The Extreme E cars racing in Dakar along the beach

‘Race without a trace’: How Extreme E planned a sustainable global event

Think of motor sports, and what might spring to mind are loudly revving engines, roaring crowds, chequered flags and spurting champagne magnums.

Environmentalism, conservation and composting? Not so much.

But Extreme E – a global motorsports championship that places electric transport, the environment and equality at its heart – seeks to turn these associations on their head.

The series also wants to show that it can turn a spectacle of excess consumption and gas-guzzling into a model of net-zero carbon emissions, energy efficiency and a positive legacy.

One of the biggest discussions we’re having is the impact we’re having on the local community, how we can best involve them – not just to swan in and out and not leave an impact, but leave a positive legacy

– Lily Robins, Extreme E event co-ordinator

Among other things, that means transporting race freight by sea rather than air, creating bespoke electric race SUVs, and using hydrogen fuel cell technology to charge them without drawing on the national grid.

It also means a challenge for the event organisers on the ground in each of the contest’s five destinations, who are constantly asking themselves ‘how can we run a big spectacle without leaving behind a huge environmental footprint, and do so in a socially responsible way?’

Extreme E seek out environmentally and sustainable solutions across all their event organisation, from clean energy generation to biodegradable plastics.

“It can be a bit daunting,” smiles Extreme E event co-ordinator Lily Robins, as she speaks to Volta ahead of the first race in AlUla, Saudi Arabia.

Robins, who has worked primarily in the Senegal and Greenland race locations, says Extreme E has adopted a three-pronged approach to each of the sites, taking into account sustainability, the environmental impact and the effect on the local economy and community.

Minimise everything

The easiest way to alleviate the impact of an event is to avoid anything non-essential in the first place – whittling down the numbers on-site and limiting the energy and resources used to those which are race-critical.

“We do reduce everything that we absolutely physically can, down to the power that we use on site, and the vehicles that we bring with us… or where possible, we don’t use them –more walking for us!” says Robins.

As well as leaving the spectators at home, staff such as race commentators are doing their work remotely, and only the essential workers – numbering up to 1,200 – are on location, including just seven personnel per racing team. While they do have to fly in, for lack of a workable alternative, the operation aims to be as energy efficient as possible.

“We try and get people arriving at the airport at the same time as we can do just one pick-up, and we do accommodation as close to the site as possible as well,” she adds.

Waste away

The organisers work hard to avoid creating any waste destined for landfill by utilising eco-friendly methods and science and technological advances. These include the following:

Composting :
Separating waste streams and making sure as much as possible is composted with the support of compost compactors for energy-efficient transportation.

Biodegradable packaging :
Avoiding plastic waste in favour of alternatives, such as wood or Polymateria materials – a biodegradable packaging – brought in on HMS St Helena. Explore more about the fantastic science behind Polymateria here.

Making a fashion statement :
Using recycled material for clothing which is then sent back to the manufacturer for re-use.

Luggage and Eyewear :
Using Solgaard luggage and Coral Eyewear sunglasses which are made from recycled ocean plastic.

Facemasks :
Sourcing the world’s first compostable face masks from Henosis

Community concern

Race organisers say their planet-friendly approach must include the people living in the environmentally-damaged areas the event is highlighting.

In Senegal, for example, “one of the biggest discussions we’re having is the impact we’re having on the local community, how we can best involve them – not just to swan in and out and not leave an impact, but leave a positive legacy”, Robins says.

Their catering team is working with local cafes and food producers to source food locally and according to seasonal availability.

The ground teams also carry out daily litter picks, and will leave the area spotless, adds event manager Kester Wilkinson, who says they will “hand pick every cigarette butt”.

And where their trucks have degraded the road to the Saudi race site, he says, the team has worked with the council to form a plan to “leave the local farmer with a better road”.

The series has also planned the racecourses carefully to avoid any local environmental damage or difficulty – including tracking down nomadic herders in Saudi to ensure it doesn’t obstruct routes to camel watering holes.

Sustainability consultant Sultan M Alshareef concurs that decisions about where to site the race were made in partnership with the local AlUla government, for whom he works.

This is a great opportunity for all of us to join forces to showcase the importance of our environment, regardless of where are we from, regardless of what background we came from… we all come together when it comes to saving the globe, not only the local environment.

– Dr Sultan Alshareef, Sustainability Expert at The Royal Commission for AlUla

The race was held in an area close to AlUla city, saving on CO2 emissions in transport to and from the city, he says. With less vegetation and with the location having already been used for endurance races for the local Tantora festival it was “better to reuse this place, than going to a greenfield”, he says.

And finally, adds Alshareef, from an archaeological point of view it’s a less dense area.

For the rest, offset

The team cannot find sustainable solutions to all of the requirements of the race – for example, the heavy goods vehicles and cranes they need are not yet electric.

Even relatively sustainable solutions may incur some cost in terms of emissions and, of course, the team has to account for air travel.

Here, they used external auditors to track their greenhouse gas emissions (not just carbon dioxide but methane, nitrous oxide, sulfur hexafluoride and so on) and work out the equivalent in tons of carbon dioxide.

“For every kilowatt hour of energy that you use, depending on where you use it from, there’s an emissions factor that you can apply to give you a ton of carbon,” says Dr Matthew Bell, climate change and sustainability services leader at professional services multinational Ernst & Young, which is assisting Extreme E.

“Once you’ve worked out where your footprint is, if your strategy is to offset you then need to buy sequestration – so you need to have had a verified mechanism of reducing that amount of carbon in the atmosphere to at least those tons. And then you retire those units so you put them into a place basically where nobody can ever use them again.”

Most such sequestration is biological, he says – vegetation of some sort, usually trees but also mangroves, for example – and many such projects have measurable co-benefits, such as supporting an indigenous community or biodiversity.

‘Blank slate’

But although the scheme makes sense on paper, because of the sheer complexity of the task at hand Extreme E will inevitably identify problems it hadn’t anticipated, he says.

And that goes for the project as a whole.

“The whole series has been a complete blank slate, which is very exciting for us,” adds Robins.

“The technology doesn’t necessarily exist to do everything perfectly right now, but it’s all about starting a journey, doing what you can and being honest about the things that you can’t do.

“Even on our ship we’ve written ‘not electric… yet’.”

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Photo credit: Sam Bloxham

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