Climate experts on Coldplay’s ‘sustainable’ tour: ‘Kinetic floors? A marketing gimmick’

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Jetsetting across the world: Coldplay - PA
Jetsetting across the world: Coldplay - PA

Coldplay’s new album, Music Of The Spheres, is the feelgood tour de force the world has desperately needed. It’s cheerfully absurd, utterly over-the-top and features a brightly-attired Chris Martin going into interstellar overdrive in his capacity as the Teletubby Bono. But this cosmic pick-me-up has arrived with a sting in the tail, with the band having just gone back on their 2019 pledge to stop touring until they could do so “in a more sustainable way”.

“I don’t mind any backlash at all,” Martin confessed to the BBC this week as Coldplay announced a continent-hopping 2022 tour. “We’re trying our best, and we haven’t got it perfect. Absolutely. We always have backlash for everything.”

Coldplay aren’t simply ripping up their earlier promises. They are, it would appear, trying to have their eco-cake and eat it. Their 30-date tour will see them hopping around the world, starting in Costa Rica in March and then winding down in the UK in August, where they will play three nights at Wembley.

That’s a lot of air-miles – and a lot of carbon pumped into the atmosphere as millions of fans get in their cars to drive to see their favourite pastel-hued pop icons.

And to what end? Coldplay are one of the biggest bands in the planet. They don’t need the exposure. And, with their 2017 Head Full Of Dreams tour grossing over £400 million, they are already wealthy beyond human comprehension.

Chris Martin alone has a net personal worth of £125 million. They can, in other words, afford to sit out this touring cycle. And by choosing not to, while continue to preaching environmentalism, they stand accused of pumping out yet more rock star sanctimony into the atmosphere.

Coldplay’s defence is that they’re doing everything possible to mitigate the environmental footprint of their jaunt across the time-zones. And, written down, their list of pledges is significant.

The biggest “innovation” is their adoption of “kinetic energy”. Coldplay will generate electricity by having concertgoers step on futuristic tiles that will contribute to the electricity required to run the gigs.

“When they move, they power the concert,” Martin said. “The more people move, the more they're helping. You know when the frontman says, We need you to jump up and down? When I say that, I literally really need you to jump up and down. Because if you don't, then the lights go out.”

Kinetic flooring isn’t entirely new. It was trialled at the 2013 Paris Marathon, in which 40,000 runners generated 7kWh –estimated to be around two to three per cent of the power required for each Coldplay gig.

Chris Martin seems to have gone back on his eco-pledge - Reuters
Chris Martin seems to have gone back on his eco-pledge - Reuters

And yet the suspicion can only be that this says less about Coldplay’s eco credentials than their love of a good gimmick. They will, after all, be bringing back the LED wristbands that have long been a feature of their tours (on this occasion they are to be 100 per cent compostable).

The band have also promised to plant a tree for every ticket sold. Considering their 2017 tour shifted nearly 5.5 million tickets that’s a lot of saplings going in the ground. And it has to asked if this is a logistical undertaking within the gift of a mere pop group – given that the total number trees planted in the UK last year was 20 million.

“We can't comment too much on the specifics of Coldplay's tour, as we would need to look much more deeply at the changes they make and the offsets they purchase. That being said, I think it's right to be skeptical about whether these actions are doing much good,” says Dan Stein, chief economist with IDinsight, a global advisory, data analytics, and research organisation, and founder of Giving Green, which produces “an actionable and dynamically updated set of recommendations of organisations that are demonstrably reducing atmospheric greenhouse gases”.

“It seems like Coldplay is achieving much of its emissions reductions via offsetting,” says Stein in an email. “But the carbon offset market is rife with over-promises, and in general it's pretty safe to assume that most carbon offsets are not actually causing emissions to decrease….They specifically mention that one of the things they will do is plant trees, and this intervention in particular is not well-supported by research. For instance, a recent study found that ‘decades of tree planting have had almost no impact on forest canopy cover or rural livelihoods’.”

Coldplay have also said that they will only use planes with “sustainable” aviation fuel. This is fuel produced from waste products. However, “SAF” has been dismissed as greenwashing by the boss of low-cost Hungarian airline Wizz Air. “SAF and carbon offsets are more greenwashing than real at this point,” he told Bloomberg last month.

He isn’t the only one to express scepticism at the idea that the high environmental footprint of air travel can be easily negated. “Sustainable aviation fuel is a massive false solution to solving the climate emergency,” adds Kai Saunders, systems change organiser with the UK Youth Climate Coalition .

“Sustainable jet fuels are something that the world will need to adopt if people are going to keep flying in a future net-zero world,” says Stein, taking a more positive approach.

“These fuels do exist but at the moment they are very expensive. If Coldplay indeed purchases a large amount of sustainable jet fuel, they can help create a market for this technology, hopefully leading to more research that will drive the price down in the future. So I'd say that this element of their strategy is admirable.”

Whatever about sustainable fuel, “kinetic floors” are no silver bullet, say experts. “Kinetic floors are not a serious climate solution, and their adoption of them is clearly just a marketing gimmick,” says Dan Stein.

“Taking a wider angle, Coldplay reducing their carbon footprint is clearly better than nothing, but is doing very little to attack the systemic problems that are fuelling our climate emergency. Coldplay could be doing much more good if, instead of planting a tree for every ticket, they made a donation to an effective nonprofit fighting for better climate policy.”

In Coldplay’s defence they haven’t shied away from the fact that they are guilty of double standards. There is the question of “why tour at all?” Chris Martin confessed to the BBC. “And that's where we don't really have any comeback except, we would really like to.”

“We could stay at home and that may be better,” he shrugged. “But we want to tour and we want to meet people and connect with people – so try and do it in the cleanest way possible."

Others argue that, simply by opening up the debate around sustainability, that Coldplay are doing their bit. If they’re not helping the environment, at least they’re furthering the conversation.

“Honest efforts to reduce environmental impact, whilst remaining aware of the fact there's still a long way to go, should be applauded,” says Harry Pardoe founder of climate action charity The Crowd and of Snowball, a non-profit climate action platform, by email.

“They raise awareness amongst fans and through the media, and they erode the social license that other bands have to tour without consideration of their footprint. Their direct carbon impact would of course be smaller if they stayed at home, but actually this sort of high profile attempt to do things differently will help push the music industry down the path to sustainability, which is the bigger win here.”

“We probably wouldn't specifically chastise Coldplay for going on tour, since their tour is taking place in a complicated global system in which almost anything that anyone does requires energy and emits carbon,” agrees Dan Stein.

“It's our view that guilting people about flying or eating meat is not the way out of the climate crisis. This isn't going to work and is going to cause backlash. Instead, we believe that everyone should work together to support systemic change to our energy system. As super-famous musicians, Coldplay can play a part in that, but I think that by just focusing on their own carbon footprint they are taking a very self-centered view of the problem, when instead they could be fighting for systemic changes that really matter.”

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