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Kingspan sullying itself as ‘greenwashing’ mudguard for Formula One with new deal

Cavan insulation business made an out-of-character mistake joining F1 ‘sustainability’ agenda

It is a long way from the pub yard in Kingscourt, Co Cavan, where Eugene Murtagh founded the Kingspan group in 1965, to Jeddah in Saudi Arabia, where the company's glitzy new partnership with a Formula One racing team debuts this weekend – about 6,900km to be more precise.

But the tie-up with Formula 1's Mercedes-AGM Petronas team, whose drivers include world champion Lewis Hamilton, is also light years away from being a good idea. What on earth was Kingspan thinking?

The company, now run by the founder's son Gene Murtagh, has made a serious error of judgement in allowing itself be dazzled by the bright lights and glamour of motorsport's travelling carbon-carnival of conspicuous consumption.

By agreeing to chair the Mercedes team’s image-driven “sustainability working group”, the Irish company has been sucked in to help with the greenwashing efforts of the most pointlessly environmentally-damaging sport in the world. F1 cannot, with any credibility, be considered sustainable on any ethical level no matter how much cash it ploughs into expensive PR campaigns.

It is a pity because Kingspan, which is a world leader in the manufacture of insulation, is a genuine trailblazer in a corporate field that has a positive and essential role to play in the fight against climate change. Designing materials for the retrofitting of draughty old buildings, and the airtight sealing of new ones, will do a fair chunk of the heavy lifting to meet emissions targets.

This is Kingspan’s forte. Sullying itself as a greenwashing mudguard for a sport beloved of carbon-soaked Middle Eastern regimes is not.

Powerbrokers

F1’s powerbrokers have long since recognised that the climate-change agenda poses an existential threat to the sport. It is far more exposed than most other international sports to changing attitudes on needless carbon consumption. It has promised to reach “net zero carbon” status by 2030. That is laudable if it turns out to be true, but at this stage seems barely credible.

Just like F1 teams, football teams and their fans regularly travel internationally, expanding their global footprint and therefore increasing the associated emissions. But the optics of the two sports are incomparable. Football involves players kicking a bag of fresh air around a green field. It is a healthy thing to do. F1 involves almost two dozen 1,050-horsepower cars racing on high-octane fuel for up to two hours on an asphalt track, doing about five miles to the gallon.

It looks like fun. But in 2021, as people worry that the planet is burning, it also looks like an anachronism against the backdrop of climate concern.

The cars are barely a fraction of the problem with F1, however. According to a sustainability report commissioned last year by the sport’s administrators, F1’s scope 1,2 and 3 (direct, indirect and value chain) carbon emissions total more than 256,000 tonnes of CO2 for a season.

Assuming this industry figure is not a huge undershoot, that’s still equivalent to an extra 61,000 passenger cars on the road for a full year.

But only 0.7 per cent of F1’s emissions come from the race cars themselves. About 45 per cent comes from traipsing all over the globe for more than 20 races with all the cars, mechanical equipment, rubber tyres and other team trappings.

A further 27 per cent comes from transporting the posse of team employees and corporate sponsor tag-alongs. DHL, the sport's courier and sponsor, says it clocks up about 120,000km annually moving its gear around to races. That is equivalent to circumnavigating the globe three times over.

The real environmental issue with F1 is not that it involves cars belching out carbon as they race around a track. It is that the entire circus continually ups sticks to travel around the world, including to developing countries such as Brazil that are badly exposed to the impact of climate change.

Carbon fuel

Naturally, many races take place in states whose wealth is based exclusively on selling carbon fuel, some of which also have been accused of being at the heart of efforts to play down the impact of climate change: Saudi Arabia, where Kingspan’s sponsorship kicks off this weekend; Abu Dhabi, the oil-drenched emirate; Bahrain, another major crude exporter; and Azerbaijan, another oil and gas-fuelled autocracy.

F1 has welcomed plaudits from some quarters for making, it is said, genuine efforts to harness technological innovation to reduce the sport’s carbon footprint. By putting the Kingspan name on its efforts to generate new ideas, the Mercedes-AMG Petronas team may expect to receive more of the same.

But the sport’s true commitment to lowering its carbon footprint should be called into question.

If F1 is serious about climate change why does it keep expanding its calendar? The season finishes this weekend in Saudi Arabia, whose government was central to efforts to water down declarations at the recent Cop26 climate conference in Glasgow.

Next season F1’s itinerary grows to a record 23 countries. Travel is the problem with F1’s emissions. If it was serious about addressing the issue the carnival just needs to travel a little less. But F1 can’t help itself.

F1’s commitment to sustainability is little but bumf and bluster and self-serving hot air. It isn’t even skin deep. That is why the Cavan insulation group’s decision to climb aboard as a commercial partner was such a surprise. Its name has real cachet in the world of sustainable practice.

What will Kingspan gain for its brand by joining a sport-wide roster of commercial partners that includes Saudi Aramco and the Malaysian gas giant Petronas?

Gene Murtagh gave a clue this week. He spoke of bringing Kingspan’s message of sustainability to “to an audience of 500 million Formula One fans”. This isn’t about helping an irretrievably climate-reckless sport to come to make positive change. It is a straight up numbers-driven corporate partnership to attract eyeballs on to Kingspan’s logo and help an F1 team create a green pretence.

There is, of course, nothing inherently illegitimate about a commercially-focused tie-up. So why not just present it that way? When the partnership is puffed up as part of the effort to fight climate change it should be called out for what it is – greenwashing, pure and simple.

The clever people running Kingspan should have known better.