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With economic pressures and uncertainty mounting in the festival sector, we explore whether the challenging backdrop is hindering environmental progress.

Manchester-based, B Corp-certified, sustainable impact agency Better Not Stop recently issued a second edition of its More Than Music report. More in-depth than the initial 2022 report, it attempts to gauge how seriously the UK’s biggest festivals are taking sustainability.

The project was supported by Deloitte, as lead research partner, and one of the UK’s leading sustainability consultancies, Hope Solutions. Better Not Stop also drew on the expertise of key industry sustainability organisations including A Greener Future (AGF), Vision: 2025, Julie’s Bicycle and Earth Percent.

The More Than Music report involved taking a deep dive into the data from the UK’s 100 biggest music festivals, while also examining data from other key industry reports conducted in the past two years.

“It’s the most comprehensive pan-festival industry report on sustainability that’s been produced, we aimed to include everybody that’s working in this space in the project,” says Better Not Stop director Hannah Cox. (pictured).

“If you’re being met with crippling costs, the last thing that you want to do is have inefficient generators burning excess fuel.”

To ensure that there was no outside influence on the report, Cox says that it was decided to forgo funding: “There was talk about funding, but we wanted to make sure it was completely independent. So, we gave our time and resources for free and all the stakeholders gave their time for free.”

Aside from the sustainability overview attained, Cox says that one of the most shocking initial findings while working on the project was that around 20% of the 100 festivals involved in the 2022 project were not taking place this year: “It’s a huge amount, we weren’t expecting that many of the festivals we had originally researched not to exist in 2024. They cited a variety of reasons, including production costs having risen 40% in the past two years. So that’s been a big cause for concern.”

Costing the earth

Cox says that among the most apparent negative impacts the unstable economic climate has had on the progress made by festival operators to reduce their events’ carbon footprints is shaken confidence – with many of them now feeling less certain about the enduring feasibility of their festivals.

“Festival operators have become more reluctant to make long-term investments in their energy resources, because why would you invest in solar or wind power, or try to instal grid energy on your land, which will take you 10 years of get your investment back, if you don’t know whether your festival will be around in 10 years?”

While the sector has previously seen an increase in the number of festival operators switching to hydrotreated vegetable oil (HVO) with the aim of reducing emissions from fuel consumption, Cox has found that many festival operators have recently changed direction.

“People who had moved to HVO fuel have gone back to diesel because the costs of the fuel is so different now. For many it’s not affordable for them to run the event if they stick with HVO fuel,” she says.

The report highlights research undertaken by Hope Solution and ZAP Concepts that found that the UK  events industry uses in excess of 380 million litres of diesel annually, while AGF’s Low Emission Festivals research supported by Ecotricity found that last year 65%-85% of festival power was provided by diesel generators.

“Cost is critical, and power is one of the main places where you can see that play out,” says AGF CEO Claire O’Neill (pictured). “The use of HVO was on a par with red diesel after the price of red diesel changed but now HVO is at a higher price point than white diesel and therefore some festival operators are moving back to using white diesel.”

Showpower and ZAP Concepts operations head Rob Scully is an environmental scientist who has been involved in festivals for more than 20 years. Among the many projects he has been involved in was helping to run a solar powered area at Glastonbury Festival. He has also deployed large battery systems at major international live events for clients including Frieze, Glastonbury and Kilimanjaro Live.

“Operators will have no choice but to adopt more sustainability measures if they want to continue trading.”

Scully says that categorising HVO as a sustainable replacement to traditional diesel is a misconception: “Renewable diesel, biodiesel or HVO is by no means emissions-free. In fact, the amount of direct carbon emissions from burning HVO in compatible diesel generators is almost identical to using ‘regular’ diesel.

“The difference is the carbon impact of obtaining the HVO is in effect offset by the growing of the crop used to make the fuel instead of producing diesel by distilling crude oil. Carbon is still emitted to the atmosphere when HVO is burned in a generator.

“Also, from our in-depth experience working across multiple events, diesel and HVO generators are rarely run optimally, which results in more fuel burn per unit of energy used.”

Given that it has been calculated that diesel generators usually convert just 35% of fuel to electricity when running at full capacity, the need to move away from diesel is glaringly apparent, not just to reduce the impact on the planet but also festival organisers’ bottom line.

AGF recently published its Festival Sustainability Report, which established that of 40 European festivals assessed by the organisation last year some 38% used HVO Fuel for 100% of the generators on site but, O’Neil agrees that HVO is far from ideal.

She says, “What we really need to be doing is moving away from burning any type of diesel fuel even if it’s from surface carbon and not fossil carbon. While some festival operators may, for cost purposes, need to move away from HVO there’s still a requirement to reduce the amount of fuel that we’re burning. If you’re being met with crippling costs, the last thing that you want to do is have inefficient generators burning excess fuel. It’s important to focus on having better specking of your energy in advance, be smarter with the kinds of things you’re plugging in and look at ways to reduce the energy requirements. Also, look at things like hybrid system, because there’s money available to get people connected to the grid where that makes commercial sense.”

While some festival operators are shelving sustainability measures in a bid for short-term survival, Scully says that implementing clean energy solutions doesn’t always mean a complete redesign of the power strategy and vastly increased costs.

He says that when starting the journey to economical and clean-energy solutions, there are important steps that all event operators can make towards emission-free and sustainable power solutions that can lead to reducing costs.

“Firstly, start monitoring power use with a power inventory and collect data from all your electrical equipment used onsite, also measure and monitor your power sources onsite so you know exactly what alternative power sources are available,” he says. “Doing so can mean that with accurate and detailed information, event producers are in a much stronger position to make informed decisions about transitioning to a more efficient power strategy, which can actually lead to saving more fuel and hiring less equipment,” says Scully (pictured).

