Riding On Carbon (Dioxide): What’s The Environmental Impact of the Tour de France?

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reviewed by Rory McAllister
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The Tour de France is one of the biggest sporting events in the world, and such a significant sporting event – in any context – is never going to be emission-free.

Cycling is widely considered to be a sustainable practice, particularly when used in place of another form of transport. However, in the context of cycling as an organized sport, it’s certainly not emission-free.

From support vehicles to broadcasting, to the manufacturing of bicycles, to flights and transport, the Tour de France is directly responsible for a surprisingly high volume of greenhouse gas emissions.

But is it quantifiable? Are there further indirect sources of emissions? Is it something we should be concerned about?

In this article, we’ll discuss the potential environmental impact of the biggest event on the cycling calendar. We’ll be covering:

  • Cycling: Good For The Environment?
  • Can We Quantify The Carbon Cost Of The Tour de France?
  • What Is The Tour de France Doing About It?
  • Why Should We Care?

Let’s dive in!

What's The Environmental Impact of the Tour de France? (Title Image)
© A.S.O./Aurélien Vialatte. Edited from the original.

Cycling: Good for the environment?

Cycling as a means of transport is clearly a sustainable practice.

You’re preventing the direct emissions from burning fuel in motor vehicles, yet still getting from A to B. Compared with any other form of transport, it is by far the most environmentally friendly.

So, if you’re saving the emissions from alternative transport, cycling is carbon neutral, right?

Well, unfortunately not.

The emissions associated with the manufacturing of a bicycle are not insignificant. For example, even manufacturing carbon fiber as a material releases 25 kg of CO2 per kilo. In addition to this, you have considerable emissions associated with other components, importation, and distribution.

It should be said, however, that this depends highly on the material used. Bamboo, for example, is a net carbon sink, sequestering more carbon while growing than is released during manufacturing.

However, if you use your bike as transport a lot, regardless of the material, these are very quickly canceled out by the emissions saved by not driving or taking alternative transport, so it’s clearly infinitely better than driving or other carbon-heavy transportation overall.

But when it comes to cycling as a sport, it’s a somewhat different story – particularly when we start considering the emissions associated with professionally-organized cycling events.

When you’ve got a network of support vehicles, new bikes for nearly every race, and a huge broadcasting infrastructure, the emissions become extremely significant.

But just how much carbon is cycling’s biggest event – the Tour de France – responsible for emitting?

Vingegaard and Pogacar going up a climb on Stage 11 of the Tour de France 2022.
© A.S.O./Charly Lopez

Can We Quantify The Carbon Cost of the Tour de France?

It seems an almost impossible task to calculate the emissions associated with the Tour de France. The team cars, broadcasting helicopters, the bikes themselves, the motorbikes, and the spectators are all responsible for significant emissions.

The diversity of the sources alone is enough to make anyone intending to put a number on the environmental impact of such an event sweat behind the knees.

How Can We Calculate Tour de France Emissions?

Let’s consider just one source of carbon emissions at the Tour de France, as an example: Tour de France support vehicles.

Škoda provides the support vehicles for the Tour de France, which amounted to 250 cars in 2022 (note: this is just the official Tour de France support vehicles, not including the team cars).

The first thing we have to consider when thinking about the emissions from the support vehicles is the type of cars that we’re dealing with. In the 2022 Tour, over half (159) of the vehicles were hybrids.

When you do this calculation for the lowest-emission Škoda car at the Tour, for the whole 3,328 km course, each of these cars will emit 76.5 kg of CO2.

A domestique receives a water bottle from a Tour de France team car.
© A.S.O./Pauline Ballet

But this is an extremely crude calculation.

In reality, these cars travel far further than just the course distance. Extra trips to hotels, team cars, and other purposes are not infrequent and will significantly alter this result.

Secondly, fuel consumption is absolutely not a constant. On mountain stages, for example, the cars will use 30-40% more fuel due to not being able to charge on the uphills, and requiring more force to overcome the weight of the car.

Lastly, this doesn’t even consider the emissions associated with the manufacturing of cars, which is massive.

By considering this example, we quickly run into difficulties when trying to put an exact number on things. Although, for support vehicles, it seems potentially possible to give an estimate of the total emissions, it’s not going to be particularly accurate or easy.

But then, that should be one of the easiest types of emissions to calculate.

How do you calculate the emissions from the bikes, for example, which have been transported from wherever and back-ups are driven around the course in case riders need them?

The information regarding how many are used by each team, where they came from, and how far they’ve been driven around isn’t readily available. The emissions released in the manufacturing of each bike aren’t information that’s widely known, either.

Even worse, how can you estimate the emissions caused by the travel of roadside spectators? You don’t know where they came from and you don’t know how they got there.

What’s clear here is that any numerical estimation of the emissions associated with such an event will be a very rough estimate at best.

A cyclist with his jersey hanging open rides through a crowd of fans on a mountain stage of the Tour de France.
© A.S.O./Charly Lopez

The Tour de France carbon audit

Having said that, the Tour de France commissions an independent body to attempt to do exactly that: a Carbon Audit calculating the volume of carbon emitted into the atmosphere due to the Tour de France.

