It’s no mean feat to organize a global event, even for veterans of the trade and the results are patchy: there is a slight fudge over the Antarctic line up – a scientists’ band needed to complete the full set of continents -- and there has been a striking lack of messaging in Shanghai, where the small venue and the disappointing line up suggest it will have a less than hoped for impact on Chinese attitudes to shopping. (The Shanghai organizers have struggled with a range of problems, including the customary difficulties with the Chinese authorities, who like to vet both the performers and the songs, to avoid unpleasant surprises before they grant a license). Nevertheless, the organisational achievement is beyond question. What is very much up for question is whether this is the best way to save the planet?
The carbon footprint, we are told, will be lower than the usual run of concerts and the organizers hope the Green Event Standard protocols they have developed will set the standard for future events. They have employed sustainability engineers and say they will encourage the audiences to get to the venues on public transport. As a last resort, they will plant trees to offset the emissions they cannot eliminate. It’s worth it, they say, to get the audiences on board.
But that raises the bigger issue: the ethos of the event, and the example the performers set to the people Live Earth wants to persuade. Madonna, for example, who is billed to perform in London, owns a fleet of large cars and gets about in a private jet. Last year, her Confessions tour produced 440 tonnes of CO2 in four months, just to fly her to the gigs, without counting the footprint of the events themselves. The Red Hot Chilli Peppers, also on the London line-up, are fans of private jet travel too, notching up 220 tonnes of CO2 on the 42 gigs of their last world tour. What do they plan to say to the fans who, depending on where they live, emit between less than one ton and eight tonnes a year in their personal lives? Switch off your heating because first class is not good enough for me?
No matter how you cut it, going to a rock concert is an act of consumption – and it is consumption that is our problem. What people who consume a lot have to say to people who consume much less is at the heart of Cooler Living, a debate that China Dialouge has been running to thrash these issues out with consumers in China and around the world. If the middle classes of India and China take to our lifestyles – as increasingly they can afford to do – then all hope of controlling carbon emissions is lost. But if we don’t want that to happen, we are going to have to come up with something a bit more convincing than a huge display of consumption by people who set themselves no limits, no matter how many trees we plant.
Isabel Hilton is the editor of China Dialouge
This article first appeared in the Ecologist July 2007