Live Events x The Future: Let’s Take Centre Stage

The UK will host the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow 1 – 12th November 2021. It is an opportunity to show global leadership, and the live events industry could be centre stage, creating its own vision that meaningfully contributes to a sustainable future for generations to come. Will we take it?

It is of course right to focus effort on the immediate industry crisis; the survival of our businesses and their vital role in the cultural landscape, but we must not lose sight of the urgent action needed to prevent climate and ecological breakdown alongside this. We need to actively plan to build back with sustainability underpinning everything we do, and it must be based on science and clear, measurable targets.

It’s important that we are all well-informed about the national and international context to shape our actions. The next few years of action are widely considered critical to avoiding runaway ‘climate and ecological breakdown’, and meeting the goal of the COP21 talks in Paris in 2015; ‘to limit global warming to well below 2, preferably to 1.5 degrees Celsius, compared to pre-industrial levels’.

The Paris Agreement is a legally binding international treaty on climate change, adopted by 196 countries at COP 21. By 2020, countries submitted their plans for achieving emissions reductions, called Nationally Determined Contributions – NDC’s. Whilst COP21 has undoubtedly created impetus for taking action, with many countries, regions, cities and companies racing to declare carbon neutrality targets, the current NDC’s do not cut the mustard. The United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) Emission Gap Report, December 2019, provides a “bleak” assessment of the ever-growing gap between actual emission reduction and commitments by countries, with a prediction that current commitments  would lead to 3 degrees global warming. 

Let’s be clear, this would irreversibly damage earths ecosystems and have a catastrophic impact on all life, including humans. Put simply by Greta Thunberg, “Our house is on fire”. We don’t seem to be acting like it – her point, of course. 

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report on Global Warming (2018) states that global CO2 emissions need to decline by about 45% below 2010 levels by 2030, reaching net zero around 2050, to be on track to limit global warming to 1.5°C by the end of the century. UNEP states that global greenhouse gas emissions need to fall by a minimum 7.6 per cent each year between 2020 and 2030 to achieve this. 

In December 2019 the UK Government published ambitious aims for ‘at least a 68% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030’, backed by the Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution. It is the most ambitious strategy for a major industrialised nation, albeit there are a variety of view on whether the plan is fit for purpose. One thing is clear – all parts of the economy need to make huge efforts to reduce emissions.

In the Live Events industry, there are many good examples of positive action and leadership, such as Massive Attack’s Good Business Festival collaboration with the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change,  Universal Music’s commitments on balancing travel emissions with ecolibrium, and Live Nation’s commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2030. There is an appetite for change, evidenced by the success of Music Declares Emergency’s launch in 2019, which gained over 2,000 signatures within months.

But we are yet to create a comprehensive and target-based strategy and culture across the industry to meaningfully tackle emissions. There is an opportunity for this to change with the newly formed LIVE trade body, which brings together live music, venues, festivals and more parts of the live events sector under one umbrella.

The outdoor events and festival sector offers inspiration for what can be achieved. The Vision:2025 initiative, managed by the Outdoor Events Environmental Steering Group, was launched  at the 2019 UK Festival Awards, with the publication of The Show Must Go On: Environmental Impact ReportVision:2025 is leading the outdoor events industry to ‘halve festival sector emissions by 2025’, supported by an online knowledge hub. Around 100 significant UK festivals have pledged so far.

What is needed now is an ambitious (and realistic) vison and roadmap for emissions  reductions across the whole live industry, based on clear targets. It’s not as sexy as protecting polar bears or rainforest, but it is the essential backbone of meaningful action. Based on the UNEP target of 7.6% per year 2020-30, and given we have had a ‘lost year’ in 2021 (and it may be two, for parts of the industry), events, and every company of every type, need to be aiming for at least a 10% reduction per year on average, and overall at least a 50% reduction by 2030. Anything less is not enough. 

More and more companies are measuring and reporting their emissions, using carbon calculator tools such as Julies Bicycle’s Creative Industry Green, used by over a thousand organisations including all Arts Council England’s funded organisations. 

Having a plan to manage and reduce emissions and other environmental impacts of live events must become as normal as creating an Event Management Plan for organisers. Having a company level Environmental Strategy in place that includes measuring, reducing and report emissions annually, needs to become as normal as financial reporting for all event promoters, venue owners, suppliers, artists, at all scales. It is an essential first step toward carbon neutral. 

What does carbon ‘neutral’ mean in practical terms? It means reducing emissions as a priority and balancing, or offsetting, ‘unavoidable’ emissions on the way with activity such as tree planting and protecting forests. Its widely accepted that we will need to do both to tackle the climate crisis.  For events this means finding ways to reduce the largest contributor to emissions – travel. Basically this means increasing shared forms of transport compared to private or single occupancy journeys, a tricky endeavour in the current context. Ecolibirum, a live events sector charity that works with over 50 UK festivals and major organisations such as Universal Music, provides comprehensive guidance and tools to manage travel impacts. The next most significant impacts tend to be onsite energy use, and waste management. The work of Powerful Thinking has shown that typically event can reduce fuel use and costs by up to 40% through implementing simple measures. The big win for waste-related impacts is re-use, i.e simply reducing the amount of waste, followed by recycling. 

Another significant action event organisers can take to reduce emissions is reducing meat and dairy consumption; agriculture contributes at least 15% of global emissions.

The future will be defined by the actions we take right now. It’s an emergency, and the implications are far more significant than Covid. The opportunity we have is to protect life for generations to come.  And the role we can play as an industry with significant reach and a voice, is inspiring, literally.