Thoughts on Recording at COP 26 and Ideas for Working Sustainably in Audio
Updated: Dec 2, 2021
Author: Katharine Kerr (Director, Podcast Pioneers)
Last month saw citizens and leaders of the world alight in Glasgow for the UN’s Climate Change conference: COP26.
Hailed as a particularly crucial summit, the pressure was on for nations to report back on how they would be playing their part in limiting global warming to 2 degrees, and closer to the 1.5 degree target.
In addition to curious and active individuals visiting the Green Zone were the delegates and organisations in the closely guarded Blue Zone across the River Clyde. Glasgow’s SSE Hydro and Science Centre became home to a swathe of people from different backgrounds: NGOs, corporate representatives, businesses, research organisations, universities, tech innovators, protestors and policymakers passed through the doors to learn, enquire, interrogate or contribute to the conversations taking place.
And I was there too, with my microphones and my face masks and my bottles of sanitiser, to capture the responses of individuals visiting the Green Zone as well as spokespeople anxious to present the evidence of what their organisations are doing to play their part in reaching net zero carbon emissions.
What a treat it was to be amongst that bubble of hope and goodwill during the event. I was at COP on the final two days, when I understand ticketing for the general public had been relaxed and a fairly bubbly, end of festival feeling was in the air. Pledges had been made and I garnered a mix of reserve, gravity and what one person called “COPtimism” in people’s attitudes.
I met and spoke to people visiting with their children in the Green Zone, which somehow reminded me of visiting London’s Millennium Dome and its educative, interactive, experiential slant at the turn of the century. In addition to parents passing the time on a rainy day, I spoke to the partners of delegates who were in talks across the Clyde in the Blue Zone, as well as visitors from businesses operating in the built environment sector, University researchers keen to share their outputs, a delegate from a Leeds business collective who’d cycled for 5 days to get there... I also fancy I saw Jeff Goldblum in a pair of sky blue pyjamas, but then facemasks can be deceptive. Only one person refused to share his thoughts with me and he was walking around with an enigmatic, sort of Doctor Who vibe anyway. Overall the general consensus was that people had visited with open minds and were keen that the pledges made across the water would actually see the light of day, and soon.
Speaking with delegates who had been present on other days, there was also disappointment. I’ve variously heard it described as ‘like a trade show’ or ‘muted’ by visitors who were hoping to meet with a sea of roaring public opinion and vibrant debate.
The Green Zone was filled with staffed stands. I was based on one of them in the Principal
Partners Zone when doing recordings for The National Grid’s Clean Energy Revolution podcast, which we make for Fresh Air Production. Other partners present were Sky, who had upstairs installed a wonderfully immersive walk-through piece in collaboration with WWF on the importance of plant and animal biodiversity. Natwest were showcasing sustainable businesses they had kickstarted via funding schemes. Sainsbury’s had an exhibit about supply chains and the oceans. Scottish Power had an experiential piece on wind, solar, rain and such. On one of the days the most sedate and civilised protest ever wandered through, accompanied by security, but mostly I witnessed keen and understated conversations taking place between visitors and executives on these stands, challenging facts and myths and listening to one another respectfully.
I also passed through the demonstrations outside the Blue Zone on a couple of occasions: an absolute tumult of people that was as bewildering to the heart as it was the mind after 18 months of social distancing. First, on a bright sunny morning around 9am, I saw a group lying down on the floor whilst paparazzi snapped their ‘death sentence to the planet’ message. It was very audibly quiet, in spite of all the people gathered, and the police force seemed almost to outnumber the rest of us. Then on Friday afternoon I made my way up Finnieston Street again, at a glacial pace, through the crush of demonstrations. I passed a lady on the bridge. She was wearing a catsuit, dancing to a portable speaker with a blissed-out expression on her face. I did not understand her statement. A police boat hovered nervously on the river below. Then there were the sit-down protests, the boards, a small group of youngsters playing a hack version of Cards Against Humanity with packed lunches to hand. A group of Buddhists. A Batman. There were loudspeakers – that breathless and familiar soapbox rhetoric. I took a photograph of a group who all stood in with their arms about one another. I passed a religious extremist talking about the end of days with all the aspirational verve of Tony Robbins. Every message brought to the melee was individual and personal, but it underlined the importance of protest as a whole, and I appreciated them all for being there; for presenting a challenge to those representing the needs of a world that belongs to all of us and none of us, to remind the people beyond the security gates of the emotion and diversity of opinion and lives that have stakes in the matters discussed.