In order to tackle such a challenging problem, the auditors split the sources of emissions into three categories – Scopes 1, 2, and 3.

Scopes 1 and 2 represent the direct emissions from the Tour de France. This refers to the emissions for which a company involved in the Tour de France is directly responsible. Things like team cars, broadcasting helicopters, bikes, and so on.

Scope 3 represents the indirect emissions of the event. This refers to the emissions associated with things like the spectators and viewers of the Tour de France.

Clearly, Scope 3 is by far the most difficult to quantify and understand, since the behavior of the spectators is largely unknown in such an equation.

However, across all three Scopes, the most recent carbon audit of the Tour de France, in 2021, found that the Tour de France was responsible for 216,388 tons of CO2 equivalents emissions.

But what does this number mean exactly, and can we trust it?

The yellow jersey at the Tour de France on a gravel road.
© A.S.O./Pauline Ballet

216,388 tons of cO2?

First things first, can we even trust this number?

Going back to our discussion of whether it’s possible to quantify the carbon cost of Le Tour, it quickly becomes obvious that the notion of producing such a precise number for this is questionable at best.

But, for the sake of interest, let’s assume we can. What does this number mean?

The average emissions per capita, globally, are around 4 tons per year. This means that the Tour de France alone is equivalent to the emissions from 54,097 people over an entire year.

(Although, emissions per capita is arguably a misguided concept, since the vast majority of emissions come from private companies, not individuals).

So, even if this figure were accurate, it is still an inconceivably large amount of emissions.

A cyclist rides in a time trial at the Tour de France.
© A.S.O./Charly Lopez

What is the Tour de France doing about it?

Well, according to them, they’re doing a lot.

The Carbon Audit was first commissioned in 2013, and since then, the total emissions across Scopes 1, 2, and 3 have supposedly decreased by 40%. This, if true, is in line with the emission reductions required by the Paris Agreement.

Additionally, ASO, the company that owns Le Tour, is investing heavily to “offset” the carbon emitted by the event. This is largely done by reforestation projects near to the course.

However, this is all quite questionable.

Firstly, considering that the number produced by the audit is likely inaccurate, it’s hard to know if the emission reduction is true. However, the reduction is an easier calculation than the exact volume of carbon.

Secondly, there is a lot of evidence that carbon offsets do not work. In fact, in some cases, they may actually do more harm than good.

They do not offset carbon, and companies and industries claiming to be “carbon neutral” usually rely on extremely dubious calculations by carbon offsetting companies.

On the other hand, at least they’re trying to do something. Even if it’s ineffective, there are clearly some people making an effort to decrease the emissions of the Tour.

Additionally, whether or not the 40% figure is accurate, it’s likely that the emissions have been reduced somewhat since 2013.

A cyclist in the polka dot jersey for the King of the Mountains at the Tour de France.
© A.S.O./Pauline Ballet

Why should we care?

It’s a valid question, really.

As a viewer, you’re not going to have any impact on the race, it will go on whether you watch it or not, and you’re not responsible for any of those emissions.

It’s also undeniable that the environmental impact of the Tour de France pales in comparison to other sporting events which grab the headlines for their carbon footprints, such as the Formula 1 World Championship or the World Cup in Qatar.

You could also argue the role of the Tour de France in inspiring the public to get on the bike themselves earns it a little credit too – so if we’re criticizing sporting events for their environmental argument, some sports fans might feel there are bigger fish to fry.

On the other hand, by actively supporting the Tour de France, each of us is endorsing an industry that clearly has a large impact on the environment.

This decade, which we are over a third of the way through, is the pivotal moment. Environmental experts around the world are warning us of the possible effects of our behavior if we continue in the way we are. Spoiler alert: they’re not good.

But, despite the efforts of many people, we are still accelerating our global emissions. Almost everything that we do as humans has an environmental impact that’s deeply entrenched, and extremely difficult to change.

We, as a species, need to stop producing emissions. This requires companies to take responsibility for their environmental impact and make real and impactful changes to their behavior.

As individuals, we need to attempt to minimize our individual impact but also do everything we can to force changes in the behavior of huge industries and companies.

Decarbonizing doesn’t just apply to fossil fuel companies, tech giants, and aviation. Every industry needs to make every effort to reduce carbon emissions, including professional sports and the Tour de France.

So, we should care about the environmental impact of the Tour because emissions, from any source, affect everyone around the world.

With the Tour de France 2023 just around the corner, let’s see if there are any meaningful changes to the race with the intention to reduce environmental impact.

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Jack is an experienced cycling writer based in San Diego, California. Though he loves group rides on a road bike, his true passion is backcountry bikepacking trips. His greatest adventure so far has been cycling the length of the Carretera Austral in Chilean Patagonia, and the next bucket-list trip is already in the works. Jack has a collection of vintage steel racing bikes that he rides and painstakingly restores. The jewel in the crown is his Colnago Master X-Light.

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