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Time to regenerate

As Shambala Festival’s 20th anniversary approaches in 2020, I’m reflecting on our journey from humble beginnings with 120 friends in a field to becoming one of Europe’s leading sustainable events. We have been driven by the desire to put on a wildly creative celebration and be at the vanguard of ethics and environmental practice.

We have experimented in every way we can, learning about our impacts with the input of scientific experts, setting ambitious targets, working with all stakeholders and taking risks. We have transitioned from diesel generators to completely renewable energy, eliminated single-use plastics, taken meat and fish off the menu, and in 2018, served only plant-based milks across the festival. We have a myriad of policies in place to reduce travel impacts and tackle the complex issue of waste, from both materials management and audience perspectives, with the support of behaviour-change psychologists. All of this has helped us to reduce the overall environmental footprint of the festival by over 90%, verified by third-party carbon calculator tools and certification.

We also place a huge emphasis on inspiring – and often requiring – everyone we are in contact with to think and act differently: audience, supply chain, local community and authorities, and the wider industry. I see a festival as a petri dish opportunity for experimenting with positive change. We know we can positively affect audience behaviour beyond the festival. When we took meat and fish off the menu, 50% of our audience ‘drastically changed their diets as a result of their experience of the festival’ and 76% of them had sustained that change six months later.

Not everything we’ve done works initially; we try things, learn, collect data like it’s going out of fashion so that we understand the minutiae of Shambala, we review, and then we shape strategy and policy accordingly. But I believe this isn’t enough. The climate crisis is rapidly changing the world, biodiversity is in freefall, soil fertility is seriously at risk and the oceans are saturated with plastics. It’s not climate ‘change.’ It’s an emergency, and one that affects people profoundly disproportionately globally.

We recently looked into our food policies and standards. What crystallised was that ‘sustainability’ as a concept is no longer fully adequate in meeting the challenges we face. It’s not enough to sustain. We need to improve ecological systems as quickly as we can, and a paradigm shift toward ‘regenerative’ thinking, models and practices is required to provide the life-support systems we need for the future.

I see a festival as a petri dish opportunity for experimenting with positive change

My eyes have been opened to how all aspects of our supply chain could become more regenerative. We will now pursue long-term relationships with food producers that are enhancing environmental and social capital, embracing a truly circular approach, whereby materials we use and no longer require have a next-life use pre-identified.

I’m beginning to appreciate how all aspects of our supply chain could become more regenerative, particularly in relation to food. Small-scale agriculture – under 12 acres – is significantly more beneficial for biodiversity, productivity, health, wellbeing and employment. On this basis, we are now developing long-term relationships with small-scale local food growers that are actually enhancing environmental and social capital, rather than simply ‘not damaging it.’

I feel optimistic about the bigger picture, but we face a challenge and need to get on with it quickly. We have the knowledge, technology, skills and resources to do this.

The event and music industries are now showing signs of taking real action. Energy Revolution, a UK charity dedicated to sustainable travel and carbon balancing now has 50 festivals and many suppliers engaged; and has balanced over 10 million miles of travel emissions with investments in renewable energy. Music Declares Emergency has experienced an explosive start, with 2,500 individuals and organisations joining within months of the launch.

The Powerful Thinking group, comprised of all the membership bodies in the events industry, has been working together on environmental practice for ten years. Their Vision:2025 campaign, a framework for halving the event industry’s impacts by 2025, has over 100 festivals in its portfolio.

Given the scale and urgency of the challenge, I am heartened by the cross-industry support to launch an updated Show Must Go On report and Vision:2025 online hub in January 2020. These free-to-access knowledge hubs will give all event professionals the tools to take significant steps toward zero-carbon events, without having to re-invent the wheel.


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The show must go on…

In Bohemian Rhapsody, the recent Queen biopic, we see Live Aid broadcast to 1.9 billion people. A moment in music history where the combined forces of music and events came together to try to change the world.

Fast-forward 30 years, and the power of music and events to bring people together and change their perspectives remains, and is at the heart of Energy Revolution, a charity set up by a collection of industry professionals with first-hand knowledge of running large-scale events in rural locations.

It started in 2015, when industry think tank Powerful Thinking laid out the environmental impacts of the UK festival industry and presented them at the COP21 climate change talks in Paris. The report was called the Show Must Go On (also, incidentally, the final track on Queen’s 1991 album Innuendo) and was a festival industry response to climate change, the current global issue facing the planet, and one that we all need to address in our lifetimes. The report showed that up to 80% of the average festival’s carbon footprint came from audience travel, which is where Energy Revolution’s mission was born.

There is no quick fix to the problem of climate change. Positive change must come from both practical action and perceptual shifts. Earlier this year, a single episode of the BBC’s Blue Planet caused a shift in perception so drastic that social media feeds are still brimming with ways to avoid single-use plastic. What an epic sign that change can come quickly when the message is clear and powerful.

Energy Revolution works with over 40 UK festivals, their audiences, suppliers, and artists, to help them understand the practical impacts of their travel choices. We help event organisers engage audiences and encourage them to consider more sustainable travel methods – and people are more engaged than ever.

In the words of Freddie, “the show must go on” – and for that to happen, we need to have a healthy planet for the show to be on

But let’s be honest: most festivals happen in fields or remote locations, and there is little chance that touring headline artists will fit their show production into the boot of a Tesla. In accepting this reality, Energy Revolution calculates impacts from travel by measuring and recording fossil fuel miles, calculating the associated CO2, and then balancing unavoidable emissions via donations that we then invest in projects that create clean renewable energy.

One hundred percent of all donations go to the projects, which have so far included reforestation, wind turbines, and community-owned solar and wind projects. So far, Energy Revolution has balanced over 7.8 million average car miles, that’s the equivalent of 2.5 million kg CO2e. It’s a bold start, but the real power in the project is the framework we’ve created that means all events, venues, gig-goers, crew, and artists can educate themselves on the true impacts of travel emissions, and actively balance that impact in a direct, practical and positive way.

Times change: Bohemian Rhapsody shows Bob Geldof expressing the plight of the African continent and rallying for £1 million (£2.2m in today’s climate). That’s around what one artist of equivalent stature might get for a single show today, and in the region of what Glastonbury donates each year to charity. Charity is also at a point where the perception change required is one that drops ‘Do They Know it’s Christmas?’ from its vocabulary, and instead empowers the communities they help.

Today, the greatest threat to humanity is climate change. We need to utilise the power of music and events to change perceptions and encourage practical action. We have reach through our audiences. Just as our industry has developed standards in health and safety, disability access and hearing protection, we also need to have sustainability on the tips of our tongues.

Kendal Calling, Boomtown, Download, Reading, Shambala, Bluedot are already on board, and I implore anyone reading this to get on-board, too, and to help spread the word. In the words of Freddie, “the show must go on” – and for that to happen, we need to have a healthy planet for the show to be on.


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