VSoldplay had their heads full of dreams this week when they announced details of a low-emissions world tour driven by sustainability concerns. Some of the green interventions are well-intentioned, others are just gimmicks, like a kinetic dance floor that generates electricity from the movement of fans. However, the detail of some of the proposed climate measures would appall even moderate environmentalists.
Perhaps worst of all is the partnership with Neste – a Finnish oil refining and marketing company that will supply the group with “sustainable aviation fuels” for flights and “renewable diesel” for transporting tours and power generation on stage.
Neste claims to be the world’s largest biofuels company, turning 1.3 million tonnes of palm oil and palm oil products into fuel in 2019, according to Friends of the Earth. Biofuels are made from animal or plant waste, such as ethanol from corn, and are therefore marketed as “renewable”.
The problems start with the huge acreage of land that can be required to grow crops for biofuels, often leading to land grabs and presenting insurmountable challenges to food security. On top of that, biofuel production is no climate or ecological paradise – it causes serious emissions and loss of habitat and biodiversity through deforestation.
Neste claims to be “in a unique position” to supply fuels “produced from 100% renewable raw materials, such as used cooking oil”. They neglect to mention the other less tasty sources found in sustainable aviation fuel and biodiesel, such as animal fats and what many authorities consider palm oil by-products – which in the past has been linked to deforestation and human rights abuses. A Neste spokesperson said “conventional palm oil” was not used as a “raw material” in the Coldplay collaboration.
You could excuse the band’s headlong plunge into what critics called a “greenwash” as a blood-to-the-head rush – if they hadn’t announced a hiatus from touring in 2019 until they can do it in a carbon neutral way. Three years later, they thought half the way was good enough, with their 2022 tour expected to be 50% less polluting than the previous one, with the other half achieved through offsetting.
Decarbonizing live music is a necessary, laudable and arduous task. But, like many facets of the climate world, the real pathways to reducing emissions are rarely sexy.
Coldplay aren’t the first to explore this, with Radiohead attempting a low-carbon tour in 2008, using alternative travel and local equipment hire. Some of the most recent contenders for green rockstars include Massive Attack, who argued that the challenge was to “avoid more greenwashing commitments, promises and headlines and embrace seismic change instead.” .
The Bristol trio commissioned a report from the Tyndall Center for Climate Change Research, which outlines a roadmap for ultra-low-carbon live music. He doesn’t suggest bikes to power a stadium (another Coldplay stunt) or jets running on palm oil byproducts. The results are less catchy, but more precise.
The Massive Attack report suggests that less aviation, rather than celebrating alternative fuels, is needed. Skepticism about sustainable aviation fuels, after all, is justified: they’ve been promised for decades, but accounted for just 0.01% of jet fuel in 2019. According to a study by the Aviation Organization International Civil Aviation in 2019, 328 new large biorefineries are expected to be built annually by 2035 to exchange all jet fuel for biofuel in international aviation, which would cost approximately $29-115 billion per year.
Other suggestions for decarbonizing the music industry include hiring equipment and crew locally, using public transport for staff, and electric vehicles where possible for vital kit transportation. That’s a far cry from Neste’s biodiesel, which will truck Coldplay’s equipment. Research suggests that when rare ‘waste oil’ is used to produce biodiesel, it displaces its use in other sectors, which then have to look to other sources like palm oil.
Then there is transporting equipment around the world. Solutions here include developing and promoting “plug and play” models for venues, reducing the need to transport heavy items around the world, and standardizing equipment worldwide.
Importantly, Massive Attack avoids carbon offsets, currently the go-to climate solution for most environmentally conscious people in the music industry. Coldplay says 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 that offsetting should only be reserved for “hard to decarbonise” sectors – think the cement industry, not gigs. Otherwise, it just provides a quick fix excuse for the rich and famous who plan to pollute now and compensate later.
Of course, not all of Coldplay’s efforts are for show, and it’s an admirable step down the road to zero-emission music. But to really have an impact, more attention needs to be paid to what they indirectly promote with their emission reduction programs. This could perhaps start with a conscious decoupling from Neste.