He says that in the not-too-distant future a sustainable power strategy will be critical to an event obtaining a licence: “With incoming regulations around carbon reporting and the increase of Low-Emission-Zones in major cities to reduce carbon emissions, operators will have no choice but to adopt more sustainability measures if they want to continue trading.”

Encouragingly, AGF’s report found that in general the events it surveyed are increasingly introducing hybrid, renewables, and battery storage systems to reduce fuel use.

Leaders in the field

Significant positive steps are being made across the sector when it comes to power provision. While Glastonbury is clearly in a field of its own, the sustainable actions being taken at the 210,000-capacity event are nonetheless impressive. Last year, the entire festival was powered by renewable energy for the first time.

Emily Eavis said it was the culmination of having trialled alternative and renewable fuels for more than a decade, with lots of ‘baby steps’ taken over many years to steadily increase the use of renewable energy, both from the grid and onsite sources including a solar PV array on the cowshed roof and an anaerobic digester that turns waste cow manure into biogas.

“There’s money available to get people connected to the grid where that makes commercial sense.”

Massive Attack has also long been a pioneer of live event sustainability. Among the work it has carried out includes the commissioning of the Super-Low Carbon Live Music report published in 2021. Created by The Tyndall Centre for Climate Change, it acted as a roadmap for artists looking to play a part in helping reduce the environmental impact of their live shows and tour plans.

The band is set to perform at Bristol’s Clifton Downs on 25 August with a raft of ground-breaking environmental sustainability measures in place including the huge outdoor show being powered entirely by renewable energy.

Promoted and produced by AEG Presents and Team Love, who stage the 60,000-capacity Forwards Festival on the site, Massive Attack’s ACT 1.5 show is being described as a ‘large-scale climate action accelerator event’ and ‘the lowest carbon show of its size ever staged’. The decarbonisation measures, which have been created in partnership with the Tyndall Centre, include a zero to landfill waste removal policy, and a localised presale period to deter private car travel. A rail travel incentive initiative will also be in place and there will be free post-show electric shuttles to the main local rail hubs.

A smaller scale but even longer established leader in the field of festival sustainability is the Green Gathering, which was one of the 100 festivals included in More Than Music project alongside huge majors such as All Points East, Download and Reading & Leeds as well as independents including WOMAD and Green Man.

Green Gathering is the only event to have won the UK Greener Festival Award three times, and is classified as outstanding by AGF. “We have been running with green policies since the mid 1990s,” says the festival’s director Steve Muggs.

Located in Chepstow, Wales, Green Gathering is entirely solar powered, with electricity provided by18 power generation systems distributed across the festival site. An energy audit of the 2022 event showed that 457kWh of solar power was used to run the 5,000-capacity festival.

“Nobody is allowed to bring diesel generators on site,” says Muggs. “We have one petrol generator and that’s required for the emergency backup of the medical centre. Other than that, everything from the PA to back-office computers and overhead festoons are all on solar.

“A major consideration for us when booking bands is that they know not to expect a speaker stack worthy of U2, they are going to have about 8kWH available.”

Changing behaviour

Muggs says that the Green Gathering is far more than an event organised with sustainability being a secondary consideration, caring for the environment is integral to every aspect of its production and an essential aspect of the event experience.

“The purpose of the festival is to highlight and focus on various environmental and social justice issues,” he says. “The production company, Optimistic Trout Productions CIC, is commissioned to put on the event, and its purpose is to educate sustainability. Fundamentally the event is set up to try and expand awareness and give people opportunities to look at alternative lifestyle. There’s both a combination of really established, committed environmental activists and thinkers involved and of course new and younger people who come along and pick up the message.”

Cox says that among the more positive findings of the More Than Music report is that the festival sector in general has become more proactive in using the events as platforms to encourage positive change, and to guide and inform audiences about sustainability issues whether via talks and activities on site or through communication channels.

“People who had moved to HVO fuel have gone back to diesel because of the cost.”

Other key signs of improvement illustrated in AGF’s survey include bans on single-use plastic serveware having increased from 54% in 2022 to 75% in 2023, a reduction in average waste per person per day (PPPD) from 0.75 kg to 0.5 kg, and more festivals going fully vegan or vegetarian.

Its findings also include an increase in water use at both urban and rural camping festivals, significantly at the latter, with an average of 26 litres PPPD, up from 19 litres PPPD in 2022. O’Neill says the increase could be due to various factors, however, it does align with the hottest summer on record being recorded in summer 2023.

With climate change already here and happening, resulting in increased rainfall and extreme heat becoming regular challenges at events, festival operators are increasingly being forced to invest in inclement weather mitigation measures. Live Nation (LN) is investing £2 million in new and enhanced infrastructure for this year’s edition of its Creamfields festival in Daresbury. Much of that investment is being spent on a new 30,000-capacity indoor main stage supplied by Acorn Event Structures. It has been designed to dramatically increase coverage in case of inclement weather. LN said the festival site will also see extensive improvements to the field drainage systems to mitigate potential disruptions caused by adverse weather.

Says O’Neill, “We’ve been very focused for a long time on prevention of the worst impacts of climate change but now we’re having to deal with adapting to those changes. If we don’t keep on making sure that sustainability and reducing our emissions is a priority, then that’s only going to get worse.

“Today it is already a critical issue, and it will get worse if we think that reducing our emissions is a nice to have optional extra, and one of the lower things among the budget priorities.”