The aftermath of Glastonbury Festival: the image shows a team of litter-pickers at the campsite. The image shows empty bottles, cans, and abandoned tents strewn across the grass.

The aftermath of Glastonbury Festival: the image shows a team of litter-pickers at the campsite. The image shows empty bottles, cans, and abandoned tents strewn across the grass.

Private jets and plastic feathers: the carbon footprint of the creative industries

Published 21/07/2023   |   Reading Time minutes

On 17 May 2023, Beyoncé opened the UK leg of her world tour to a sold-out Principality Stadium in Cardiff. The streets of the capital were shut down for the arrival of sixty production trucks and eighteen coaches, and the star herself flew in and out of Cardiff by private jet the same day.

When Coldplay played the same stadium three weeks later, frontman Chris Martin arrived by train. After pausing touring in 2019 until more sustainable approaches could be pursued, Coldplay’s Cardiff show was plastic free, powered in part by renewable energy, and included local support acts to reduce emissions.

Then, when Harry Styles played Cardiff later in June, the streets after the concert resembled a “feather boa massacre”. Cardiff Council stated that the residual coloured feathers would be “sent to an energy waste facility to help create green energy”.

These recent events in Cardiff are symptomatic of a wider problem in the creative industries. The sector is one of the fastest growing in Wales, but this growth could come at a cost for the climate. This article explores the environmental impacts of the creative industries, and what’s being done to work toward the Welsh Government’s vision of a net zero Wales by 2050.

A high-growth sector

The creative industries are booming – both globally and in the UK. According to Creative UK, in 2019 the creative industries sector:

  • contributed £115.9 billion in GVA (gross value added) to the UK economy – “greater than aerospace, automotive, life sciences and oil and gas sectors combined”;
  • was growing at “four times the rate of the UK economy as a whole”; and
  • created jobs “at three times the UK average, employing 2 million people across the UK”.

Findings by creative industry research organisation Clwstwr point to a healthy sector in Wales. Its 2020 report found that Wales’s creative industries comprise 8,000 enterprises, with around 500 new enterprises entering the creative industries in Wales every year. This makes the creative industries one of the fastest growing sectors in Wales. (It is important to note, however, that the definition of creative industries used here includes sectors such as IT, computing, design and architecture.)

A high-carbon sector?

However, this growth comes at a cost, as the creative industries can have a significant carbon footprint. With pre-pandemic growth at four times the rate of the UK economy as a whole, the sustainability of the creative industries should be a key consideration for policymakers and stakeholders.

The transport of audiences, artists and sets means that live music is one of the most visibly carbon-intensive sectors in the creative industries. A recent report into the dance music industry found that the average touring DJ emits 35 tonnes of CO2 per year – more than seventeen times higher than the recommended personal carbon budget. In Arts Council England’s most recent environmental report, England’s National Portfolio Organisations reported 17.6 million kilometres of international travel between 2021 and 2022, roughly equivalent to travelling between Wales and California 1,700 times.

Festivals, of which there are around 800 – 1000 annually in the UK, are also high emitters, with the average festival producing around 500 tonnes of CO2 emissions (one tonne of CO2 is similar to driving 2,500 miles). UK festivals generate 28,500 tonnes of landfill waste yearly, with over a third of festivalgoers having admitted to leaving a tent behind at the end of the event.

And although we may think that music streaming might reduce the use of physical materials, a 2019 report concluded that streaming services have resulted in “significantly higher carbon emissions than at any previous point in the history of music”.

Sustainability is an issue for the screen sector, too. In 2021, Netflix’s carbon footprint was around 1.5 million tonnes of CO2; more than half of those emissions came from physical production. According to an industry report, the average big-budget film produces 2,840 tonnes of CO2 equivalent – an amount that would take 3,709 acres of forest a year to absorb.

In Wales, the screen sector is booming. Between 2017 and 2021, turnover in the sector grew by 72% to £575m (although this is likely to have been accompanied by increases in costs as well). According to Clwstwr’s report, 18% of creative enterprises in Wales are in the film, TV and radio sector, employing more than 8,000 people. In addition, Wales has become a desirable and in-demand filming location.

What’s being done to make the creative industries more sustainable?

Unlike Arts Council England, the Arts Council of Wales do not publish environment-specific annual reports; instead, environmental impact is included as part of its wider survey of funded Arts Portfolio Wales (APW) organisations. Its most recent report showed that just under one third (29%) of APW organisations have an Environment Monitoring System. 85% of APW organisations have an environmental policy.

In 2022, the Arts Council of Wales announced that the Centre for Alternative Technology had been appointed to create a new Strategy for Climate Justice and the Arts. The aim of this strategy is to explore how the arts connects people with the nature and climate emergencies, and investigate what support is needed for “artists and arts organisations to minimise the environmental impact of creating art”.

The strategy, designed in collaboration with Natural Resources Wales, will provide a “roadmap for the arts” in Wales to reduce carbon emissions, preserve nature and biodiversity, and meet Welsh Government targets of “a carbon neutral public sector by 2030 and a net zero Wales by 2050”.

Leading the way: the Welsh “green” screen

Signs of change to decarbonise the creative industries are emerging. Film development agency Ffilm Cymru is working with stakeholders and external partners to move toward a greener screen industry. Its flagship policy, Green Cymru, aims to “support screen sector professionals and companies in Wales to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050”. Part of this is the Green Cymru Challenge Fund, a partnership between Ffilm Cymru and Clwstwr to award £75,000 to support research and development into sustainable ways of working in the industry.

Innovation consortium Media Cymru is working with Ffilm Cymru to extend its Green Cymru project and aims to turn “Cardiff and the surrounding capital region’s media sector into a global hub for media innovation, with a focus on green and fair economic growth”. Ffilm Cymru is also part of Green Regio, a programme raising awareness and sharing knowledge on sustainable film production tools, measures and policies across the European film sector.

The future for a low-carbon creative industry in Wales

In 2022 Deputy minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism, Dawn Bowden MS welcomed the “unprecedented growth in the creative sectors over recent years”. “Our focus on skills”, she said, “will continue in the new year – to ensure that we can deliver the demand for skills and talent for this growing sector.”

As one of Wales’s fastest growing sectors, the environmental impacts of the creative industries must be considered if Wales is to move to net zero by 2050.

Article by Nyle Bevan-Clark, PhD intern, Senedd Research, Welsh Parliament