‘Net zero’ is a phrase we’ve all been hearing a lot. The UK has a target of 100% reduction in carbon emissions by 2050 – necessary to avoid exceeding 1.5 degrees temperature rise by the end of the century – and companies across almost every industry are making public commitments to reach net zero. COP26 in Glasgow was a catalyst for making such pledges.
These pivots to action, especially across the music industry, are a hopeful sign. Given the frightening situation we face it’s hard to celebrate, but widespread acceptance that we are in the throes of a climate crisis, and a rise in public consciousness pushing companies to act accordingly, are wins for the environmental movement.
But what does net zero mean?
At its most basic, net zero means balancing release of carbon into the atmosphere with removal of carbon from the atmosphere. It goes one step further by including a commitment to reduce actual carbon emissions rather than rely purely on offsetting. As an idea it has merit and enacted with integrity can make a difference, but when employed on a mass scale by large corporations, the effect may be greenwash obscuring a continued dependence on practices which release emissions at an untenable rate in the present, to be ‘balanced’ by better behaviour in the future.
Some climate experts who worked on the concept of net zero now describe it as a dangerous trap: “Instead of confront our doubts, we scientists decided to construct ever more elaborate fantasy worlds in which we would be safe.” 
At The Green Gathering, there’s no pledge to reach net zero even though the festival is very nearly there. Reluctance to use sleight of hand to balance the carbon ledger means the focus is on what can be done right now to produce a deep and lasting positive impact on our planet.
The easiest way to meet sustainability goals is to embody them from the outset. The Green Gathering’s history as one of the very first off-grid, ecologically aware events in the UK gave it a head start. Rejection of corporate sponsorship and determination to keep tickets affordable means careful use of resources comes naturally.
That means not just using renewable energy but aiming to use it smartly, so less rather than more can be consumed each year – because even solar panels have an environmental cost. It means not just a festival that’s meat-free, but one that delves into the sourcing of ingredients – and then helps caterers’ make the most ethical choices and encourages them to stick with those choices at other festivals too.
At The Green Gathering policies and practices aren’t adopted to meet targets but to make hearts sing and to produce a festival that reflects how the world should and could be. Because so often the right thing for the planet is the best thing for its people, once greed and exploitation are set aside.
98% of carbon emissions produced by The Green Gathering are accounted for by a factor largely outside its control: travel. GG could pay to offset this and claim to have hit net zero, but that would mean missing an opportunity to effect real change. The festival’s Green Traveller campaign provides practical resources and rewards travellers who accept the challenge to go car-free. If this encouragement works for even a handful of festival-goers it’s likely the experience will create ripples of behaviour change that impact other journeys and other people, having a bigger effect than simply paying a carbon tax could ever do.
The Green Gathering’s organisers believe the value and footprint of festivals can only be accurately assessed if community and individual wellbeing effects are considered alongside carbon emissions. A research project is planned to build on anecdotal and survey evidence of behaviour change associated with exposure to the festival’s low impact culture. Use of resources by the festival audience in a domestic environment will be compared with resource use at the festival too – it will be interesting to see whether it’s greener to gather than to stay home.
A move from ‘sustainable’, which suggests doing the bare minimum, to ‘regenerative’ practice is needed to get our planet back on track. While counting carbon may help, it’s not enough. Giving love back to the land is more like it. The world needs to be done being neutral; what could be accomplished if we don’t just settle for zero?