Sign up for our newsletter


Examining the environmental impact of the Tour de France

The world’s greatest cycling race isn’t the greenest, but just what is being done about the Tour de France’s environmental cost?

Emma Cole
17 Nov 2022

‘Macho and polluting’ is how Lyon mayor Grégory Doucet chose to describe the Tour when stages 14 and 15 passed through the city in 2020. And there is some truth behind the statement.

The Tour de France can be likened to a travelling circus, and one that requires extensive resources. From the helicopters and motorbikes to the team cars and the publicity caravan to the kit and the bikes to the flights and the hotels – not to mention the sheer number of spectators lining the route or watching on TV – the resources that go into the Tour will make your head spin. So just what is the extent of this great race’s environmental footprint?

This feature was first published on Cyclist in September. We're revisiting it now as part of our coverage of environmental issues during COP27. 

Emissions reductions

Image credit: Tim de Waele via Getty

According to the most recent carbon audit of the Tour de France carried out in 2021, La Grande Boucle emits 216,388 tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalents – because every emission is a mix of carbon, methane and nitrogen dioxide, it is all scooped up into one calculation. To put that in perspective, a 4,800km flight emits approximately one ton of CO2 per passenger. Do that 216,388 times and you have the Tour de France.

It sounds like a huge amount – and it is – but since the Tour’s first carbon audit was carried out in 2013, emissions have actually fallen by 40% across Scopes 1, 2 and 3. To explain this, Scope 1 and Scope 2 are emissions caused by a company directly, for example emissions as a product of bringing live race coverage; Scope 3 describes emissions caused indirectly, for example by fans’ rubbish.

Image credit: Chris Graythen via Getty

‘At the big end, Scope 1 and Scope 2 is down by about 43% versus 2013,’ says Jean-Baptiste Durier, director of corporate social responsibility at ASO, which owns the Tour. ‘Scope 3 is down by about 37% versus 2013. This means our reduction targets are in line with those of the Paris Agreement, which set out a minimum target of a 50% reduction in our overall emissions by 2030. We aim to achieve a 50% reduction in our direct emissions by 2025.’

ASO says it offsets all its Scope 1 and 2 emissions from the Tour, which include those of the organisation, teams, partners and media communities. ‘We already offset 100% of our direct emissions via “low-carbon label” programmes – certified carbon-offsetting projects located near the race route or near iconic places of the Tour,’ says Durier, alluding to projects such as the reforestation of mountainsides on famous climbs.

The Tour’s carbon audit is carried out every two years, so the next one will be in 2023. But how easy is it for an event on such a grand scale to quantify its emissions?

Image credit: Anadolu Agency via Getty

‘Scope 1 and 2 are usually easy to identify, manage reductions for and measure,’ says sustainable events and sports consultant Meegan Jones. ‘This is something everyone should focus on. If they did, we wouldn’t have Scope 3. But nonetheless Scope 3 is currently the largest portion of an event’s greenhouse gas [GHG] inventory and where most extra effort is needed. The challenge comes not only in the resources needed to accurately track and gather the GHG data, but also in defining what should or shouldn’t be included.

‘The Tour de France isn’t alone in the challenging task of measuring the greenhouse gas emissions of their event. This is an industry-wide challenge we’re trying to resolve.’

Indirect challenges

Image credit: Sebastien Bozon via Getty

Calculating and reducing Scope 3 emissions is an issue ASO is conscious of. On the Tour de France website it says that ‘spectators and TV viewers are responsible for the lion’s share’ of its emissions, all of which come under Scope 3. In a recent interview with French magazine Geo, the Tour’s corporate and social responsibility manager Karine Bozzacchi revealed that fans account for 94% of the Tour’s indirect emissions.

As such, Durier says a key tenet of reducing these indirect emissions is ‘the active promotion of soft mobility’: for example, this year the Tour encouraged train travel with subsidised rail fares in the Hauts de France region, a scheme that ASO hopes to extend nationwide next year.

Image credit: Alex Broadway via Getty

But the ASO is not alone – local authorities need to play ball too, and indeed they often do. Saint-Etienne, which this year hosted stages 13 and 14, spent €41 million in order to promote and provide accessible, environmentally friendly transport. The host of the 2022 Grand Départ, Copenhagen, which saw hundreds of thousands cheering along its streets, also committed itself to a ‘Green Départ’. ‘Together with the Tour de France we enacted a series of recycling initiatives to benefit the race, athletes, spectators and citizens,’ says Copenhagen’s Lord Mayor Sophie Hæstorp Andersen.

Then there was Lausanne, on the banks of Switzerland’s Lake Geneva, which welcomed around 50,000 for the finish of Stage 8 but strictly limited access to private vehicles in the town while boosting the capacity of public transport. The region also employed environmental agency Shift to mitigate its footprint, and will soon publish a carbon report that it says will serve as a legacy for future Tour stage cities.

Transporting the masses

Image credit: Bo Amstrup via Getty

Škoda has been supporting the Tour with vehicles since 2004, and this year that meant a fleet of 250 cars, each of which covered the same 3,328km distance as the riders plus trips to and from hotels and other related journeys. Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEV) featured widely, including 86 Škoda Octavia Combi PHEVs, 48 Superb Combi PHEVs and 25 Superb Limo PHEVs.

‘There are two main pieces of data that are needed for car emissions to be calculated: CO2 consumption per kilometre, and the distance travelled by the car,’ says Nassim Brahimi of carbon offsetting company ClimatePositive.

‘For an Octavia Combi PHEV travelling the entire Tour de France route, the average amount of CO2 emitted is 76.5kg. This is equivalent emissions to 39 litres of petrol, or charging 9,245 smartphones. It’s the same amount for a Superb Limo PHEV, while the Superb Combi PHEV would be slightly higher at 83.2kg.’