The prevailing call for acceleration in enacting policy made me think more closely about the gap between words and actions too, and at the crux of the summit, the frustrated agency of many in galvanising the few.
A week prior to my visit I’d closely listened as the news of the deals struck unfurled: A commitment to end deforestation joined by both Brazil and the Republic of Congo, suggested that things had gotten off to a good start. The pillars of reducing carbon emissions, protecting biodiversity on land and in oceans and supporting or co-funding nations – particularly in the Global South – to address problems where the impacts were most desperate, were all represented. There were perhaps a few areas that were less present, in the opinions of those I spoke with, such as health and in combatting the plastics problem globally.
One of our podcast clients, The University of Portsmouth, was present at COP to emphasise the importance of challenging the plastics crisis. It can be easy to overlook the interconnected nature of our world’s problems but this is one endemic to many of them. Ahead of the conference Dr Cressida Bowyer pointed this out in one of our episodes of Life Solved: Plastic pollution impacts human health as well as biodiversity in our oceans – some of the world’s biggest carbon sinks. By challenging this, and helping communities develop resilience to the impacts, we can begin to meet our other, related climate goals.
Sustainability in what we do
Now to the second half of this blog post. Beyond these personal observations, COP was of course a fascinating and enjoyable OB to be a part of, and in sifting through the information and insights to share in programmes made retrospectively, I found myself wondering what all this meant for the way we work in audio.
It struck me that there are different layers to solving problems on a global scale. At the top there is a collaborative global strategy required. That’s what the meetings of leaders aim to give us: a bid for change. But following that is the individual nation-level development of strategy, the roadmap of policy, and then after that, the enabling of this through funding and support to businesses, innovators in new solutions and of course, to persuade their general public to make key behavioural changes.
That is the hardest part, because it not only has economic costs, but requires a shift in comfort levels, at least temporarily.
A common problem for many individuals who care passionately about preserving the life of our planet, is in not having a clear idea of what they can do at their scale to make a significant difference globally. After years of absorbing the messaging, simply recycling, using resources more mindfully, finding alternative modes of transport to minimise our carbon footprints, avoiding the use of single-use plastics… all feels a little, well, little! Especially in this urgent context.
And yet that’s exactly what we need to continue doing, and more so. Because the shifts in thinking that may feel small now, add up to quite a significant behavioural change on the macroscale of society, and behavioural change is the lynchpin of implementing any national or global policy! Without us lot making green decisions, there is no green market. As audio business-owners we may not be experts in the detail, but we can definitely make choices and think creatively. What’s more, as programme-makers we all have responsibility for the sharing and dissemination of the ideas and knowledge behind a sustainable transition.
But how can we practise what we preach? Below, I’ve begun to develop a few ideas towards working more sustainably in audio, day-to-day, with what I hope are some actual, useful examples.
Perhaps if you’d like to add to this, you can email me at email@example.com and I can include your quote and credit to this blog!
Anyway, here’s a start. Let’s see if we can make this grow!
REUSE, RECYCLE, REFURB: Have you heard of the circular economy? It’s a model of consumption where resources are cycled round a system so that their value isn’t linear. That means their parts or components can be refurbished, recycled, repaired or re-used. One example is refurbished computer equipment. You can also get some great deals on refurbished technology and they can even sometimes come with a guarantee. Having just melted my beloved but beaten old Macbook Pro (the keys R and T just fell off, Pro Tools user), I think I’ll be looking out a refurbished model to join me on the road. Or perhaps I’ll just buy something that is affordable to take apart and repair?
Oh and as an aside, if you really enjoy your resource economics chat, check out our client Green Alliance’s episode on Doughnut Economics with Kate Raworth here.
Whether it’s a lucky find on ebay, preloved or Gumtree, or going to vendors who stock secondhand kit alongside their new products, you might find a gem second hand. What’s more, you probably won’t have all the excessive packaging you’d get from a box fresh product. Here are a few sites I found just now, but be mindful you check your rights and guarantees before parting with your cash. Here’s a great Sound on Sound article on a few pitfalls to avoid.
Reverb have a secondhand section with some good portable recorders.
Studiocare have a Used Equipment section with some Genelec monitors I have my eye on.
Here’s a US-based site with some vintage treats for all you misty-eyed ISDN users.
