach its target of 24,500t CO2eq before 2030 and says it is “on track to meet that goal.”
Formula E recognises that a key part of that reduction must come from freight and says the “calendar is optimised and regionalised as best as possible.” However, as F1 has found, over time, that may be easier said than done as the series continues to add new territories and has to deal with the demands of different host countries. Formula E stresses that it is working closely with its logistics partner DHL to find emissions reductions and says that “where possible”, it implements a “multi-modal approach with rail/road/sea as preferred modes, as they are up to 20 times less carbon intensive than air freight, whilst also ensuring packaging is as efficient as possible so that vehicles can be load-efficient and optimise routes for minimal carbon impact.” In addition, as part of a multi-year contract extension agreed with Formula E in January, DHL has started using biofuels for all road and sea freight, including when moving race cars, batteries, charging units, and broadcast equipment.6
Given the far higher emissions from air freight compared with road and sea, Formula E still faces major challenges in reducing its emissions as the series expands – and this helps explain why so far, it has required significant levels of carbon offsetting to become net zero. Back in September 2020, Formula E announced that it had become the first sport to have a net zero carbon footprint since its inception after “investing in internationally certified projects in all race markets to offset emissions from six seasons of electric racing.”7 Unavoidable emissions were certified as offset through investment in Gold Standard and Verified Carbon Standard UN projects in line with the UNFCCC’s Clean Development Mechanism.
Further scrutiny has also come following the announcement of a long-term global sponsorship deal agreed last July with Sabic, a subsidiary of the state-owned Saudi Arabian oil giant Aramco.8 Described as an “innovation partnership”, Sabic has said it will work with Formula E to integrate sustainable solutions into its ecosystem and operations, and the choice of partner has been staunchly defended by Formula E.9 The controversy surrounding the deal illustrates how more question marks are likely to emerge over every action Formula E takes and every decision it makes as it continues to grow.
While its determination to reduce and offset its emissions – and set a higher environmental bar for the motor racing industry – is to be applauded, by placing such a strong emphasis on its sustainability ethos, it could face the risk of appearing hypocritical and losing much of its hard-won credibility during the next stage of its development.
Jonathan's work on the sports industry has been published by The Times, The Observer, The Independent and The Sun, as well as Sport Business, Off The Pitch, FC Business and Zero Carbon Academy.
He has also contributed to BBC Radio 5 Live, Middle East Eye, The Scotsman, Rediff.com., World Soccer, When Saturday Comes, Wisden Cricket Monthly and School Sport.
Away from sports, he has held full-time and freelance roles at a number of global B2B publishers. He was the Founding Editor of Twist - a magazine covering the latest developments across the fashion industry supply chain. The title is published by World Textile Information Network (WTiN). Following the success of the launch of Twist, Jonathan was promoted to Head of Content at WTiN. In this newly-created role, he was responsible for developing WTiN's digital content and social media presence as the company evolved from being a magazine publisher to a market-leading media company across all platforms.