Emission Impossible

It may just be coincidence, but in recent weeks I’ve come across three separate pieces about motorsport and the environment, all written by folk I have a lot of respect for. It’s very encouraging to see that people with some kind of status within the sport are starting to think about environmental issues, but at the same time I can’t help but feel the emerging motorsport response to environmental challenges is missing the point a little.

Before I go any further, though, it is important to make clear that all three arguments registered the seriousness of environmental issues and acknowledged the needs of humans to act to reduce their impact on the planet. This awareness among car enthusiasts would have been unthinkable just ten years ago, so let’s not forget that it is possible for ways of thinking to change, even if it is very slowly.

The pieces I read were all based around the same basic argument. Namely, that lots and lots of different sports and leisure activities emit large amounts of carbon dioxide, be it through the heating and lighting of stadia, the transporting of spectators to and from the venue or the viewing of said activities on electrical televisions and computers. As these activities produce far higher levels of emissions than motorsport, there is little sense in singling out car (and bike) racing in an attempt to reduce our carbon footprint. So the argument runs.

Sooner or later we'll all be racing these...

There are two key issues I have with the above line of thought. The first is the obsession with emissions. Carbon this and carbon that. Damage to the environment can occur in a number of ways, not just from the gases that are expelled from an internal combustion engine. The churning up of road surfaces and associated damage to watercourses, the potentially distressing effect of engine noises on other humans and animals, and the occasional spillage of oil or some other fluid are three examples of effects motorsport can have on its surroundings. If motorsport wants to reduce its ‘impact on the environment’, then, it needs to think a bit further than the stuff that comes out of the exhaust pipe and move beyond the argument that it produces less see-oh-two than other recreational pursuits.

The second issue I have is the idea that motorsport is something that has to be defended. I read a comment under one of the articles to the effect that the text in question should be sent out to every motor club as an example of how to defend the sport. Now to my mind at least, the idea of defending something suggests ongoing opposition, the constant need to fight back and justify what one is doing. Might it not be more fruitful to unpackage what those in opposition to motorsport actually object to, and deliberate on formats and practices accordingly? Objection to motorsport on ‘environmental’ grounds can sometimes be used to mask claims made on rather more mundane and debatable grounds such as access and noise pollution, and once the nature of these claims is illuminated then it may only be a short step to re-routing a stage away from a sensitive area, altering the timings of an event or changing a piece of technology to reduce an environmental impact.

I apologise if the above makes the articles I’ve read sound like aggressive, reactionary texts that attack anything green or left-leaning. They’re not. They’re all very well reasoned responses that take into account the necessity of action in the face of environmental difficulties and think about the effects of various human activities on our surroundings. But by framing arguments solely in terms of carbon emissions and adopting a defensive stance from the outset, the motorsport response to environmental issues is perhaps overlooking some of the ways in which the sport can affect its surroundings and eliminating the possibility of forming unlikely alliances.

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