A greater effort towards helping the climate could also help to bring Cambridge choirs to those who wouldn't otherwise experience themGEOGRAPH / RICHARD CROFT

Support for a ‘green recovery’ from Covid-19 has been widespread since the early days of the pandemic. At Climate Assembly UK, a citizens’ assembly which gathered last summer to discuss Britain’s response to the climate crisis, 93% of participants agreed that ‘government, employers and/or others’ should encourage environmentally-minded lifestyle changes. Similarly, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) highlighted in its May 2020 letter to Boris Johnson the opportunity to normalise positive, emissions-reducing behaviours, ‘especially for travel’. We clearly consider individual lifestyle changes to be an important part of any green recovery scenario.

The third national lockdown has stripped bare Cambridge’s thriving extracurricular landscape. We students, too, are now presented with a unique opportunity to re-evaluate what we do. Many of us share the views of the CCC and Climate Assembly: 67% of respondents to a survey aimed at current Cambridge choral scholars, conducted last summer, agreed that choir tours ‘must be decarbonised as soon as possible’. Several students stated that they had flown over 30 times with their college choir, whilst one singer reported a staggering 40 flights.

“We must address our choirs’ entrenched, unsustainable habits”

No fewer than 23 of the 26 college choirs in the university’s choral awards booklet advertise the prospect of international touring to potential applicants, despite pledges of divestment and decarbonisation across the university and colleges.

It is clear that we must address our choirs’ entrenched, unsustainable habits. Aviation is responsible for around 6% of human-caused global heating, according to environmental group Stay Grounded. This cost is hugely unjust: the Institute for European Environmental Policy reports that only 5-20% of the global population has ever flown. This minority mostly lives in developed countries, yet it is developing countries, where rural populations depend on agriculture, that feel the brunt of these emissions.

Stefan Gössling, a researcher on transport and sustainability at Sweden’s Lund and Linnaeus universities, claims there is ‘no [individual] human activity that emits as much CO2 over such a short period of time as aviation’.

Not flying does not mean not touring. It simply means making the most of the many existing land- and sea-based alternatives to air travel. Two thirds of survey respondents would react positively to the news of a celebrated ensemble committing itself to not flying. Although international European rail travel can be more expensive than budget plane tickets, college choirs are in a unique position amongst musical groups; since they have the backing of largely wealthy institutions – their colleges – finding the cheapest modes of touring is not an imperative. What’s more, our choirs’ members are not, unlike a large number of freelance professionals, reliant on international touring to put food on the table. Professionally employed staff singers, or ‘lay clerks’, are paid primarily for their regular activities in college chapels.

“The audiences felt special – they appreciated the time we’d invested in reaching the concert halls.”

The benefits of rail touring go beyond the environment. Margaret Faultless, co-leader of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, recalls that the extra time spent travelling by train to Poland and Hungary during the Orchestra’s ‘Green Tour’ of February 2020 nurtured the ensemble’s social as well as musical bonds. “Alongside the exchange of artistic ideas that went on during the train journeys, everyone was contributing far more to the final rehearsals, where normally only a few would feel confident to make suggestions.” She added: “The audiences felt special – they appreciated the time we’d invested in reaching the concert halls.”

Sustainable alternatives to long-haul tours are, admittedly, harder to find – our choirs regularly visit North America, East Asia and Australia. Although engaging with audiences or other ensembles is often far less rewarding when it happens online, it is questionable whether the acoustic and social benefits of in-person concert-giving really justify the vast emissions they incur. German non-profit Atmosfair calculates that a flight from London to New York results in the emission of about 986 kilograms of CO2 emission per passenger, not including the other harmful gases found in planes’ contrails. The average citizen in 56 countries emits less than this per year.


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Besides, many innovative, inspiring, and international online projects have emerged during the Covid-19 pandemic, ranging from candid interviews with renowned artists and ticketed recorded concerts to cross-disciplinary collaboration.

Some argue that it would be a shame not to spread the British choral tradition around the world. But with the help of the internet, we can easily avoid cultural isolation. The time freed up by avoiding international flights would also provide invaluable opportunities for choirs to take their music to areas in and around the UK where chances to hear and work with top-quality choirs and conductors are scarce, or non-existent.

As younger people continue to join the ranks of our college choirs, the need to adapt our practices grows, as the meteoric rise of Greta Thunberg and school strikes in 2018 attests. It is vital that choirs and individuals alike recognise the urgent need to take personal responsibility for our actions: atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are the highest they have ever been in human history, and the one million years preceding it. The Covid-19 recovery presents a unique, exciting opportunity to change what we do for the better. Let us not waste it.