How The O2 Arena in London delivered the world’s first ‘carbon-removed’ concerts

The 1975's 2024 London shows were a sell-out - and marked a milestone in sustainable business strategy. Image: AEG

AEG Europe, the operator of The O2 Arena in London, has this week confirmed success in delivering four carbon-removed concerts in what is believed to be a world first.

The shows, hosted by English indie-pop band The 1975, took place in February 2024 and generated around 136.5 tonnes of CO2 each, bringing the total carbon footprint of the run to 545.9 tonnes. AEG Europe worked with consultancy A Greener Future to calculate emissions and with CUR8, a curator of carbon removal services, to deliver the removals. Fans paid a 90p levy per ticket to cover the cost of CUR8’s services.

CUR8 co-founder Mark Stevenson tells edie that his business’s ‘portfolio’ approach to carbon removals appeals to businesses that may be reluctant to pursue one single carbon offsetting option due to perceived risks to credibility, high costs and long timeframes for real-world carbon benefits.

He explains: “A tonne includes, on the one hand, what we think are really good quality tree projects that will also contribute to biodiversity and ecosystem restoration and are unlikely to burn down, and on the other, machines that suck carbon out of the sky. They are very good at doing this quickly, removal is easy to verify, storage is permanent, but they’re very expensive to install and run.

“This is what we think is the best mix at the moment, taking into account co-benefits for the environment and drawing down carbon on a timescale that makes sense for your net-zero date and that of the planet.”

As well as trees and direct air capture, CUR8’s portfolio includes solutions such as enhanced rock weathering, which involves grinding rocks into fine fragments to give a greater surface area for carbon absorption. Stevenson describes his approach to vetting suppliers of removals as “horrifically draconian” to ensure credibility.

AEG Europe’s sustainability director Sam Booth explains that this approach was part of the attraction to using carbon removal instead of offsetting, making the concept “more financially viable” and thus easier to pitch to the board. At the moment, quick drawdown like direct air capture tends to be pricier, while cheaper options like tree-planting deliver slower removals and resiliency can prove challenging.

Booth also found carbon removals easier than offsets to communicate to key stakeholders including the board, on-site staff and concert-goers.

“The simplicity of the concept, even though the science behind it is not simple, really helped,” he says.

“All of the staff at The O2 are engaged in sustainability, albeit at different levels… We have to arm everyone in the business with the tools and the knowledge they need to discuss climate impact with a fan, because people do have questions on-site, a lot. This is important to ensure that fans had the same experience and came away understanding what those shows meant.”

Regarding fan engagement, AEG added information about carbon removals to the ticket-booking process and in emails to ticket-holders. It also set up posters and digital billboards on-site including QR codes, which were scanned more than 1,000 times across all four shows. The arena has a total capacity of 20,000 people, but Booth describes the takeup as ‘high’ nonetheless, given the challenges of capturing people’s attention during a concert.

Reduce, then remove

Much has been said in recent weeks about the need to prevent businesses from turning to carbon offsets or removals as an alternative to bringing down their emissions in the first instance.

When asked about this, Stevenson says he vehemently refuses to work with businesses without credible plans to reduce their emissions. CUR8 has an exclusion policy for sectors such as commercial aviation and oil and gas, for this reason. Moreover, given the high price of removals, most firms could not deliver a workable business case for taking this approach.

AEG Europe’s global parent firm announced a 2050 net-zero target five years ago, supported by interim aims to reduce emissions by 33% by 2020 and 45% by 2030. Both of these goals have a 2010 baseline and cover the entire value chain. AEG Europe has a vision of reaching net-zero operations far sooner, in 2030.

Actions that have been taken to reduce the emissions footprint of gigs at The O2 include procuring renewable electricity, installing energy-efficient LED lighting and screens, switching to biodegradable serveware for food and working with hospitality provider Levy UK & Ireland to adopt lower-carbon menus which focus on plant-based options. Levy notably has a 2027 net-zero target for the UK and Ireland.

A Greener Future has calculated that, thanks to these emissions-reducing interventions, more than 75% of the emissions associated with The 1975’s shows were attributable to fan travel, compared with less than 4% for arena operations.

Part of the reason for high travel-related emissions, Booth explains, is that the band’s tour only visited a few UK-based locations. As such, many dedicated fans travelled long distances for the shows.

“I think this was a nice finding for tour organisers and promoters – we should have more gigs, not less.”

The challenge for venues like The O2, now, is working with fans and with key stakeholders for shaping local and national transport systems to drive down these emissions.

Amplifying impact

When asked whether The O2 will host more carbon-removed concerts, Booth replies: “This is more than a possibility – people are keen. The key piece for us is making sure that, when we do this again, everyone knows what they are doing and what the implications are.

“We’re using these shows to create a very tight, very detailed case study which we can then take out to market… we want to make sure that this is water-tight before we run with it, full pelt.”

He adds that the ambition is to broaden this approach across the live events sector, likely beginning with AEG’s arenas in Germany.

“If big arenas are up for this, they should all definitely be getting involved.. but, even if it’s only an AEG thing, there will be a good amount of large venues all pushing ahead in the near future.”

The intention is to provide carbon-removed concerts to touring artists as a service, as a venue would for in-house production and catering services. This could be a big selling point for artists that are seeking to use their platform to talk about climate, both Booth and Stevenson highlight. Artists falling into this category include the likes of Billie Eilish and Coldplay. Venues could well use their climate strategy credentials as a point of differentiation for tour managers.

Stevenson says: “Most people do not have their favorite environmental lawyer or green policy expert. But they do have a favourite pop star. When that person says something, you have a cultural acceleration.

“A lot of artist’s don’t want to because they worry about being called hypocrites. They feel exposed, as they are. They can – and should – green their gigs as much as they can.”

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