Another option is to buy products that include service and repair packages, so that if you are getting something shiny and new, you’ll know it’ll stand you in good stead.
CHOOSE ETHICAL MANUFACTUERS: You can vote with your feet too. By looking into the sustainability policies of manufacturers, you can support those who are doing their bit in supply chains and production with your buying decisions. Yes, shopping locally can reduce the emissions from transportation, but my village is fresh out of mic manufacturers, so how else can you make an ethical choice? Well, take Shure for example. For well over a decade they’ve had a strong ethos of recycling and re-use of material that would otherwise enter landfills, and they’ve made changes in ensuring their packaging can be recycled too. Sennheiser have also made the effort to outline how they’re thinking about energy use and sustainable production too. And even if there aren’t dedicated teams within the big manufacturers out there, that’s not to say they’re not thinking about how their supply-chains and logistics could be greener and zero carbon on the path to 2030. Perhaps I’ll be that annoying person that asks?
In the Studio and Workplace
Kitwise, see above. But in terms of repairing and re-using items, your best bet here might just be a great engineer.
ENERGY: If you are responsible for the physical premises of where you and your team work, then you can make some greener decisions about energy too. From smart or energy-saving lightbulbs to draft-proofing or smart heating programmes to help regulate temperature in the rooms you use, there are a multitude of solutions available to help you stay comfortable, cost-effective and kind to the environment. Check out this government-backed website which might help you navigate the options: https://www.smartenergygb.org/smart-living
If your studio is heavily insulated with sound-dampening equipment then you might be one step ahead of those struggling to retrofit old buildings to keep the heat in. But in summer it’s a whole different kettle of fish. Refrigeration is increasingly a problem as our climate warms. The units used for cooling can actually contribute to the heat of cities and add to a vicious cycle of warming in the urban environment. In our cosy studios we’re surrounded by heat-generating equipment (not to mention those 30 half-drunk mugs of tea). If you can open a door or window to cool things down instead of getting air-con trigger happy, you’ll be doing your bit. Pre-warn your guests to bring layers they can add or shed to be comfortable in the studio. A happy presenter is a happy producer, after all.
Oh, and that old chestnut: putting computers to sleep or switching them off at night can still also slightly reduce the energy you use. If it’s a super old machine, it’s understandable that this can make the 30 minute morning boot-up agony, but I’m hoping that’s a thing of the past for many!
ALL THE EXTRAS: Oh those studios with the fridges and the cans of coke or bottles of sparkling water. Do you really need them? What about the little piles of individually-wrapped, branded sweeties that your client is about to break a molar on? Do you need that?
RECYCLING: Clearly label recycling points so guests know where they can dispose of their used items when visiting.
THIRST FOR CHANGE: Provide glasses, ceramic mugs and water taps and encourage your superstars to bring their own takeaway mugs and bottles if they prefer vessels untainted by the hands of lowly production staff. And when you’re washing hands or crockery, here’s an interesting fact I learned at COP: hot water makes no difference to cold in the activation of anti-bacterial enzymes in soaps and washing liquid. So it’s cold showers from now on, for the sake of Gaia. Kidding, really.
DO YOU NEED TO PRINT? As my 5 year-old niece elucidated this weekend, paper is not always the solution to our single-use plastics problem. We still need to replace what we consume, so if you don’t need to print it, don’t bother!
REWARD: If you’re responsible for motivating people, why not give your team beers and treats in exchange for helping think up climate-conscious initiatives around your shared workplaces? Patronising? Yes. Green? Also yes.
POWER TO THE PEOPLE: Do you go through batteries like a neurotic fiend on location? You can usually recycle these at supermarkets and the like, but better still, how about switching to rechargeable batteries? These apparently have 28 times less of a potential impact on global warming than their single-use counterparts. For extra points, put them on to charge at times when the grid is running on green power in your location and less carbon intense. You can find out when that is with National Grid’s new WhenToPlugin app (yes, we make their podcast , yes we have a green lightbulb here in the office and yes we believe).
Travelling and Working On Location
Well, here’s an easy one.
DO YOU NEED TO? There are times when nothing beats the intimacy of face-to-face interaction. What’s more, recording soundscapes and responses of your talent on location can make for magical, immersive listening. But sometimes it’s just plain unnecessary (and expensive!) to ship presenters and guests across the city in cabs, or across the nation in private cars when they could happily be sitting at home with their own recorder, using green, clean electricity to power a Zoom chat face-to-face.
