Edinburgh’s festivals must embrace fight against climate change – Brian Ferguson

Performers take part in the annual Beltane Fire Festival (Photo: Getty Images)Performers take part in the annual Beltane Fire Festival (Photo: Getty Images)
Performers take part in the annual Beltane Fire Festival (Photo: Getty Images)
By the time you read this Edinburgh’s official summertime will be up and running. Heralded in a blaze of fire from atop Calton Hill, the changing of the seasons also heralds the start of the city’s four-month festivals season.

Between the colour and spectacle of the Beltane Fire Festival and the dramatic finale at the Edinburgh International Festival’s Fireworks Concert at the end of August, the city will be regularly thronged with major events attracting well in excess of four million people and generating upwards of £300 million for the economy. But how many of those involved in staging or attending the plethora of events in the city over these four months will ever stop to consider their environmental impact?

Beltane’s organisers have led the way this year with a radical overhaul of the central performance of the May Queen, including her ceremonial regalia, to reflect the climate change crisis. But they have also admitted much has to be done if they are to reduce its carbon footprint.

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It is 25 years since I started attending and covering the city’s major festivals, which definitely felt overwhelming and out of control when I first tried to navigate my way around then.

If I have long had a detailed understanding of the multiple different events, venues, dates, marketing campaigns and launches – and the way they can change from year to year – it has not become much easier to get around the city.

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The historic heart of the city has remained largely dominated by traffic over the summer, with large queues of traffic across the city’s World Heritage Site, a status awarded by Unesco 24 years ago.

Politicians, community groups and businesses are convinced the piles of rubbish littering the streets get bigger every year. There has been no noticeable reduction in the number of programmes, posters and flyers to be found in venues, on buildings and on pop-up advertising sites. It is beyond dispute that Edinburgh’s summer calendar has many more events than it did in 1994. But does it follow that they should still be generating as much waste as they do? With so much emphasis on growing audience numbers and Edinburgh Airport seeing its busiest ever August last year – a whopping 1.47 million passengers – it is easy to imagine that the city’s festivals are having more of an impact on the environment than ever. I’m not suggesting there has not been work going on behind the scenes to make them more sustainable. But do they reflect the public concerns that have fuelled recent climate change campaigns and protests around the world?

All of the city’s major events are signed up to an environmental policy, which include pledges to reduce impacts from pollution, emissions and waste, encourage more sustainable forms of transport, “continuously seek to improve environmental performance”, and ask performers and festival-goers to take part “in an environmentally sensitive way”. If all this sounds a bit vague there are signs of more substantial change on the way. There has been a real increase in the availability of recycling facilities in year-round venues and pop-up sites. The Fringe Society has pledged to “dramatically reduce” the number of paper tickets it issues and is urging venues to reduce their use of flyers. The Pleasance will be playing host to the first zero-waste Fringe venue this summer. But if there is not a genuine shift in practices across the board, are the city’s festivals running the risk of becoming targets for climate change protesters themselves?