With a proliferation of festivals like Glastonbury and gigs by stars from Beyonce to Bruce Springsteen attracting ever-bigger crowds, the music industry’s carbon footprint and impact on the environment are increasingly in the spotlight.
Live concerts and festivals contribute to planet-warming emissions in many ways – be it artists and fans travelling around the world or the high energy consumption of events, not to mention factors like catering and mass-produced merchandise.
But chart-topping acts including Billie Eilish and Coldplay have been praised by fans and the media for their efforts to become more eco-friendly.
Those include using clean energy and new technologies like electricity-producing dance floors, or insisting on ‘green riders’ – demands for their shows such as vegetarian food and no single-use plastics.
But even as some garner praise for their sustainability efforts, there have been accusations of greenwashing in the music industry over methods such as using biofuels for planes or carbon credits to offset planet-heating emissions.
Here’s an overview of what the live music business is doing and how it could play a bigger part in protecting the planet.
How can musicians reduce their carbon footprint?
Many musicians rely on world tours to make money, but the travel, staging, catering and merchandise mean that live music is one of the most climate-polluting aspects of the industry.
In Britain, music touring accounts for 85,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions annually – equivalent to the yearly emissions of 20,000 cars – according to Julie’s Bicycle, a London-based sustainable creative industry NGO.
Last year, British band Coldplay pledged to make its current world tour its most sustainable yet. In June, the band said it had slashed its emissions by 47 per cent compared to previous tours, falling just short of a goal to halve them.
The band said it had installed solar panels at venues and used renewable diesel to power generators, as well as deploying electricity-generating bicycles and dance floors – meaning that its shows are now run entirely on renewable energy.
As travel accounts for most of a tour’s carbon footprint, Coldplay used electric vehicles and biofuels for ground freight and crew transport, planned tour routes to minimise air travel – and where flying was unavoidable, opted for sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). The latter has attracted some criticism.
In 2022, Brussels-based campaign group Transport and Environment labelled the band “useful idiots for greenwashing” after teaming up with Finnish biofuel company Neste to supply SAF for the tour, which the NGO said had links to deforestation.
In response, the band said in a statement that reducing emissions would be a “work in progress”, adding it did not claim to have “got it all right yet”.
Being honest about progress is important, said Matt Brennan, a professor at Glasgow University in Scotland, adding that Coldplay “has done the greenest stadium tour that it is possible to do with current technology”.
The music industry has the power to shift the wider conversation on climate change but only once “it has its own house in order”, said the music and sustainability expert.
How are music festivals cleaning up their act?
Festivals from Coachella in the US to Glastonbury in Britain attract hundreds of thousands of fans each year, but setting up temporary accommodation can cause mountains of waste.
In Britain, festivals generate 25,800 tonnes of waste annually, equivalent to the weight of 250 adult blue whales, according to research from music sustainability network Vision 2025.
A growing number of events have committed to recycling targets and cutting down on single-use plastic like bottles and cups, but some festivals are seeking to go further.
Roskilde festival in Denmark began renting out camping gear such as tents and inflatable mattresses in 2022 to avoid people buying cheap, disposable items from discount stores.
Festival organisers are also taking a greener approach to catering, with more opting for plant-based food, as awareness grows around the carbon footprint of meat and dairy products. Britain’s Shambala festival went meat and fish-free in 2016.
“It was a risk as food is such an emotive issue (but) we felt it was important to bring that conversation about how diet has profound impacts on our climate,” said Chris Johnson, co-founder of Shambala.
Kimberly Nicholas, professor and sustainability scientist at Sweden’s Lund University, welcomed such efforts but pointed to other less visible sources of pollution.
Emissions from travel by plane or car make up the majority of a festival’s carbon footprint and are often overlooked, she said. “That’s where our focus should be for reducing emissions.”
City-based festivals such as DGTL Amsterdam in the Netherlands have cut attendee emissions by eliminating car parks and providing transport alternatives to the venue like a hybrid party ferry from the central train station via the city’s famous canals, powered partly by electricity.
How is the planet getting a slice of the industry’s profits?
Musician Brian Eno recently credited ‘Earth’ as a co-author on a new track in a bid to raise awareness and funds for tackling climate change and biodiversity loss.
His Britain-based charity EarthPercent is asking other artists to credit the planet as a co-author and to divert a portion of their royalties to raise US$100 million (79 million pounds) by 2030 for climate action and restoring nature.
Similarly, REVERB, a US-based music sustainability NGO, encourages artists to build a ‘climate portfolio’, which has seen artists like Eilish and Harry Styles invest funds from their earnings into CO2 reduction and climate justice projects.
An unspecified sum generated by Styles’ ‘Love on Tour’ events went towards a clean water project in Kenya, a wind-turbine project in India and solar-powered street lamps in America, REVERB said.
Australian music sustainability NGO FEAT, meanwhile, launched its “Solar Slice” initiative in 2021 to fund carbon reduction measures in the live music and entertainment sector.
It does so through a 1.5 per cent ticketing surcharge for events, a nod to the 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) global warming limit in the Paris Agreement.
Beatrice Jeavons, a sustainability consultant at FEAT, said such initiatives can help shake up the regular “doom and gloom” of conversations about climate change.
Musicians have an ability, she said, to “shift the conversation back to solutions and practical change that people can control”.
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