EDINBURGH right now jostles with people from all over the world. The Fringe boasts, this year, shows from a record 63 countries. The Edinburgh International Festival saw 2,800 artists arrive from 41 countries including Australia, Nigeria, Canada, Belgium, China, Mali, Holland, South Africa, France, Germany and India, and opened with a breath-taking concert by the LA Philharmonic. All these global connections sound worthy of celebration – until you pause to think that in order to return-fly enough people to form a philharmonic orchestra from Los Angeles to the UK, you have to leave an emissions trail of at least 170 tonnes of carbon dioxide.

We don’t know how many people fly into Scotland every year specifically for Edinburgh’s festivals, but we do know that they attract around 4.7 million visitors, and that half of the Edinburgh Military Tattoo audience come from outside UK, as do a quarter of the Fringe audience. Most likely these visitors arrived by air – a fact which, given the climate emergency, casts a shadow over the fun. It begs the question, are our festivals sustainable? And can they evolve to be so?

This year Edinburgh’s festivals bring us important messages about the climate crisis – whether through Extinction Rebellion's residency at Summerhall or Fragile Planet events at Edinburgh International Book Festival. Amongst the stand-out shows have been Carbon Casualties, a stunning and revelatory exhibition by New York Times photographer Josh Haner, Canadian science journalist Alanna Mitchell's award-winning show about how we’re altering the chemistry of the ocean, Sea Sick. It There has even been a full, live-reading of the 1.5 Degrees IPCC report, with all its warnings about how we need to act now or face devastating climate change. But the festivals also come with their own emissions costs. Big questions, therefore, surround them. How can they help meet the current climate emergency, which has been declared by the Scottish Government? And is it possible to create the kind of trans-global connections they foster without pumping out thousands of tonnes of carbon? What does climate change mean for the greatest show on earth?

There are no easy answers to these questions, but the festivals' organisers are trying to grapple with them. As Sophie Moxon, executive director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival puts it, “We all have difficult questions to ask ourselves – both individually and collectively and we believe that we will see significant changes over the next few years. Changes that may not be entirely palatable. The Book Festival intends to be at the forefront of these discussions.”

Our astounding, world-leading festivals are valued for many reasons. They contribute hugely to our economy. They inspire and entertain us. The Edinburgh festival was born out of a post-war desire to bind nations – to cultivate understanding. Don’t we need that more than ever? Most festival organisers say we do – though not if it comes at cost to the planet. “We don’t want,” says Donald Smith, director of the Scottish International Storytelling Festival, “to lose occasions where people of different beliefs and backgrounds come together. But we have to think about how we’re going to do this in a way that is less environmentally consumptive.”

A drive is already underway around delivering them more sustainably. Our festivals, says Festivals Edinburgh director Julia Amour, have a “longstanding commitment to environmentalism" and are "on the journey to accelerate carbon reduction.” In 2011 the organisation was part of setting up Creative Carbon Scotland which now provides guidance to arts organisation on reducing environmental impact.

Among those who have thought about the issue profoundly is Simon Gage, director of the Edinburgh Science Festival, which has long highlighted climate change in its events. He recalls that when he read the IPCC report last November his blood ran cold. “What was clear,” he says, “was that it had reached that point where the time to do anything is very short.”

One of the conclusions he came to after reading it was that there was an urgent need to change business models here in Scotland. “We’ve done the easy changes," he says, "and now we’re moving into the painful ones. Some of the greatest pain will have to come through change of business model.”

Since the greatest part of emissions from his festival are associated with travel, Gage now tries where possible to avoid flying for his work – and says he will do so “until flying is fixed”, which he imagines will take between ten and twenty years.

The science festival is also, he says, looking at how digital technology can be used to make global connections. “We’re investing in tech to try to find out how we can bring people to our festival to speak without having to physically come here – because increasingly academics are saying, ‘I’m not getting on a plane.’"

Many of the festivals are already working on similar reduction strategies. Sophie Moxon describes, “We at the Edinburgh International Book Festival have long held a policy that all travel within the UK for staff should be made by train, and in recent years have asked all authors travelling to Edinburgh from destinations within the UK to also travel by train.” The Edinburgh Art Festival, Sorcha Carey describes, is also reducing air travel and has looked at things like how artworks are shipped – sea rather than air. The Fringe has a "green guide", and organises sustainability events and activities, like paper recycling and a Fringe "swap shop"..

The Edinburgh International Festival, since its whole raison d'etre is to bring in performers from all round the world, faces some of the biggest questions around how it might operate. Francesca Hegyi, its executive director, says, "Reducing our carbon emissions is an essential part of our future. As an international festival we have a particular challenge, as bringing in artists from across the world to Edinburgh has a significant impact on our carbon footprint. Looking forward, we are working on ways to reduce these emissions and also exploring alternatives such as carbon capture."

All this is small fry, though, in comparison with the elephant in the room – the fact that a significant proportion of audience arrive by aeroplane. “In the future,” Simon Gage proposes, “one of the biggest things that needs to change is that the audience needs to be arriving predominantly by a carbon neutral means, most likely road and rail. At the moment we’re marketing ourselves in New York and in Australia. We should be marketing ourselves in Normandy and Cornwall.”

It may be that our festivals will be more about sharing with our closer neighbours -–with an emphasis on train travel. Ben Twist, director of Creative Carbon Scotland, and blogger on sustainability in the arts, observes, “Travelling in Europe by plane is about five times more carbon intensive than travelling by train.”

Twist believes the challenges currently facing us are huge. “It’s not enough to say we’re going to recycle a few coffee cups,” he says. “It’s thinking about not only how we do what we do, but what we do. But it’s important to say that the challenges the festivals face also must be faced by many other organisations.”

The festivals are part of our tourist industry, and the same kind of questions hover over tourism, which produces, according to a report published last year, eight per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, and rising. The anxieties we feel around the future of tourism in a world where we do try and hit the necessary emissions targets are closely related to those we might feel around the festivals. It's also not just our festivals, but the whole international festival and conference scene that is going to have to ask itself these questions.

Cheap air travel, Ben Twist acknowledges, is at the heart of the way many of our sectors operate – and that must change. “Cheap air travel is going to become less possible as time goes by and less socially acceptable. Also I think in due course it will be taxed. So any organisation sinking a lot of its business model on air travel needs to be aware of that.”

It’s possible therefore that the kind of growths in festival visitor numbers we have seen in recent decades will grind to a halt. This isn't something that is universally decried. In fact, some artists, like fringe producer, Jo Mackie, who has brought her show Staged to Edinburgh, see "the whole growth narrative" around Edinburgh as a problem and barrier to sustainability.

As Donald Smith, director of the Scottish International Storytelling Festival conjectures, “Some festivals may be a bit smaller in the future. They may compensate for that by having a bigger digital broadcasting output.”

Among those theatre practitioners pushing for change within the festivals, is Alice Boyd founder of Staging Change, a performer-led organisation trying to make their industry more sustainable. She believes that "travel and energy" are the biggest issues the festivals face. "There are so many shows from different countries and you have this trade off between cultural exchange and potentially that having a positive effect for the environment and other issues. So at the Royal Court, this is part of the international festival, there are writers from Brazil, China, India, South Africa and Syria all taking different perspectives on climate change. Things like that are fantastic. But when you look at the carbon emissions of people coming here, we do have to start thinking about other alternative ways to do this.”

Some shows, she says, are already exploring ways of tackling the issue of air miles. As Boyd points out, “There’s a show called Pathetic Fallacy where the director is live-directing it from Canada each day and you have a different performer each day - so as not to fly over. There’s Sea Sick where they’ve been looking at carbon off-setting.”

Many believe such change is graspable. Katie Smith, creator of 1.5 Degrees Live, a live-reading of the entire 2018 IPCC report, says "The IPCC report calls on us to begin "rapid and unprecedented societal transformation". This requires that we reimagine how we engage with each other and the arts and even what a festival looks like. The great thing about the Edinburgh festivals is that they are a powerful reminder of the creativity and ingenuity in the people all around us. Surely it is not beyond us to imagine a way to live without fossil fuels."

Should we worry that such changes will me we will then lose the opportunity to create important cross-cultural connections? Perhaps - though Ben Twist is not so sure they were so vital. “Myself, I’ve been abroad as an artist,” he says, “and I’ve done lots of work in New Zealand and South America, and very often the people I meet doing these things are people rather like me. They speak English. They’re in the arts world. They broadly share my values.”

Maybe, he observes, the people we need to speak with most, at this time of national divisions, are those in our own countries with different views from ourselves. No huge emissions required.