How green was Glastonbury?

Sian assesses the environmental impact of the famous festival

Along with about 200,000 others, I’m in recovery from the Glastonbury festival at the moment. I was there to help promote the 4x4 campaign, sharing a marquee in the Greenfields with a wide range of groups taking direct action to help make our transport more sustainable.

Along with ‘antis’ like the brilliant Plane Stupid and activists fighting to stop the pointless and expensive widening projects for the M1 and M6 motorways, we had groups promoting positive alternatives, including Liftshare, who help people reduce their transport emissions by sharing car journeys, and City Car Club, who provide handy roadside vehicles for instant hire, reducing unnecessary journeys and helping to puncture our culture of car ownership.

I left a day early (just in time it turned out) to get back for a Debate London event at the Tate and caught a train back on Sunday afternoon, my every possession damp, muddy and twice as heavy as when I arrived. As I sat down and watched the smell of evaporating filth wafting up the nostrils of my fellow passengers, I wondered – just how green was Glastonbury 2007?

It’s easy to be cynical about big events like this, especially if you have been reading endless articles in magazines about how to do ‘festival chic’, and I expect co-sponsor Greenpeace will be publishing some kind of audit in due course, but I predict the answer will be ‘quite green actually’, and here’s my back-of-the-envelope guide to prove it.

On ecology first then. Admittedly, we had turned a few hundred acres of glorious rolling farmland into an epic quagmire in a matter of hours but, given time to recover, the Eavis’ farm should be back to normal fairly quickly. I did worry a bit when they started putting straw on the paths to give us a bit more traction. If the weather gets hot it will be interesting to see how they clear it up, seeing as the clay soil means much of the farm will essentially be paved with brick. I know at least a few hundred mobile phones are mixed up in there too, which will be fun for future archaeologists to uncover.

Food is a more clear-cut positive. I’m no longer being a real vegetarian about my diet, but I was practically vegan for most of the time at Glastonbury. Even if you want meat it can be a bit of an effort to seek it out, particularly around the network of Greenfields at the south end of the site. Much of the food was also local (fresh milk was brought round every day), and the many caterers included staff from a nearby school who produced an endless stream of fantastic cakes, and a wide range of organic and fair trade caffs, most of which gave out coffee in real mugs that they washed up.

There were no ready-meals or polystyrene packaging that I could see, and the disposable plates and beer cups were made of paper, which meant they could go into the many compost bins. The organisers made a real effort to provide separate bins for recycling too, and the categories were fairly well respected by the punters. All good stuff, and almost certainly better than we’d have managed at home.

Green education initiatives were absolutely everywhere, with large areas of space given over to the three charities benefiting from the event – Greenpeace, Oxfam and Water Aid, as well as the iCount climate campaign. Videos promoting these causes were shown between bands on the main stages and of course there were the acres of Greenfields with everything from yoga and various flavours of healing to radicals like CND and Schnews.

Transport is a tricky one. The big bands do tend to fly in specially, and there are constant helicopters hovering overhead. And yes, the festival is responsible for a lot of people travelling around the country, but in our campaign tent we didn’t meet any festival-goers who had driven there on their own, let alone flown to Somerset.

The most interesting thing about the chart we used in our marquee to help people work out their transport footprint in colour-coded duplo bricks (yes it did help to bring the kids in too) was that carrying several people in a reasonably efficient car can bring the per-person carbon emissions down below even a train. Congestion of course is a separate issue, and the most efficient mode of all is a full coach, which again was a bit of a surprise for most people.

And then there’s the displacement effect. Similar to my tactic of persuading my family to join me for a holiday in the Lake District this year, it’s highly likely that, for many of the people there, the festival was taking the place of a weekend in Prague, Dublin or something worse in their annual holiday routine. So, overall, I don’t think the transport impact of Glastonbury is all that bad.

Now, water – not the stuff that kept falling out of the sky but those dreaded loos. It’s not something I’d want to do forever, but whether we were using the portaloos or the infamous ‘long drops’ (basically – very basically – a row of toilet cubicles perched above a pit of sewage) I don’t think any of us will have flushed a toilet all week. Combine the fact that each flush avoided saves up to nine litres of water with the fact that almost no-one showered at all, and you have a considerable water conservation effort going on. The irony of the fact that it rained so heavily I managed to wash my hair in it does not escape me.

So, overall, my verdict is a thumbs up for Glastonbury 2007. We need more of these things, ideally on weekends less blighted by the weather. See you at the Big Green Gathering in August!

Sian Berry lives in Kentish Town and was previously a principal speaker and campaigns co-ordinator for the Green Party. She was also their London mayoral candidate in 2008. She works as a writer and is a founder of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s
Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

0800 7318496