Image credit: Pauline Ballet / ASO

This means that for the 159 PHEVs, approximately 12,485kg of CO2 will be emitted, right? Unfortunately, it’s not so simple, says Antoine Geerinckx, founder of environmental consultancy CO2logic:

‘It’s really interesting when you factor in elevation because this increases emissions. A hybrid recharges on the downhill, but with elevation you’re looking at 30-40% higher CO2 emissions.’

This year the Tour route took in 47,861m of elevation, so taking this into account the 159 PHEVs’ footprint increases to at least 16,230kg of CO2, about the same as 17 return flights from London to New York.

Image credit: Thomas Samson via Getty

click to subscribe

Škoda does not currently offset its Tour emissions but says it has a system in place to do so ‘in the future’. However, to do this the company says it needs to work closer with ASO to get all the relevant data of the cars’ usage during the Tour.

‘It’s fair to say that there are still many different areas of the race organisation that need to be improved regarding sustainability,’ says Simona Králová, who helped manage Škoda’s Tour partnership. ‘The transition towards 100% e-mobility is a process that will take time.’

ASO has said that over the coming years it will ‘continue to pursue an assertive policy to keep reducing its direct and indirect emissions’, with an aim for all accredited cars to run on ‘alternative motorisation’ – that is, to be hybrid or electric – by 2024.

Stepping up

Image credit: Benoit Doppagne via Getty

Teams, of course, have their own part to play. With the help of CO2logic, QuickStep Alpha Vinyl has identified and subsequently offset an annual carbon footprint of 1,288 tons of CO2, the equivalent of 539 return flights between Brussels and New York.

‘A big part of the carbon footprint is due to the fact there is a calendar of races teams have to travel to,’ says CO2logic’s Geerinckx. ‘My dream is that the UCI and people in charge should try to organise the races in a way that means they are geographically next to each other.’ But in the meantime, what about the Tour?

Image credit: Tim de Waele via Getty

Currently QuickStep Alpha Vinyl uses standard BMW team vehicles, which it says is because it couldn’t find electric vehicles offering enough range for a stage. ‘With electric, you need enough charging points throughout a race, and at the moment there aren’t enough,’ says Geerinckx.

CO2logic couldn’t provide the team’s exact footprint for the Tour but QuickStep press officer Phil Lowe assures Cyclist that whatever number it might be, all emissions will be offset ‘as per our CO2logic plan’.

‘We see it as a team objective, and it’s really important as a cycling team that we lead the way. Cycling is not just a sport, it’s a sustainable mode of transport and a lifestyle.’

Talking eco-tactics

Image credit: Michael Steele via Getty

Other teams are also focussing on improving their impact. EF Education-EasyPost are now using the peloton’s first entirely compostable bidon developed by Cannondale, which the team says will cut down on waste by the equivalent of 34,000 plastic bottles annually. This is part of Education First’s aim to offset all its global carbon emissions and become carbon neutral.

Trek-Segafredo says it keeps a constant focus on reducing its footprint too, and not just at the Tour.

‘We don’t have any specific initiatives laid out for the Tour de France because we want to be as green and sustainable as possible always and everywhere, at every race and at every training camp,’ says Trek operations manager Elke Weyland.

‘Overall, as a team we keep a constant focus on reducing waste in general, recycling, reducing food waste and optimising travel logistics and vehicle scheduling to reduce fuel consumption and carbon emissions.’

Image credit: Tim de Waele via Getty

The upshot is that throughout the Tour, Trek used five diesel vehicles, five hybrid cars and only one flight.

‘Trek is making great efforts to reduce our environmental footprint and within the team we are fully aligned with these initiatives,’ Weylandt adds. ‘Professional cycling has a worldwide fanbase, and by telling our stories about increasing sustainability and taking green initiatives, by giving used bidons to fans instead of throwing them away, by putting our wrapping papers of gels and bars in our pocket instead of throwing it on the road – by doing all these things we lead by example. Yes they seem like small actions, but changing such behaviours can create a butterfly effect that goes around the world.’

A greener, brighter Tour?

Image credit: Dario Belingheri via Getty

The Tour is clearly making changes and evolving, but there is a long way still to go. As such a mammoth event that is an integral part of French culture and reaches millions of people worldwide, the Tour has both the potential and the very real interest in protecting the routes it uses and the surrounding nature, without which the race could not exist. But it won’t happen without collaboration and strong commitments, and it definitely won’t happen by passing the buck onto others.

‘We have to use our fame and our visibility to activate the millions of fans,’ says Geerinckx.

‘It is a shared responsibility between fans, organisers, teams and sponsors. We are all part of the problem and all part of the solution. As soon as we realise it is a shared responsibility, progress will go much faster.’

Carbon jargon

What on earth do all the terms mean?

Carbon neutral

Companies offset their emissions by purchasing carbon reduction credits, so the carbon they emit is equal to the amount removed from the atmosphere.  

Carbon offsetting

A method of compensating for emissions via carbon credits: verifiable emission reductions from certified climate action projects such as reforestation and conservation projects or investment in renewable energy. 

Net zero

Achieving a balance whereby greenhouse gas emissions equal the amount being removed from the atmosphere. It’s a similar concept to carbon neutral but goes further because net zero is seen as the state at which global warming stops.  

Carbon negative

More carbon is removed from the atmosphere than is emitted. One way of doing this is through carbon capture and storage, where carbon is captured before being emitted into the atmosphere. 

Climate neutral

Whereby all greenhouse gas emissions and other negative environmental impacts are eliminated to achieve net zero emissions. It is different from carbon neutral and carbon negative because it eliminates more than carbon emissions alone. 

Climate positive

The same as carbon negative.

Featured image credit: Bas Czerwinksi via Getty

Read more about: