Pinhead Institute Executive Director Sarah Holbrooke loves festivals. She really does.
“The great thing about festivals is they bring everyone together,” she said. “It’s the congregation, right? … There’s something so life affirming about being together, experiencing something amazing next to someone. I feel like in this digital world, it’s so important to stand shoulder to shoulder with each other; physically, I mean, and not just a thumbs-up on a social media site.”
The drawback to festivals, though, including this weekend’s 46th annual Telluride Bluegrass Festival, is the hefty carbon footprint. Even just getting festivarians to the festival is problematic.
“Only 2,500 people actually live here,” Holbrooke pointed out. “If we left it to only the people who could get here on foot, it wouldn’t be the same amazing congregation of people who come here from all over.”
Planet Bluegrass, in 2007, began to offset its carbon emissions and has since been recognized as a Certified B Corporation, one of only two festival/event companies to earn the prestigious environmental kudo, according to Planet Bluegrass Director of Sustainability Madison Watson.
“Thanks to cofounder Steve Szymanski, Planet Bluegrass has been at the forefront of sustainability for nearly two decades,” she said. “Large-scale events have a proportionately large impact on the surrounding community and environment, so it’s crucial to the health and longevity of the event to mitigate our negative impacts and create a net positive experience for all. We feel responsible for reducing our footprint and educating our festivarian community on why we do what we do.”
In 2017, Planet Bluegrass began a partnership with Telluride’s Pinhead Climate Institute (PCI) and national conservation nonprofit Ducks Unlimited in order to purchase its carbon offsets a little closer to home — the May family ranch near Lamar in Prowers County.
According to climate scientist, Pinhead volunteer and self-described “carbon accountant” Dr. Adam Chambers, who works with Planet Bluegrass on the program, the program succeeds in offsetting all of the carbon emitted by the Bluegrass Festival.
“Kudos to Planet Bluegrass,” Chambers said. “What they do is they calculate the carbon footprint of their whole festival. They look at electricity consumption, transportation, food, everything. I would say they are among the most ambitious festivals. They have developed their own greenhouse gas inventory for the festival. Where they can reduce emissions, they reduce emissions and where they cannot find a solution, they purchase carbon offsets.”
New this year, not only will carbon emissions for the festival as a whole be neutralized, but festivarians can now purchase individual offsets from Holbrooke and her fellow Pinheads at a booth in Greentown in the sponsors tent.
Holbrooke said, “This year, Planet Bluegrass is still going to offset their own carbon emissions like they have been doing, but they’re also encouraging people who attend to buy their own offsets through us at the festival. We’ll have our own table with our own app and you can buy through PayPal. We’re making wallet-card-sized wooden certificates saying that you’ve bought a carbon offset.”
PCI will sell three levels of offsets: an offset for 1 ton of carbon for $15, an offset for the carbon emitted annually by a typical American family — about 19 tons — for $285, or the carbon emitted each year by a typical Telluride family, which is 36 tons, for $495.
The project is chockfull of local connections. Local architect and designer Domi Bruneau designed the certificates, which were cut by the laser cutter in the Pinhead STEM lab at Telluride High School. Telluride website and app developer Suz Remec created the app, which will facilitate on-site purchases at the Pinhead booth.
For her part, Holbrooke said she is excited for the new initiative.
“This is the first time we’re having an organized, official selling of these offsets at a major festival,” Holbrooke said. “We’ll do it again with Original Thinkers and Blues & Brews.”
The offsets are just a part of other environmentally friendly moves by Planet Bluegrass to make the Bluegrass Festival as green as possible.
“New this year, we are working with a team of students from CU Boulder’s Master of the Environment program to conduct waste and energy audits,” Watson explained. “In addition, we are collecting plastic film and unwanted beer cups for recycling, and continuing other programming that we’ve established over the years, such as utilizing a team of volunteers to help festivarians sort their waste, requiring vendors to use only compostable products, sourcing food from local suppliers, working with environmentally-conscious partners and donating leftover food to local food banks.”
Selling offsets at Bluegrass is one of a range of initiatives by PCI, an offshoot of the Pinhead Institute that was founded in 2017 by Holbrooke, Chambers and Chris Arndt, an author and board member of the Natural Resources Defense Council. In addition to its outreach to festivals, PCI also sells carbon offsets year-round through its website and has pioneered a program with the local Galloping Goose network to offset the carbon dioxide the buses emit.
Projects like these are crucial, Chambers said.
“These are climate solutions-based projects,” he explained. “People talk about the climate change problem. We’re moving beyond the climate change problem and we are working on solutions. So, what they have here is an opportunity to invest in a climate solution and be solutions-oriented festivarians, if you like, and get away from talking about the problem and just start solving the problem that we all know exists.
“The atmosphere can’t tolerate more CO2.”
What is it about PCI that makes it uniquely placed to bring together diverse entities — like Ducks Unlimited and Planet Bluegrass — to make these projects possible?
“Telluride always punches above its weight, right?” Holbrooke said. “It’s a cute little town, but we have such amazing people coming in and out of it who really care about making the world a better place and who have the skills and connections to do it. People might say we’re really lucky, but it’s not luck. That’s just how things happen here.”