Coldplay had a head full of dreams this week when they announced the details of a low-emission world tour driven by concerns for sustainability. Some of the green interventions are well-meaning, others are just gimmicks, such as a kinetic dance floor that generates electricity from the movement of fans. However, the detail of some of the proposed climate measures would appal even the mildly eco-minded.
Perhaps worst of all is the partnership with Neste – a Finnish oil refining and marketing corporation that will provide the band with “sustainable aviation fuels” for flights and “renewable diesel” for tour transportation and stage power generation.
Neste claims to be the world’s biggest biofuel company, processing 1.3m tonnes of palm oil and palm oil products into fuel in 2019, according to Friends of the Earth. Biofuels are composed of animal or plant waste, such as ethanol derived from maize, and are therefore marketed as “renewable”.
The problems start with the huge land area growing crops for biofuel can require, often driving land grabs and presenting insurmountable challenges to food security. Besides this, biofuel production is hardly a climatic or ecological paradise – it causes severe emissions and habitat and biodiversity loss through deforestation.
Neste claims to be “uniquely positioned” to supply fuels “produced from 100% renewable raw materials, such as used cooking oil”. They neglect to mention the other less savory sources that end up in sustainable aviation fuel and biodiesel, such as animal fats and what many authorities consider to be byproducts of palm oil – which in the past has been linked to deforestation and human rights abuses. A spokesperson from Neste said “conventional palm oil” was not used as a “raw material” in the Coldplay collaboration.
You could excuse the band’s headlong dive into what critics have called “greenwash” as a rush of blood to the head – had they not announced a pause on touring in 2019 until they could do so carbon neutrally. Three years later, they thought halfway was good enough, with their 2022 tour projected to be 50% lower in emissions than their last, with the other half achieved through offsetting.
Decarbonising live music is necessary, laudable and a daunting task. But, like many facets of the climate world, the real routes to cutting emissions are rarely sexy.
Coldplay are not the first to explore this, with Radiohead attempting a low-carbon tour in 2008, making use of alternative travel and local equipment hiring. More recent contenders for green rockstars include Massive Attack, who have argued that the challenge is “to avoid more pledges, promises and greenwashing headlines and instead embrace seismic change”.
The Bristolian trio commissioned a report by the Tyndall Center for Climate Change Research, which outlines a roadmap for super low-carbon live music. It does not suggest bikes to power a stadium (another Coldplay stunt) or jets run on palm oil byproducts. The findings are less eye-catching, but more precise.
Massive Attack’s report suggests less aviation, rather than celebrating alternative fuels, is necessary. Skepticism of sustainable aviation fuels, after all, is justified: they have been promised for decades, but only accounted for 0.01% of jet fuel in 2019. According to a study by the International Civil Aviation Organization in 2019, 328 new large bio-refineries would need to be built every year by 2035 to swap all jet fuel for biofuel in international aviation, costing roughly $ 29-115bn a year.
Other suggestions to decarbonise the music industry include hiring kit and crew locally, using public transport for personnel and electric vehicles where possible for vital kit transport. This is a far cry from Neste’s biodiesel, which will truck around Coldplay’s equipment. Research suggests that when scarce “waste oils” are used to produce biodiesel, it displaces their use in other sectors, which then have to turn to other sources like palm oil.
Then there’s the freighting of equipment around the world. Solutions here include developing and promoting “plug and play” models for venues, reducing the need to freight heavy items around the world, and the standardization of equipment worldwide.
Importantly, Massive Attack eschew carbon offsets, currently the go-to climate solution for most eco-minded people in the music industry. Coldplay say they will make their tour “neutral” by offsetting the other half through technologies like carbon capture and storage. But campaigners and climate scientists have long argued offsetting should be reserved only for “hard-to-decarbonise” sectors – think the cement industry, not gigs. Otherwise, it simply provides a quick fix excuse for the rich and famous who plan to pollute now and offset later.
Of course, not all of Coldplay’s efforts are for show, and it is an admirable step down the path to zero-emissions music. But to really make an impact, more consideration should be put into what they are indirectly promoting with their emissions reductions schemes. Perhaps this could start with a conscious uncoupling from Neste.