Before you arrive at a music festival, you might spend hours in a long line of cars inching towards the bored parking attendants who organize lots so large they’re visible from low orbit. After walking through the long maze of vehicles, you’ll arrive at your first garbage receptacle, perhaps already piled high with plastic water bottles, each made with fossil fuels (about 8% of the world’s petrochemicals go to plastic), and most of which could have been recycled but won’t be. Recycling is expensive — just getting everything off the ground and bagged is hard enough — and so even more-sustainable aluminum cans are likely headed for the trash heap.
You might walk past food carts using propane to grill meat shipped in from across the country, past an art installation of twinkling lights shining bright just because, past corporate-sponsored charging stations that make sure you never have to pocket your phone. Between sets, you could buy a T-shirt that might not last two years before its first hole, churned out in a frenzy of fast fashion, part of a global industry responsible for nearly 10% of all greenhouse gas emissions.
Arrive early enough and you might be able to hear the constant growl of diesel power generators — unless it’s one of the fests connected to a municipal power grid, which 60% of the time in the US are powered by natural gas or coal. Once the shows start, you’ll hear the performances long before you reach the stages, as the massive speakers are designed not just for up-close audio quality, but to advertise the goings-on from across the grounds, obliterating silence. Visually, the festival is just as busy, and the headliners will likely be accompanied by enormous projection screens, as well as elaborate light sets, often blasting the stage even during daytime hours when the light show can’t even be properly seen.
Music festivals are not close to the biggest drivers of global climate change in a modern world built around cars, cheap clothes, shipped foods, and 24/7 connectivity. But most major festivals are an orgy of emissions, and from entrance to exit nearly every choice made favors short-term convenience over long-term sustainability. Today, a zero-emission festival is impossible. But with the help of motivated music fans, carbon neutral festivals are already becoming a reality. So what do they like look? What kind of tradeoffs should fans expect? And what do we get in return?
We spoke with a number of experts in the festival and environmental fields to help answer those questions. There are many possible approaches to carbon neutral music festivals, but they all consider a few key ideas.