The pandemic has at least lowered the resistance amongst many to using online means of communication and increased the comfort levels of people who are now working and meeting remotely on a regular basis. Is there a justifiable reason to travel? Then why bother burning the fuel?
Alternatively, if you couldn’t face your green self after a long-haul flight or journey for a short trip, get onto networks such as the UK Audio Network (Google Groups) and ask your fellow producers to help connect you with local tape syncers who can gather quality sound whilst you have peace of mind from miles away.
ACTIVE OR SHARED TRAVEL: Yes, that’s your pony, bike, scooter, wheelchair or feet. As someone who records in a lot of remote places, I’ve pushed this one a little at the expense of my back (that rucksack gets heavy after the first hour!) and wouldn’t expect any team member or employee to carry heavy kit for distances. If you’re able to walk some distance in comfort, then great. Otherwise, why not combine the journey with use of public transport that’s ideally electric. Some ride-hailing apps like Freenow also give you the option to hire electric vehicles or bikes too.
OFFSET YOUR FOOTPRINT: For those times when you have to make the trip there are some handy apps to play with:
Looking for a hotel? With every booking made via Hopper, Hopper Trees will plant up to four trees as part of their carbon offset programme. Find out more here.
The WWF offers this questionnaire to work out your carbon footprint.
Want to fund something amazing with a portion of your profits? Check out Klima’s subscription model where you can offset your company’s carbon footprint through tree-planting programmes, solar power initiatives or clean cooking projects. Seriously, what an amazing way to contribute towards our climate future!
COMFORT ON LOCATION: Notify your presenters and staff to bring their own reusable water bottle and cups, and identify the locations of water and coffee top-up points on your reccy. Make sure this is in your OB plan. Plus, make sure you’ve pre-charged your reusable batteries and packs before you leave, to avoid falling back on single-use solutions.
Staying Safe in a Pandemic
Single-use plastics aren’t great. But plastic is superbly useful for many critical purposes, especially where its use is justified in service of human health. Since the pandemic struck, I’ve been using masks on my microphones to preserve the life of windshields which can be difficult to replace and this has very little impact on the sound quality. I've been thinking that a simple way to go a little greener would be to swap these out for reusable, washable versions. If you can pre-warn your contributors to bring their own (ideally re-usable, washable) masks to recordings, you can avoid having to make a decision between going green and staying safe.
Energy for your team
In a moment of food-based panic, I recently spent £14 at Ipswich station on 4 x Eat Natural bars and a bottle of hand sanitiser. It turns out my presenter didn’t even want a snack that day. They (the bars, not the presenter) would have perished in my rucksack if I hadn’t obstinately force-fed myself the offending items when re-discovered some weeks later.
It’s hard to eat well and mindfully on the road isn’t it? If you’re fed up with trying to make food decisions that don’t drain ecosystems of water or necessitate the vast clearing and burning of cloud forests and habitats for production, there’s not yet a handy catalogue in the internet. And yet playing it safe and eating only things your pet cat would turn their nose up / something you made at home at isn’t always the most viable option either. Planning ahead is always worthwhile. You can choose to support local businesses, and make sure that everyone is provided for on the day by booking restaurants that offer seasonal choices that cater to everyone’s needs.
Snackwise, guests, staff and presenters may have a variety of different food requirements, whether they’re gluten-free, allergic, pregnant or whatever. Ultimately their health and wellbeing has to come first. So planning ahead and shopping for globally-certified labels as a guide might be our best chance of keeping everyone snacked-up sustainably. Defra has created this helpful guide to labels such as Fairtrade, Rainforest Alliance Certified and Soil Association Organic standards. I guess you could just choose options with compostable, recycled, recyclable and minimal packaging for starters.
Unsustainable palm oil has large-scale deforestation to answer for, impacting global warming and biodiversity loss to boot. By looking for RSPO certified sustainable palm oil, you can make sure you’re using products that don’t attack the planet whilst avoiding alternative products (which could be just as bad or worse).
Let’s talk about this!
Well, that’s a start isn’t it. I hope these ideas have inspired you to make a difference in your audio business, however large or small. I'm certainly going to start implementing a few of these at Podcast Pioneers.
Let’s start a conversation! If you’d like to add an idea of your own to this list, then feel free to send one along to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’d be delighted to add this and credit you and your business too!
See you out there, in our beautiful world!