A panorama on measures taken by European festivals to transition to a greener future by reducing their carbon footprint. With examples from different scales (and points of view), these organizers show us that solutions do exist, even if it means completely redefining live acts and festivals.

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Author: Maxime Gueugneau

Picture Credit: Maurice Mikkers

Ah, observed from here, how beautiful tomorrow’s world seems. It will be ecological, egalitarian and hedonistic, that’s for sure. Covid-19 will have swept away our dirty habits and all our afflictions will have vanished. And then, in a meadow of flowers in bloom, humans and animals will join hands in a round dance honoring mother nature. How delightful, you may think.

Only there’s just a little bit of work left to do and a few inner workings to adjust. And the world of music is not the least concerned. A study carried out by the Clean Scene collective indicates that, taken together, the one thousand DJs who tour the most produce 35,000 tonnes of CO2 per year as a result of their travels (that’s how much 20,000 households consume in electricity, or the equivalent of producing 25 million records).

The Polish Unsound Festival had the Aeris Futuro Foundation estimate its carbon emissions, which came to 1,040 tonnes per year. So it’s time to go on a diet. Limiting capacity, implementing carbon offsetting, forming brainstorming groups and even completely rethinking the project are all burgeoning ideas already giving rise to new tools. But today we are only at the starting line, and speeding up the movement is a matter of urgency. We knocked on the doors of a few festivals of various sizes and philosophies to see in which directions their green compass was pointing.

Unsound @ We are Europe
Unsound © Holly Herndon

For some, all of this is a matter of course and doesn’t leave them quaking. One such festival is Visions, organized by Les Disques Anonymes at the Fort de Bertheaume, about twenty kilometres from Brest, in France. “We have always been environmentalists at heart, long before we organized festivals,” says its director, Guillaume Derrien.

During their last editions, they attracted attention by asking festival-goers to bring their own containers, since they would simply not be providing any. The festival is purposefully modest in size, which made this request possible. “We set out to limit our festival capacity, to avoid becoming huge, since that would require infrastructure that generates waste and pollution. This allows us to ask a more limited public to organise themselves by bringing their own containers, and by washing the dishes that we provide on-site.

A smaller capacity also allows for a more detail-oriented production. “The fact that we are small enough means that we can take the time we need. At the bars, for example, there is no more plastic so that everything sold can be returned and reused. Ditto for the production: for instance, we collect all the zip-ties, one by one. We are small enough to be able to closely manage our environmental impact.” Is it true then that happiness comes in small packages?

Le Sucre @ We are Europe
Le Sucre © Laurie Diaz

At a more massive scale, the problems are quite different. We Love Green is one of those super-festivals that punctuate the Parisian summer. “Obviously, the overall environmental impact has increased with the number of festival-goers, but the carbon footprint per festival-goer has dropped.

There is less waste and more awareness-raising. When we welcomed an additional 15,000 festival-goers, we didn’t increase our impact by 15 points. You have to find a balance, which is not easy, but by being larger we can also develop new procedures,” explains Najma Souroque, head of sustainable development for the Paris-based event. The problem then becomes a solution. “As we expanded, our strength became being able to impose our solutions onto our service providers.” And the festival could start relying on its own energy sources (solar panels, cooking oil converted into fuel, etc.).

But the importance of We Love Green also makes it a major player in the field, one that is able to unite. It notably takes part in various initiatives to consider the issue at a European level. We Love Green is already supported by the initiative “A Greener Festival” and is also involved in several other projects: together with six festivals including Boom and Dour, it forms the Green Europe Experience, a laboratory to rethink production models and share experiences; as part of Green Deal Circular Festivals, it helps to share data from 20 European festivals, promoting an exchange of ideas and collaborating with local authorities.

The idea was to have an international reach with a range of expertise in terms of design and organisation in order to launch new models.” So is it about getting bigger to think bigger and create more room for manoeuvre? Or considering that since we’re screwed anyway, we might as well offset?

Unsound Teto Preto @ We are Europe
Unsound Teto Preto © Helena Majewska

Unsound, an experimental music festival, is going beyond actions that already focus on (vegetarian) catering, eliminating plastic bottles and distributing compostable cups: it is using carbon offsetting as a non-negligible way of reducing its environmental impact.

