Climate action for festival season: Can Glastonbury help to keep 1.5C alive?

More than 200,000 music lovers attended Worthy Farm last week, excited for a festival without Covid-19 restrictions. But is Glastonbury 2022 a chance to increase public climate awareness and showcase sustainable events practices, or does it generate unnecessary emissions and waste?

Climate action for festival season: Can Glastonbury help to keep 1.5C alive?

Image: Andrew Allcock at Glastonbury

It would be hard to overstate the hype around Glastonbury 2022. After two years, the UK’s biggest festival returned with acts including Calvin Harris, Billie Eilish, Lorde, Kendrick Lemar and Diana Ross.

For festival fans, it’s a highlight in the calendar. And, for edie’s network of environmental and energy professionals, this month provides a moment to reflect on whether large-scale music events are a good opportunity to communicate environmental issues with visitors through the lens of their favourite venues and artists. Indeed, headliner Eilish herself recently headlined an ‘Overheated Live’ show at London’s O2, used specifically as a platform for environmental activism.

Critics may argue that however much climate-related messaging is put out at concerts and festivals, they are ultimately environmentally harmful. We have all seen photos of festival sites post-event, strewn with discarded tents and plastic litter despite organisers and crowds claiming to be conscious of waste and nature. Climate-wise, significant emissions are generated by diesel generators and transport for visitors, staff, artists, their teams and their equipment.

Glastonbury’s own founder Michael Eavis has admitted that, in terms of direct environmental impact, the best thing to do would be to not run the festival at all.

In this feature, edie looks specifically at the climate impact of Glastonbury and how the festival is shaping up in terms of encouraging environmental awareness . We also take a look at what a UK festival would look like in 2050, in a world where warming is limited to 1.5C.

How does Glastonbury communicate climate issues?

The first Glastonbury in 1970 was a small affair, attracting 1,500 people to Worthy Farm. Numbers attending had expanded to 12,000 in 1971, with founder Michael Eavis (pictured) and co-organisers Arabella Churchill and Andrew Kerr stating that they wanted to use their growing platform to take a stand against changes in the broader festival scene, which they felt prioritised people over culture and the environment.

Image: Anna Barclay at Glastonbury

Fast-forward to 2019 and the presence of cultural and environmental messaging at Glastonbury was clearer than ever before. The event hosted a dedicated ‘Greenpeace field’ for climate protests; a notice-board where attendees could make climate-related demands of businesses and policymakers and a biodiversity information stall to name but three features. Extinction Rebellion had a sizeable presence. The idea was that, with “the eyes of the world on Glastonbury”, messages would be seen by audiences watching on TV or tuning in on the radio.

Greenpeace was one of Glastonbury’s three partner charities for 2019, along with Oxfam and Water Aid. These charities exhibited at the festival and displayed videos, and shared more than half of the event’s profits. Glastonbury also funnels profits to local environmental projects in Somerset.

It has often been said that however big a festival’s direct environmental impact is, its ‘brainprint’ – the ripple effects it can create by engaging musicians, attendees and other audiences – could cause more good than harm.

Emily Eavis, who now co-organises Glastonbury with her father Michael, told Yahoo this month:  “We hope that the greater good outweighs the negative output, which I think it does, I think people come here and they find out new ways of being, of existing, of consuming… They discover new politics, they discover new green ideas, it fires people up.”

The Music Declares Climate Emergency campaign, which unites different parts of the industry in climate action, will have a presence at Glastonbury 2022. The campaign’s director of communications, Lews Jamieson, told edie:  “The point has been made that organisers and attendees sometimes don’t want ‘the real world’ in their festivals – that the point should be to give people time off. If you think about this in terms of environmental change and social politics, festivals are safe spaces to have epiphanies. As much as you can knock this, there is something very powerful here.”

What is the climate impact of Glastonbury 2022?

Of course, this sounds like a great opportunity for accelerating the creation of a sustainable future. But it would doubtless come across as greenwashing if Glastonbury was not taking action to reduce its own direct and indirect environmental impacts.

The overarching environmental message conveyed to everyone attending Worthy Farm by the Eavis’ is “Love The Farm, Leave No Trace. Reuse. Reduce. Respect.”

Regarding emissions specifically and 1.5C compatibility, Glastonbury does not produce a sustainability report as such with this data. It also has no formal, public targets to reduce emissions.

However, consultancy The Eco Experts claims that the event is set to avoid and sequester more carbon dioxide than it generates in 2022. This analysis accounts for the fact that Glastonbury has spearheaded efforts to plant more than 10,000 trees locally since 2000, and that Worthy Farm has its own solar farm capable of meeting all festival demands. Additional energy is procured from other wind and solar locations or generated on-site using kinetic ‘pedal power’ and anaerobic digestion of farm waste. The festival offices are heated by a ground-source heat pump.

These moves, coupled with measures to reduce food and plastic waste and individual car use, are accounted for by The Eco Experts. The claim is that, collectively, people who are on-site at Glastonbury produce fewer emissions than they would in their day-to-day lives.

On transport, Glastonbury puts its combined festival and coach ticket packages on sale before standard entry tickets, to incentivise coach use. It also provides free shuttle buses to and from Castle Cary station to make rail travel more appealing to those with standard entry tickets. In 2019, 40% of attendees arrived by bike or public transport. The proportion may well be lower in 2022, due to the national rail strikes. Car exhaust, Glastonbury stated in 2019, was the greatest contributor to the festival’s total emissions footprint. It will likely remain so in 2022.

