Say a full-sized, London-based symphony orchestra wants to play a concert in Berlin. It needs more or less an entire airplane, an Airbus A320 or a Boeing B737, to do so. “Curbing emissions from aviation is a non-trivial piece of the puzzle in reducing the risks of climate change,” according to Yale Climate Connections, a news service focusing on the environment. Besides carbon dioxide, aviation releases additional, harmful chemicals into the atmosphere with every flight.

Yet despite the environmental impact, and the hurdles of promoter agreements, travel logistics, rider specifications, and hotel stays, orchestras see international touring as a non-negotiable part of their artistic activities. Of course, for any performer—whether a band crossing the continent in a van or a large classical ensemble—the opportunity to tour is the chance to raise one’s profile and create a sense of artistic legitimacy. The difference being that the latter necessitates an eye-watering cost, both financial and environmental. The monetary impact of an orchestral tour is always huge. But while it’s one thing to justify losing money, which many orchestras do, on the basis of cultural and artistic outreach, it’s another to trade environmental impact for prestige and profile. This rings particularly true at a moment when the U.S. government seems unable to accept the reality of climate change.

A culture of expansionism permeates the entire spectrum of the performing arts. The extent to which this has become the norm means that even obscure youth orchestras, bands, and choirs find themselves paying over the odds to cross continents for concerts that, based on personal experience, will have little chance of covering costs, significantly increasing exposure for their work, or even providing more of an in-depth look at new cultures than the average eurotrip or semester abroad. That’s not to say that these tours are worthless, only to emphasize that touring groups—like the rest of us—have an environmental impact of which they should be acutely aware, not least so that the expansion and sharing of culture can continue into the future.  

“Touring’s such a difficult nut to crack, it was put in the ‘too-hard’ drawer,” said Catherine Bottrill, at London-based charity Julie’s Bicycle, which supports environmental sustainability within creative industries. Bottrill’s 2010 report, “Moving Arts,” sets out to identify and find solutions for the carbon impact of touring orchestras. “One of the things that’s hard with orchestras is that it’s this kind of heritage or prestige art form. They have a view that they’ve always done things a certain way, and it’s sometimes hard to question it.” That’s independent of the type of tour: many trips that don’t stray too far from home consist of only a handful of performances, or of routing that involves crossing the same land twice. When orchestras go abroad, prestige continues to enact its influence on where they want to play, with exclusivity agreements limiting the efficiency of tour scheduling. “If you’re going to do a mini-tour, sometimes you’re going to have exclusivities, so if you have [an orchestra] coming to a country, it might be that they’re not allowed to play in certain parts of the country, because they want to retain the specialness of it all. That should be interrogated,” Bottrill said. Coupled with the fact that, according to the report, “schedules are becoming less coherent, with increasing pressure to find sufficient work, exacerbated by anticipated reductions in public funding,” financial sense trumps environmentalism in tour planning. The alchemy of sustainable touring and fiscal security is a difficult one to conjure.

It’s easy to understand the appeal of touring for orchestras, donors, and administrators. The equation is less clear when it comes to local audiences. Berlin, for example, has 11 world class and state-funded orchestras, choirs, and ensembles. Do the subtle differences in interpretation a London group might bring outweigh the environmental cost of a tour? Doesn’t constant touring contribute to a mentality whereby audiences prefer to see the world’s best performers in their home city, rather than the perhaps slightly less exquisite local musicians? Should the outstanding recent conservatory graduate scrape by teaching piano lessons while Lang Lang returns to perform in her city multiple times a year? The benefits of performing in small towns with fewer cultural offerings—as practiced by, to name just two artists, Elizabeth A. Baker and Matt Haimovitz—are more immediate, in that they expand horizons and enrich daily life in those places. Most orchestras, however, prefer to play in cities with the potential to enhance their reputations: large capitals that, as a general rule, already have expansive cultural offerings of their own.

Still, it seems like touring will continue to become increasingly prevalent in the future. Tours are often excellent experiences for the people who go on them, even if they don’t necessarily foster broader horizons than other kinds of travel. In this vein, Classical Movements, a “premier concert tour company,” is offering an Antarctica Choir Tour at the end of this year. Tickets for 50 singers are sold at around $15,000 each, excluding airfare. (“I was…put off by the seventh continent’s status as a trophy, too remote and expensive for the common tourist to set foot on,” Jonathan Franzen wrote of the preparations for his trip there in the New Yorker.) This trip itself will certainly be fun and enriching for the participants; whether it helps with what Classical Movements calls “cultural diplomacy” is doubtful. What do the penguins have to gain from people singing?

A need remains for a sustainable tour model that makes financial sense. The basis for improving the existing system is the fact that, as Botrill pointed out, “it’s much better for the orchestra to travel out to perform than it is for thousands of people to travel to [the orchestra’s base] to hear them play.” But a former employee of a well-known London orchestra told us, “the whole financial system is fucked up,” and “at the end of the day, [orchestras] lose money every concert they do.” The monetary holes left in concert budgets are almost always plugged by donations. It’s something echoed around many circles within the industry, where income is manifest through grants and benefactors. If sustainable touring models are to be successful, donors have to be convinced of their viability. As a Bloomberg report from 2015 showed, big donors are sometimes hungry for the chance to follow the orchestras they support around on exotic tours, as well as for the ukai-gyu beef and Bordeaux served to them atop Chanel stores.

Botrill, however, saw this as an opportunity: “Climate change is a cultural issue, and therefore arts organizations are important for their engagement. Funders need to support the orchestras in developing their business model to be environmentally and financially stable.” Although audiences need to be aware of how the performances they attend are brought together, and the impact of that, the greatest power for promoting change is held—unsurprisingly—by those with the money. This means that change needs to be enacted not only by those working for orchestras and concert halls, but by those in the upper echelons of the funding hierarchy.

But though it plays a huge part in determining orchestras’ sustainability, funding alone is far from a cure. Even at orchestra’s home bases, the Julie’s Bicycle report suggests that audience travel is “likely to be the most significant area of emissions associated with holding concerts,” alongside musician travel as another key factor. Sustainability requires a change in attitude at all levels. Groups such as the Minnesota Orchestra are moving in the right direction with a number of approaches that provide free public transport to concerts, bicycle campaigns, and emissions offsetting programs—something that identifies and works with the fact that enacting change is a culture-wide issue. “The funding organizations, which are the government, can create that kind of ecosystem,” Botrill said, “but I do think the cultural sector can prepare.”

Increasingly, there is willingness to promote the kind of awareness needed in order to enact change. “The space that we’ll see more progress is in the creative work,” Botrill said. Giorgio Battistelli’s 2015 opera, “CO2,” is inspired by Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth,” and documents mankind’s destruction of the Earth. The opera is a visual collage that pits the Garden of Eden against the hectic and unceasing world of supermarket consumerism, a percussive “hurricane ballet,” the mourning of tsunami victims, and the political collapse of dealing with problems of our own making. It’s a grand undertaking that grapples with issues that cannot be comprehended on anything other than a global scale—wherein lies the challenge for artists to engage with environmental issues. More engagement like this can only be a good thing, so long as its dissemination to the world avoids falling into the very traps it sets out to make us aware of. ¶