WEEKEND: The Lahti Musicians Playing A Different Tune For Climate Change

Orchestra's efforts to go green could help Lahti's chances of being named European Green Capital 2020.

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File picture of Lahti Symphony Orchestra tuba / Credit: Lahti Symphony

Musicians in Lahti are blowing a lot of hot air, and thinking about its environmental impact.

The Lahti Symphony Orchestra aims to be Finland’s first carbon neutral orchestra.

Although the concept is just now getting fully underway, it’s already won an award. In May, the orchestra was one of three winners of a Classical:NEXT innovation award at a ceremony in Rotterdam, for their forward-thinking approach to the environment.

“If a symphony orchestra can create a project like this, then anyone can do it. That’s the key thing” says Teemu Kirjonen, the orchestra’s General Manager.

“We are not the kind of operator that would generate a lot of waste and dump it into the lake next to us. But we would still like to do some change for the better” he says.

The idea to create a carbon neutral orchestra began back in 2015 at a workshop to discuss climate change. Inspired by speakers at the event, the orchestra partnered with a Finnish environmental NGO to develop their plans.

“We feel that it’s very important that we start to develop this. It’s not just a cultural organisation saying we want to be green. We really do research and find results, and so we can proceed with our project according to scientific results” Kirjonen tells News Now Finland.

One of the biggest steps the orchestra will take, is cutting its greenhouse gas emissions to  half of the 1990 levels, by 2025.

As an orchestra that tours internationally, they’ll also be looking at how to adapt their travel plans to make them more environmentally friendly, and cooperating closely with Sibelius Hall in Lahti – their main performance venue – which was built in 2000 to exacting environmental specifications.

“Travel is an extra challenge for us. We go to Stockholm, we go to St. Petersburg, and it’s good that we can go by train. But in the future, doing tours around the world, we have to think how do we offset that travel” says Kirjonen.

“Of course the whole issue here is that we can’t be in our activities 100% carbon neutral. First we study and examine our activities, then try to diminish what we can, and compensate [offset] the rest” he adds.

Audience Involvement

One of the first carbon neutral projects the orchestra initiative was to partner with their ticket seller, and add a ‘green button’ option for customers.

“When you bought a ticket via internet then it was a possibility to push a green button and there you could give money to environmental projects, channeled through [a local NGO partner] to UN-approved projects” explains Teemu Kirjonen.

The Lahti Symphony Orchestra dates back almost 70 years, and has 67 full time musicians and another ten staff working for the organisation. Their carbon neutral plans are linked to Lahti city’s efforts to be a centre of excellence for urban environmental awareness: it’s the only Nordic city in the running to be European Green Capital 2020.

“It’s not that the orchestra thinks we are superheroes for the world. That’s not the thing. But what we can maybe do is really raise attention, and this is something we are working on” says Kirjonen.

Lahti Symphony Orchestra musicians wearing bike helmets to highlight their efforts to be more environmentally friendly / Credit: Sinfonia Lahti

Green Orchestra Movement

Lahti Symphony might be the first orchestra in Finland with ambitious plans to be carbon neutral, but there’s other movements around the world working towards the same goal.

In the UK, the Green Orchestra Charter is trying to get the whole arts ecosystem thinking about environmental sustainability: from orchestras themselves, to concert venues, promoters and agents too.

By signing up to the charter, orchestras commit to taking environmental sustainability into account in their “planning, performance and promotion of orchestral music”.

An advisory groups helps orchestras to take practical action with touring and travel for themselves as well as the audiences who come to see their concerts; and give environmental advice on the buildings where they rehearse and perform.

The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra works to reduce emissions of audience travel and promotes public transport. They also partnered with a bus company to run services to concerts, so that the audience can buy a combined travel-and-concert ticket, and travel in a more environmentally friendly way.

The London Symphony Orchestra tours extensively, and typically plans travel three or four years in advance. This allows them to book more efficient transport options, and on recent tours in Japan as well as around the EU they’ve been traveling by train which cuts their emissions drastically.

Finland’s Carbon Neutral Goals

Looking at the bigger picture, the current government announced last year its plans for Finland to be carbon neutral by 2045. And although there is political disagreement about the country’s ability to reach its Paris Climate Agreement goals by then, ministers say the Nordic countries could cooperate to reach those milestones.

“In the international context this would place Finland among the highly ambitious countries. Of the other countries Sweden, for example, has set similar targets” said Environment Minister Kimmo Tiilikainen (Centre) said in a press release last year.

“Together with the other Nordic countries we can be the trailblazers of ambitious climate policy” he added.

In Helsinki, the capital has its own plans to be carbon neutral by 2035, by reducing energy consumption and increasing on-site renewable energy generation in the city.

The new goal is 15 years faster than the previous goal to be carbon neutral by 2050 – and in the meantime, Helsinki plans to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 60% from 1990 levels to 2030.

One of Helsinki’s targets to reduce greenhouse emissions most sharply is in the public transport sector. More city bikes for example give residents sustainable modes of travel, and more electric vehicle will be on the street.

“Helsinki can achieve its goal in transportation, which is much stricter than the national goal, owing to the increasing density in our urban structure. Helsinki has excellent opportunities to promote public transportation, walking, and cycling” says Esa Nikunen, Director General of Helsinki Environment Services.

Meanwhile in Turku and the southwest of Finland, they’ve hatched their own plans to make Satakunta a carbon neutral province by 2040.

Autumn Concerts

Back in Lahti, the orchestra is just starting its summer break, but they’re looking ahead to the autumn, playing the live soundtrack to a screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic 1958 film Vergito; and a series of Sibelius-themed performances coming up in September.

By then, the carbon neutral project will be even more advanced than it already is.

“We all must do our share for climate change, and we can’t do it some time in the future, we must do it now” says Lahti Symphony Orchestra General Manager Teemu Kirjonen.

“This is the strong message we want to give with our project, to the whole society”.