F1 Still Marching Toward 2030 Net-Zero Carbon Footprint Goal

A year ago, Formula 1 announced an ambitious plan for sustainability, aiming to get to a net-zero carbon footprint by 2030.

The ambitious plan includes taking on the carbon footprints on all on-track activity and all other operations related to the sport, with the key exception being emissions generated by the hundreds of thousands of fans traveling to events each year.

By F1’s own admission, it’s a mighty task.

According to Formula 1’s own study released in 2020, Formula 1 emissions, not including the spectators, currently consist of logistics (45%), personnel travel (27.7%), F1 factories and facilities (19.3%) and event operations (7%), with the actual on track activity resulting in just 0.7% of emissions.

However, F1 wants to not only get emissions down to zero but also to be seen “as a pioneer for the auto industry, working with the energy and automotive sectors to deliver the world’s first net-zero carbon hybrid power units, propelled by sustainable fuel. To achieve these goals means low- and zero-carbon logistics, travel and factories and credible offsets through CO2 sequestration programs, which will change land-use through reforestation and better forest management to enhance natural carbon capture.”

F1 also says in its study that it will measure the number of fans traveling by public transport, by bike, on foot and in electric vehicles and hybrids and then try to offset the emissions that are left. In the future, for example, venues will likely need to have greater access by public transport, which is an efficient way to reduce emissions. The idea would be to transport thousands of fans with very low emission vehicles, such as trains.

However, there is also focus on new sustainable fuels for the F1 cars from 2022 forward. Next year, the sport will switch to E10 gasoline, which means that the fuel will include 10 percent of ethanol. It is a step, but it is not much. In 2023, there are plans for new fuels which will go a great deal further. At the moment, there is no clear indication as to what these will be but one of the most interesting possibilities is to move to synthetic fuels.

There are a lot of different way to produce synthetic fuel, most notably using fuel that is obtained from synthetic gas which can be derived from different sources, including biomass. At the moment, this is a small fraction of the total with 95 million barrels of oil produced each day and only 250,000 barrels of synthetic fuel. This percent is increasing but there is still much to be done. The problem, of course, is the cost involved, although this has been dropping in recent times with drops in the prices of electrolysis and carbon neutral electricity, coupled with new regulatory incentives for low carbon fuels, which mean that carbon neutral synthetic fuels are beginning to become economically-viable and more competitive.

“There are some serious advantages that synthetic fuels provide.”

There are some serious advantages that synthetic fuels provide, not least the fact that their energy density is many times higher than any existing batteries—which is not likely to change soon given the huge gap. There is also the monumental advantage of using existing fuel distribution and transportation infrastructure, which means it will be much more cost-effective to implement, compared to batteries, which require entirely new—and very expensive—infrastructure.

One of the most interesting synthetic fuels is being produced by a Canadian company called Carbon Engineering, which was established in 2009 by a David Keith, an experimental physicist, with a PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who has worked on climate science and energy technology for more than 20 years.

Carbon Engineering produces synthetic fuel that is produced by converting CO2 into synthetic crude oil, a process it calls “Air to Fuel,” which then leads to more traditional refining into liquid synthetic fuel. This is interesting because removing CO2 from the atmosphere using direct air capture (DAC) techniques and converting it into pure CO2 in a solid form means that rather than simply storing the resulting materials, it is possible to use technology developed 100 years ago by Professor Franz Fischer and Dr Hans Tropsch at the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Institut for Chemistry in Berlin to create synthetic fuel. Carbon Engineering thus markets this fuel as being a “negative emission” product, on the basis that the CO2 used to create the fuel is less than the CO2 removed from the atmosphere.

This is certainly something that would be helpful for F1, although Formula 1 officials are reluctant to comment on specific projects, as this might be seen as being tacit approval before any decisions about the future are made.

But all is not necessarily rosy in the F1 fuel garden. Because there are other questions that are likely to become more important in the years ahead. The primary problem is that even if the fuel is negative-emission, there are still questions relating to whether reducing emissions will solve the problem of air pollution caused by the burning of fossil fuels.

Research by scientists at Harvard University, the University of Birmingham, the University of Leicester and University College London, published in the journal Environmental Research in recent days, says that the impact of tiny sooty airborne particles that come from fossil fuel combustion of all kinds, whether that be from power stations, cars, trucks, planes or simple fires, is causing far worse health problems than people have previously thought. This is despite improvements in air quality in many countries.

The study showed that in 2018 such particles caused around 8.7 million deaths, a number which exceeds the combined toll of people dying from smoking. The research suggests that without fossil fuel emissions, the average life expectancy on Earth would increase by a year and save nearly $3 trillion in healthcare and other costs.

This is far more than a previous study in 2019 conducted by medical journal The Lancet, which said that air pollution caused 4.2 million deaths a year.

Thus, the question that will eventually have to be answered is not about CO2 emissions but rather about these damaging particles. Catalytic converters can obviously help to reduce such emissions, but these often impact on fuel economy, requiring more fuel than engines without such units.

The only way to avoid such particles is to use a different form of energy, which takes us back to batteries of one form or another, but the production and disposal of these mean that one must consider the life cycle emissions of all electric vehicles which, while producing no greenhouse gas emissions directly, run on electricity that is still generated using fossil fuels, or is stored in batteries that require huge energy usage during manufacturing.

F1 has its work cut out for it.

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