The issue for the Polish event is that while it operates within a niche, it has gained a lot of recognition, especially at the international level. Like for many big festivals, artists come to perform from all over the world, but here, the audience is more problematic. “The vast majority of this footprint is a result of our audience flying to Krakow – which is why we need to involve you in this initiative,” their website announces (the festival itself has yet to respond to us). ​​Unsound’s idea is this: to get festival-goers themselves to erase the impact of their attendance by asking them to pay to plant trees around Krakow.

By joining forces with the Aeris Futuro Foundation, which collects the data, and the administration of the city’s green spaces, the festival allows attendees to help reduce the carbon footprint in proportion to the number of kilometers travelled. “Those are only small steps, but necessary,” the statement concludes.

Le Sucre @ We are Europe
Le Sucre © Gaetan Clement

Personally, I don’t really believe in offsetting. It’s like green growth.” Samuel Aubert, the director of Siestes Electroniques, doesn’t beat about the bush. He arbitrates and discards proposals which, according to him, don’t present long-term solutions. However, he confesses that “for a long time, this wasn’t the focus. Like many, we considered toilets, cups, things like that. But in the end, all of that is anecdotal in relation to a festival’s carbon footprint.

In his opinion, it’s crucial to directly tackle the multiple contradictions that festivals embody. All the more so when the initial goal of the Siestes Electroniques was to present artists from around the world. “I would bring them here from far away: Mexico, China, Indonesia. They would perform for one day in Toulouse and then go back home. In terms of wastefulness, it’s ridiculous.

So he gave it some thought and moved a few intriguing pawns. “We’re going to work on interpretation. Historically, the requirement to have songwriters perform their own music live is only a few decades old. Artists could have someone else acting as a kind of representative and playing their music in different places. The same music would not be played in exactly the same way in Paris, Tokyo and Sao Paulo. The notion of ‘terroir’, or local specificity, resurfaces. Just like different varieties of grape: depending on where the vine is planted, you don’t get the same wine.

The times require a radical approach, and Samuel Aubert doesn’t shy away from it. “It’s easier for me to say that, given the size of the Siestes Electroniques. But we all need to go further and make more structural changes. Not just on the periphery.” Even if it means taking a close look in the mirror (and why not?) to examine the very nature of festivals: “I’m starting to think that perhaps the concept of festivals – bringing together a lot of people within a small space and a short time – is very last-century and should maybe disappear. I’m not sure.” Yikes.

TodaysArt @ We are Europe
TodaysArt © Maurice Mikkers

While the choices made by festivals sometimes plainly diverge, it’s evident that organisers are integrating the need to make changes in the face of the environmental crisis. But regardless of their intentions, the necessary transformations cannot be achieved without the support of public authorities. Thomas Dossus, a French senator for the Green party, Rhône Europe Ecologie Les Verts, who is a great lover of electronic music (he even quoted the music producer Laurent Garnier in the Senate) and aficionado of Lyon’s Nuits Sonores, supports such initiatives.

He has put forward the idea of a “certificate of environmental commitments for festivals. Like an organic label for cultural events based on concrete and practical changes and covering every environmental impact.” This politician suggests that such evolutions should be encouraged by making them a prerequisite for subsidies. “That’s the approach we’re taking in Lyon and the Lyon Metropole: each euro of public investment needs to be vetted according to an environmental analysis grid. Public funds are a great lever of transformation, and public investment should be able to influence such transitions.

Festivals, of course, are not the only ones that need to act. The ecological crisis will affect us all sooner or later, and the political dimension cannot be swept under the rug. Festival-goers, organizers, artists and decision-makers: it is up to all of us.

As with every aspect of the ecological transition, festivals cannot be transformed overnight. While there are many possible avenues and willing actors, the changes needed to achieve true carbon neutrality are complex, if not inconceivable. And the turnabout is dizzying. However, as we’ve seen, tools are gradually emerging at the local and European level, reflections are taking place out in the open, and what was once taboo is less so now.

Only time remains. And times like these bring gravity, they lead us to declare that we must work extra hard to ensure that all these good intentions do not pave the road to hell. So let’s advance not step by step but at a trot to build a pleasant path towards a sustainable and collective celebration of music. That is something we truly need.

This article was conceived as a result of our first call for contributions that aimed to address the challenges and changes that festivals and cultural entities may face in the future. Thanks to the contributions we received, we were able to create the Future(s) of Festivals feature series, that this article is a part of. We’re open to new proposals for our next call for contributions, available here.

On the Author

Maxime Gueugneau is a freelance journalist, who has been working with Kiblind and is the author of Azur together with Simon Bournel-Bosson.

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