On waste management, Glastonbury’s waste policy details past and future action on all kinds of waste which has the most material impact at festivals, from food and drink packaging, to food waste, to water, to sewage. Many measures are innovative, such as the use of urine to generate electricity.

Going forward, Glastonbury may wish to publish its own emissions data after every event and set targets for future years, proving to attendees and other stakeholders that it is contributing its fair share towards the Paris Agreement. Competitor Festival Republic, which hosts events such as Latitude, Wireless and Reading & Leeds, has notably pledged to halve its Scope 1 (direct) and 2 (power-related) emissions by 2030. While various sustainability accreditations now exist for events management, with some specifically for festivals, time will tell whether organisers will be able to apply for verification of science-based emissions targets.

Image: Andrew Allcock at Glastonbury

What does the UK’s 1.5C-compatible festival of the future look like?

As already noted, Glastonbury sees the majority of its overall emissions footprint coming from road transport. Music Declares’ Jamieson tells edie that this is fairly typical, with most festivals seeing around 60-80% of their total carbon impact generated by travel to and from the venue.

Transport of fans and staff is usually a far bigger source of emissions than transport of performers, Jamieson noted, contrary to popular belief. This is primarily because fans outnumber performers. He also pointed to the trend of artists making tour schedules more efficient to avoid flights, with many Glastonbury 2022 acts appearing as part of broader UK tour and festival circuit calendars that remain unbroken by flights abroad.

So, at the British festival of the future – a 1.5C-compatible festival in 2050 – most people would be arriving by bike or by public transport. Festivals would probably also offer more remote experiences, such as dedicated virtual tickets for those wishing to stream certain stages or acts, providing better quality than TV and radio.

Artists, meanwhile, could arrive in private vehicles to maintain security – but these would also be low or zero-emission. Artists would likely be arriving from another show in the UK and heading to yet another UK show afterwards, with their managers making their tours more efficient to keep flying to a minimum. The days of ‘flying visits’ would be well and truly over.

Jamieson emphasised that while festivals can do a lot in promoting low-emission transport options, ending the use of individual petrol and diesel vehicles entirely will depend on changes to infrastructure and policy. The UK Government’s net-zero target for transport, the nation’s highest emitting sector, is 2050. Plans have been laid out to electrify all trains by 2040; shift to only zero-emission bus sales by 2040 and ban new petrol and diesel car and van sales by 2030.

There are still notable policy gaps around issues like reducing traffic by reducing car miles – whether electric or not; bringing down upfront EV costs and scaling up EV infrastructure in partnership with the private sector and local councils. Once EV uptake is higher, festival organisers will likely begin looking at the best ways to serve attendees driving electric. Two potential approaches involve partnering with charging point installers to add ‘hubs’ just outside of their site, or exploring mobile charging solutions that could be used in their fields.

Another major source of emissions for festivals at the moment is the power used on-site. Glastonbury has run its ‘Green Fields’ on 100% renewable electricity since their inception in 1984. For other fields and stages in 2022, Glastonbury is using only battery power systems charged using renewables and generators powered using hydrotreated vegetable oil (HVO).

Jamieson points out that not all festival organisers are at such an advanced stage in their energy management. Because no UK festival sites have mains electricity connections throughout, festivals have, historically, been reliant on diesel generators. Even sites in London, like Hyde Park and Finsbury Park, deal with these challenges. HVO is a popular drop-in replacement to diesel, providing lifecycle emissions savings of up to 90%, but is not a perfect solution in environmental terms.

At the festival of the future, the site would likely have worked to secure better mains electricity connections to help ensure operations could be electrified. The process of connecting will have involved other stakeholders including National Grid and the local council, to address the practicalities of installation. The UK Government is notably aiming for all unabated, fossil-fuelled electricity generation to end by 2035. So, at the festival of the future, there would be a guarantee of 100% clean electricity powering all operations.

Music Declares is working with Festival Republic to explore the practicalities and environmental benefits of mains connections at three sites in 2023. Learnings will be shared with other organisers as soon as possible, and a pathway mapped out for broad adoption.

The festival of the future may also use some on-site renewable energy generation, some batteries (recharged using clean power) and a small amount of HVO generation. Energy efficiency will also play a key role. LED lighting is becoming more commonplace across festivals already, for example.

Power and transport are the two main sources of emissions for any UK festival at present. Organisers will also need to look at the sources which are, at present, more minor. Additionally, they’ll need to consider strengthening climate adaptation, with the UK set to see changing weather patterns, coastal erosion and increased flood risk.

Festivals, like other businesses, will need to place climate at the centre of their strategies and embed it in their culture to ensure that decarbonisation happens holistically and that adaptation is not an afterthought. Jamieson mentions several practical steps for doing this, like applying internal carbon pricing, or adding sustainability KPIs to everyone’s to-do list – permanent staff, contract staff, musical acts and so on.

But, in his mind, there’s one major thing that will tie all of this together – the festival of the future is one that highlights the opportunities of a sustainable future to everyone it impacts.  He says: The emblematic, symbolic nature of festivals is powerful… these events are opportunities to showcase and imagine different possibilities. The best festivals are, anyway, and Glastonbury has always done a very good job of that.”

Comments (1)

  1. Dani says:

    I am surprised to see no comment of the food being consumed. Surely having a vegan or at least a veggie only rule for 200,000 people for 3 days would have a major impact. Especially if it means meat eaters can only have vegan food for 3 days and are forced to embrace it, it could also have a bigger onward impact.

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