Taming the rock-concert industry's excesses
AS ANY country-music fan knows, Willie Nelson, America's favourite outlaw-troubadour, can’t wait to get on the road again. Although he often sings about whiskey, since 2004 his tireless touring has been fueled by an entirely different sort of liquid: biofuel (which he has cleverly branded “BioWillie”).
Mr Nelson, one of the founders of the annual Farm Aid concert series, began running his tour bus on biofuel to support American farmers, but musicians and concert promoters have started using the fuel as part of an effort to reduce the environmental impact of their live shows. How effective has the concert industry been in shrinking its carbon footprint?
During last July’s Live Earth concerts held simultaneously in New York, London, Sydney, Tokyo, Shanghai, Rio de Janeiro, Johannesburg and Hamburg, Al Gore tried to harness the promotional power of environmentally inclined rock stars like Madonna, The Police and the Red Hot Chili Peppers to raise global awareness of “a climate in crisis”. But some wags dubbed the concert “private jets for climate change”, referring to the rockstar lifestyle, and the concerts themselves produced 35,000 tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.
That figure is large but sadly typical: according to National Geographic’s Green Guide, a single stadium concert releases 500 to 1000 tons of carbon dioxide, which is between 25 and 50 times more than the average American produces in a year. That number does not even take into account fans' transport, the immense amount of garbage produced or any fire-spewing Kiss-style pyrotechnic displays. Reverb, an advocacy group promoting environmentally responsible music tours, estimates that fans' commutes can quintuple the carbon cost of a show.
Despite these costs, tour schedules are growing longer and more intensive. Consumers are downloading (both legally and illegally) more individual tracks and buying fewer complete albums; bands need to make their money somewhere.
Some bands and concert organisers have taken strides to minimise touring’s environmental impact. Festivals such as Lollapalooza, an American summer institution, and Britain’s massive Glastonbury Festival have switched to biofuel-powered generators. The organisers of last summer's Osheaga Festival in Montreal went one step further: they hired Hydro Quebec to supply their main stage with emission-free geothermal energy. Reverb has encouraged organisers to offer reusable aluminum canteens rather than plastic water-bottles, and also set up “Eco-Villages”, with information on how to minimise one’s carbon footprints, outside concert venues.
This is all very well, but bands still seem more committed to talk than action. The Dave Matthews Band, peripatetic college favourites, made much of its decision in 2006 to use biofuels and emissions reduction credits (ERCs) to make its annual summer tours “carbon neutral”. But it still schedules concerts at places like the Gorge Amphitheater, 150 miles east of Seattle and hundreds of miles from any public transport. That produces immense quantities of CO2, half of which will still be there in 100 years.
Though popular, biofuels are no panacea: once the water, fertiliser, and diesel required used to grow, harvest, process and distribute corn and soybean-based biofuels are factored into the carbon calculations, biofuels have only a marginally lower carbon intensity, or carbon output per unit of energy, than standard petrol. Furthermore, the increased production of biofuels has been blamed in part for the global surge in food prices.
As the summer tour season begins, bands and promoters ought to follow the lead of Radiohead, a genre-bending rock band, or the Lollapalooza festival. Both have eschewed globetrotting tours in favour of staging shows in areas accessible by public transport.
The staging of last year's Live Earth event served, if nothing else, to make the environmental costs of the concert industry impossible to ignore. Getting their carbon emissions under control will let rockers return with a clean conscience to more interesting vices.