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Cold (but with increasing average global temperatures) play: how sustainable is the entertainment industry?

Sustainability By Ruairí Dempsey, Associate Director, Building Services – 16 November 2021

Overlooking the crowd at a Coldplay concert and the brightly lit colourful stage


Ruairi Dempsey with white building background and grass

Ruairí Dempsey

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I will preface this brief piece by saying I don’t mind Coldplay. I do not feel particularly strongly one way or the other about their music, but I will acknowledge they are very talented performers and musicians. They are one of those bands who divide opinion with musos / purists decrying their bland pop rock stylings and avid fans being ‘obviously very intelligent and good looking and all-around brilliant’ as noted by Chris Martin. One indisputable fact is that they draw a crowd, and after announcing their upcoming world tour, Mr Martin invited the ‘backlash’ to begin as the band committed to make this tour ‘as sustainable and low-carbon as possible’, whilst confirming they will fly between some venues. So, the question that comes to mind is this, is this scale of entertainment sustainable and can it really be low carbon?

The emotional and psychological importance of gathering in groups is an extremely strong trait of humanity. Indeed, the necessity has been massively underlined, particularly as we have been deprived of such occasions, over the course of the last twenty months. Whether it’s for music, comedy, sport, religious events or any other excuse or occasion we (generally) love getting together. The gathering is in our DNA. It had huge evolutionary and survival advantages for humanity. So, it is entirely natural that we continue to assemble in large groups for events to celebrate talent, performance, and skill, and to be entertained. It is extremely hard to see how events attended by large groups of people could ever be curbed or substantially reduced so we must think about the impact of these events.

Coming from an Irish traditional and folk music background and being more accustomed to smaller intimate venues and purely acoustic performance, but being an avid fan of many genres, and having been lucky enough to have performed at a couple of large festivals and large venues supporting touring rock acts, I still love the thrill of watching and playing live music at the larger end of the scale. However, bringing ten thousand people together for an event, and indeed a series of events as part of a tour, costs a lot of energy and carbon, and can have significant environmental impacts. There are ten thousand journeys that might not otherwise have been undertaken, the energy to power and run the event, the food and drink to power the people, the environmental impacts on the surrounding environment e.g., littering, traces of drugs in the river at Glastonbury etc. and impacts on local communities. There are particular challenges for very large events held in venues not dedicated for stage performances which must be modified for these events, and in particular for festivals which may often be held in semi-rural or rural settings with relatively poor infrastructure and transport links. There is also of course the unenviable operation of moving the band, gear and equipment, and touring staff between venues. Therefore, to continue with these types of events, we must try minimising the energy cost, carbon production and environmental impact.

As can be seen with the recent ‘world’s first elite net zero carbon football match’ (I am slightly cynical about this claim) between Tottenham and Chelsea, many of these challenges can be tackled if not fully overcome. Asking people to travel by public or low-carbon communal transport where possible, providing plant-based food choices, transporting players on buses fuelled by biofuels, providing energy for the event from sustainable and renewable sources, along with providing offsetting measures. This can be a realistic target.

One issue that often rears its head in these discussions, is on whether there should be a dedicated tax or charge on the cost of a ticket specifically for offsetting measures. Ultimately the punter (person attending the event) will carry the cost of these measures regardless, whether it is itemised or not, but it is interesting to understand if people see this as a positive or negative thing to see what portion of their money is going to help offset energy and carbon.

The other key aspect of this, is that events of this nature, along with high profile persons extolling the virtues of the cause, can substantially raise the profile of the issue at hand, and bring otherwise cynical and, often more importantly, indifferent people on the journey, as it were. I was given tickets for a Coldplay gig a few years ago and despite being in a ‘muso / purist’ phase, decided to go along. What was interesting to me was the variety of punters present. Bands like Coldplay have the ear of a huge number of people inaccessible to other groups and means of communication, and this access can be used to huge advantage for communicating positive messages. This, of course, can go the other way, and cynical and misinformed artists and celebrities can provide misleading views around important topics. As with any information, it should always be treated with a certain level of caution, objectivity, and critical interpretation.

Ultimately, it is very important to measure the actual energy and carbon impact. As the saying goes, “if you don’t measure it you can’t manage it”. This needs to be done to see what the damage is, where the savings can be made and finally (when the carbon footprint is reduced as much as possible) it is necessary to properly offset a music tour of the nature of the one Coldplay are about to embark on.

So, what’s the point? What can we as, individuals, and as a business do around this subject? Big events are here to stay, so I believe the main takeaways are as follows:

  • Continue to push the sustainability and net zero carbon agenda
  • Educate ourselves and others around us on how our attendance at large events is impacting our climate and environment in terms of energy, carbon, and environmental impacts
  • Consider how we travel to these events, and dietary choices when attending them
  • Make a considered choice if an event is worth attending
  • Where the opportunity arises and, in line with organisational policy, push for zero carbon design on all buildings that may host events of this nature
  • Above all we can help people with the process. At Cundall we can do the analysis, advice on the savings, plan the sustainable transport and design the venues and the interventions to the venues

Chris Martin said that he welcomes the backlash but I feel it would be good to also welcome the help and advice. We could all do with that.