Ashleigh McLennan: Festivals’ footprint not funny

Fringe is good for the economy, but not the environment. Picture: Alex Hewitt
Fringe is good for the economy, but not the environment. Picture: Alex Hewitt
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As this record-breaking festival season draws to a close, Edinburgh can be proud of again successfully attracting and accommodating the huge influx of visitors and performers who spend their summer staying, eating and being entertained around the city.

While great for the economy, this undoubtedly has an environmental impact, with modest estimates of the festivals’ footprint reaching almost 45,000 tonnes of CO2 in 2010. The festivals have, however, been taking action to reduce it and have uncovered many benefits along the way – such as cheaper energy and waste-disposal bills – demonstrating that the journey to environmental sustainability can also help safeguard economic sustainability.

The annual issues faced at festival time will be a microcosm of those for the city going forward, especially as its resident population is expected to increase by 104,000 between 2010 and 2030, for which the city must cater in the context of rising prices for essentials like energy, metals and food.

The price of metals, for example, is up 176 per cent since 2000 due to increasing global demand and rising extraction costs, and this trend will only continue as the number of those considered relatively wealthy consumers globally rises from 1.8 billion to nearly five billion people over the next 20 years.

Many of the world’s leading companies have been working to find innovative solutions to protect themselves from these risks through what is known as the “circular economy”. The types of products and business models which can be considered “circular” are wide ranging, but the concept itself is relatively simple: reusing items to keep them in the economy for longer, recycling materials where their reuse is no longer possible, and ultimately reducing the amount of virgin materials extracted from the earth. The result is that business resource risks can be minimised, waste reduced, and carbon emissions saved.

Scotland has been showing leadership on this agenda. SCDI has been working with the Green Alliance on behalf of Zero Waste Scotland to identify opportunities and barriers to generating more value from resources used in Scotland’s main sectors and inform a Scottish Government strategy to be published soon. But cities must also play an important role in this transformation given that they are responsible for two-thirds of Scotland’s economic production and account for around two-thirds of energy consumption.

So what are the potential opportunities for Edinburgh? If we look again at the example of the festivals, and the hotels and restaurants which support them, a circular economy approach could certainly deliver benefits.

Energy costs, for example, were recently cited in a survey as the top barrier to tourism businesses, but 
by using technology such as Anaerobic Digestion they could pool 
food waste and convert it into renewable energy and other valuable materials, as the whisky industry in Speyside has grouped together to produce renewable energy and animal feed from whisky manufacturing by-products.

The journey to sustainability is an economic and environmental necessity, but with the presence of many innovative low-carbon companies in the city, the expertise of the universities and institutions like the Green Investment Bank and Edinburgh Centre of Carbon Innovation, and with strong civic direction, Edinburgh should be well-placed to benefit.

n Ashleigh McLennan, policy executive, Scottish Council for Development and Industry,