Once upon a time, our grandmother told us not to go out in the rain or cold. “It'll make you sick!” she scolded. Through modern science, we now know this is fiction. We know that cold weather and rain push us indoors, into close quarters, and make us more likely to spread infectious disease to one another. However, the “conventional wisdom” remains. And no matter how sure we are that rain and cold aren't the cause of disease, some of us repeat the myth to our children — just in case.
Formula 1 and the United States Grand Prix (USGP), to be held here in Austin at the newly constructed Circuit of the Americas (COTA), bear a similar burden. Metaphorically speaking, running high-powered race cars burning gas at the rate of about five miles per gallon seems like just about the worst thing you could ever do for the environment. It runs against everything Austin stands for environmentally. It's infuriating to outspoken environmental activists, and confounding to those of us who are just trying to do our part within the framework of our consumptive lifestyles.
"You can take the position that you're going to take a stance and talk about issues. Or, I think, you can roll up your sleeves, you can say, 'we're going to raise the bar and we're going to set an example.' And that's the approach we all have taken."
The truth is, the USGP will most certainly be a giant sized carbon footprint on our city this November. But, much like not catching a cold from the rain, the carbon emissions spit out by the alien-looking race cars is not even a pinkie toenail on that footprint. In fact, it appears the USGP may share a strikingly similar sized footprint with other major Austin events, and is gearing up to be among the world leaders in green motorsport facilities.
In a Trucost environmental study conducted during the 2009 Formula 1 season, emissions created by the racecars alone accounted for only about one-third of 1 percent of the total carbon emissions created by the race series suggesting there is little validity regarding a negative environmental impact.
Based on spectator estimates for the inaugural USGP in November, it looks as if the USGP will be similar in size, scope and emissions output as that of one of Austin's other flagship events — the Austin City Limits Music Festival. Each will host over 100,000 folks from Austin and around the globe.
Edgar Farrera is the recently appointed Director of Sustainability at COTA and they are pressing hard out of the gate. They've recently joined the Green Sports Alliance (GSA), a non-profit dedicated to the greening of professional sports. The GSA's members encompass almost every major American sports league and many venues, including the Frank Erwin Center. COTA is only the second motorsports facility to join the GSA.
Farrera argues, pushing environmental responsibility is critical to the future of motorsports. In an environmentally hyper-aware business landscape, Farrera says, “This is an important attribute of 21st century business and we're striving to be a next-gen circuit. Certainly environmental responsibility is part of that. You can take the position that you're going to take a stance and talk about issues. Or, I think, you can roll up your sleeves, you can say, 'we're going to raise the bar and we're going to set an example.' And that's the approach we all have taken.”
The dirty little culprit
Both COTA and ACL have little control over the primary culprit of waste produced by their events. Sholeh Johnston, Communications and Projects Coordinator for UK-based research group Julie's Bicycle shares that, “Audience travel is almost always the highest cause of event emissions.”
Julie's Bicycle's research bears that out, finding that about 68 percent of carbon emissions created by large music festivals are generated by travel to and from the festival. Another 28 percent comes from trash produced at the event. “[Event travel is] not directly within their control," says Johnston. "The best they can do is encourage and incentivize audiences to use the least carbon-intensive travel modes.”
Farrera says COTA has several environmental initiatives for the USGP, including the use of environmentally friendly shuttles. The USGP will also begin recycling and composting right away. Composting is particularly tricky to implement on a large scale and is a program most sporting venues take years to build. Farrera is unfazed. “We're going to try and do them all at once, in year one.”
Information is shared very freely in Austin, and Farrera is hopeful that the “Big 4” (ACL, COTA, SXSW and UT athletics) will be able to pool resources and information and better be able to execute environmental initiatives in the future with a combined effort.
ACL (and Lollapalooza) promoter C3 Presents is somewhat of an old pro in this game. With initiatives from water stations to reduce plastic bottle waste, to using more locally sourced food, to the optional carbon offset Fan Tag program, ACL helped divert 62 percent of their waste (by cubic volume) in 2011. And they continue to look for ways to improve.
C3 Events Services Manager Emily Stengel and Farrera agree that one of the biggest hurdles to increasing sustainability efforts on-site at events the size of ACL and the USGP will simply be communicating to fans that the programs are in place. ACL has volunteers trying to steer fans toward the proper trash receptacles, but Stengel admits, “It's difficult with large events to guarantee people will participate in your programs.” Farrera adds, “As you look at what actually makes [recapture programs] effective, a lot of it will deal with communication and signage and guest behavior and to what degree we can influence it.”
So, to outspoken critics, do we go dark in a city where we are generally seen as a beacon of light for environmental awareness and change?
ACL and SXSW green efforts helped establish infrastructure trends that Farrera says are sorely needed in Central Texas. “As other large users start migrating to more responsible practices, that's going to create the market demand that's going to fill those needs.” He says that holds true for both equipment (e.g. clean shuttles) and for resource recapture (high-volume composters, for example).
Despite the gap between environmental infrastructure needs and event initiatives, Farrera and Stengel seem to agree that Austin is still on the forefront of the large-event push for sustainability. Stengel shares that in her experience, even much larger cities than Austin do not have the capacity to handle recycling and composting like our city already can.
Turning left, right and looking ahead
Today, leisure travel accounts for 40 percent of carbon emissions, and travel to and from large-scale events is responsible for just under 70 percent of the carbon emissions for any given event. So even though we may be conditioned to see race cars as the metaphorical bogeyman to a better environment, our everyday travel on planes and in cars, going to the race or the concert, is considerably worse.
Whether you're watching cars burn through fuel and rubber, or watching a rock band burn through lights, amps and pyrotechnics, it isn't the event that is so egregious. It's us. And as much as we'd like to point the finger at something that's easy to define, it's way harder to turn that finger around and take some personal responsibility. That's exactly what groups like C3 and COTA are trying to do.
Of course, in the extreme, we could ban any large events that fly folks in from all over the country and the world. Because strictly from an environmental perspective, it's pretty wasteful. But viewing any event on such myopic terms removes any peripheral benefits that communities glean from them, and isn't a realistic expectation of even well-intentioned human behavior. Stengel sums it up well. “There is a real concern about … when you get the masses together, you produce waste. And it happens. But I don't think that's a reason for culture to go away.”
So, to outspoken critics, do we go dark in a city where we are generally seen as a beacon of light for environmental awareness and change? With the U.S. Grand Prix, Austin will be on a bigger world stage than it ever has been before (television audiences sometimes crest 500 million viewers per race). Do we shutter the Circuit of the Americas, boot Austin City Limits Festival out of Zilker Park, ban SXSW air travel, and lock out every chopper that rides in for the ROT Rally?
Or do we use these massive platforms to push for a higher education on CO2 emissions, more sustainable entertainment, and use our money and our energy to find a way to make our world a cleaner place that still manages to enjoy the art and sporting events that bring us together, make us cheer, give us stories to tell, and ultimately, help make us one of the happiest cities on the planet?