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Sport and Sustainability to the Extreme

Last week, the Champions for Earth movement sent an open letter co-signed by hundreds of GB Olympians and Paralympians to the Prime Minister urging a ‘Green approach’ to recovery from the pandemic.  The letter highlights the role that sport can play in influencing global issues:  “We can sit timidly in the pack, pretending that we have no role to play in the unfolding race.  Or, like the athletes we would have watched this summer, we can race to win.”

This recognises some high profile examples of athletes associating themselves with the green agenda this summer.  Hector Bellerin, the Arsenal defender, invested in League Two outfit Forest Green Rovers, becoming its second largest shareholder, the world’s first club certified as carbon-neutral by the United Nations.  Formula One World Champion, Lewis Hamilton, no stranger to championing social-political change, made headlines after the Japan Grand Prix last year when he spoke out in favour of sustainability and warned of the threat of extinction.  Not perturbed by accusations of hypocrisy from some quarters, Hamilton has taken a further step in his environmental efforts by founding a team, named X44 after his F1 racing number, to compete in the inaugural Extreme E racing series.

Extreme E

As its name suggests, Extreme E is an example of a concept taken to its limits.  The founder of the all-electric motor series Formula E, Alejandro Agag, launched Extreme E in 2019 and the first race is set for January 2021.  Formula E was designed to have an environmental conscience and it has earned the accolade of being the first sport to achieve a certified net zero carbon footprint.  Its off-shoot Extreme E, however, goes further.

The thinking behind and purpose of Extreme E is signaled on the official website: “to highlight the climate change challenges faced by different ecosystems, whilst showcasing the performance of all-electric SUVs in extreme conditions”.  The environmental agenda is front and centre for Extreme E.  Its goal is to use electric racing to encourage us all to take positive action to protect our planet’s future and demonstrate how technology can contribute to this positive action.  Given the self-confessed environmental objective and focus, one might be forgiven for thinking that the actual racing is taking a backseat.  Similarly, Formula E has been an all-electric series since 2014 but the sporting competition is still clearly important as the FIA announced in December 2019 that it would be given world championship status for the 2020-21 season. With each team driving the same 100% electric SUVs in Extreme E, raw driving talent should also be in the spotlight.

Extreme E’s races will be off-road and take place in five remote locations around the world reflecting areas most at risk of climate change.  The fourth race is set to be the first motor race to take place in Greenland, with the remote Russell Glacier as the location.  The technology is, predictably, cutting-edge, including innovative fuel cell charging technology thanks to a collaboration with AFC Energy.

Extreme E has also taken a strong stance on gender equality in motorsport by announcing that teams will comprise one male and one female driver, with the drivers each completing one lap of the circuit each race.  Teams are able to select their own drivers or choose drivers from the pool of Extreme E’s Drivers Programme.  Hamilton has yet to announce the drivers for his X44 team.

Perhaps one of the most eye-catching of Extreme E’s innovations is that the whole operation will be transported around the world from race to race on a former Royal Mail cargo ship, converted into a huge floating paddock.  Research scientists will be in for the ride as the ship will have a laboratory on board to allow environmental research and experiments in the different race locations.  Addressing any criticism regarding the diesel engine of the ship, Agag has pointed out:  “The aim is to minimise your carbon footprint, and using a ship will produce about a third of the emissions of flying. We’ve installed state-of-the-art filters to make the engines as clean as possible.”  As it strives for a net-zero carbon footprint, Extreme E will also be investing in sustainability projects to offset its emissions.

Will Covid-19 put the brakes on Extreme E?

Unlike most other sports, Extreme E’s races were always designed to be absent live spectators due to the remote locations (this also helps to reduce associated emissions, of course). As a result, there is more pressure on Extreme E to attract broadcast deals, vital to achieve the kind of captive audience and accessibility required to get across its environmental message.  Deals have been struck around the world for the first season (including with BBC, China Sports and National Geographic amongst others) and Extreme E is reportedly in talks with Netflix about streaming a documentary series.

The lack of an in-person audience may also mean that the series is better placed to cope with the challenges of Covid-19, both economically and logistically.  The nascent series has been doing its bit in response to the pandemic and has worked with partners to assist in the production of battery-powered respirators.  The answer to whether Covid-19 will put the brakes on Extreme E, seems, at the moment at least, to be “no”.  Only time will tell if there will be any disruption or delay to the ambitious inaugural season but as things stand we eagerly await the docking of the floating paddock at Lac Rose, Senegal, on 23 January 2021 for race number one.

© Copyright 2020 Squire Patton Boggs (US) LLPNational Law Review, Volume X, Number 274
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