Music

When It Comes To Making Real Eco-Conscious Change, Science Is An Artist’s Best Friend

These days, Coldplay approaches touring “as a traveling R&D lab,” says longtime manager Phil Harvey — and the band’s ongoing Music of the Spheres tour does feel a bit like a stadium run as science experiment. There are compostable wristbands, biodegradable confetti and stationary bicycles that fans on the floor can ride mid-set to generate power to the production’s smaller C stage.

Five years ago, frontman Chris Martin declared that Coldplay would not tour until he could ensure the act’s stadium dates would “have a positive impact” on the environment. Now, thanks to the numerous green innovations put in place since Music of the Spheres began in 2022 — including not only the aforementioned measures but also renewable-resource batteries and routing that reduced air travel — the band achieved a 47% reduction in carbon emissions for the first year of touring, with a 50% reduction goal by the time it wraps in November.

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Like an increasing number of artists, Coldplay relied on a team of scientific experts to devise a plan for a greener tour that would be both mammoth (7.7 million global tickets sold to date, according to Billboard Boxscore) and meaningful. “For the number of artists that we’ve been speaking to, the interest and appetite for understanding is pretty good and has exploded over the past three years,” says professor John E. Fernández, director of the Environmental Solutions Initiative (ESI) at MIT, who helped certify Coldplay’s carbon emission results and has also worked extensively with major dance act Above & Beyond.

The band also connected with Luke Howell — a former solar engineer who founded British sustainability consulting firm Hope Solutions and previously worked with the Glastonbury Festival. Howell and his Hope team studied the band’s previous tours “to identify key areas where we could reduce emissions,” he says, then created a range of targets, while recommending emerging green tech for the trek. “We don’t always get it right,” Harvey says of Coldplay’s ongoing efforts, “but we pass on everything we learn so that other people can do it better next time.”

Ahead of the inaugural Music Sustainability Summit, held in Los Angeles in February, the ESI announced a comprehensive study on touring’s carbon footprint, expected to be completed this summer. Recommendations will be made — although Fernández says there’s still a long way to go. “I would characterize the music industry as risk-averse,” he says. “It’s a business, and artists are trying to make a living, so we’ve seen an enormous amount of concern over the risk entailed with making a commitment to reduce emissions.”

Feature, The Green Scene, Eco Issue, Coldplay, Science
Prof. John E. Fernández

It’s one thing for a stadium act like Coldplay to make sustainability a prerequisite for playing live, but the majority of artists don’t have that financial luxury — or even a standardized emissions benchmark to shoot for. Michael P. Totten, who has served as a climate science adviser for Pearl Jam for over two decades, says, “The biggest problem we face is that [no artist] has control over everything” — in short, even one big act can’t cut through all the live-industry bureaucracy. “You’d love to work with green arenas,” he says, “but they’re owned by somebody else, they do a ton of events, and might say, ‘You should talk to the ticket sellers.’ ”

Thus, so far, the artists who effectively make their touring practices greener tend to be those who have the means and drive to do so — and whose tours also often leave the biggest footprints. Totten points out that Pearl Jam guitarist Stone Gossard helped drive the band’s pledge of donating $200 per ton of carbon on its tours — but did so based on scientific recommendations, not any law or industrywide objective.

Marcus Eriksen, a marine scientist who has worked with Jack Johnson to spread awareness of plastic pollution in the oceans, believes that change needs to start with more major artists demonstrating their awareness of various environmental issues. “You want to find influencers — people that can reach a much wider audience,” says Eriksen, who has led several ocean expeditions intended to help educate celebrities like Johnson about how much plastic exists in large bodies of water. Such in-person experiences can, he says, help attendees recognize an urgent issue and encourage them to spread the message back on land. “Getting folks out into the field for a direct experience — that can be transformative,” Eriksen says.

While standard green guidelines may not exist yet for the live industry, Howell says he would love to see more solar and renewable energy incorporated into touring, as well as “electric vehicles and fossil oil-free fuels for all trucking and freight.” Fernández also says the music industry must remain in close contact with the scientific community about the latest climate change projections to make any real progress. “Everyone in the music industry must accept the fact that we’re not going to stay [at] 1.5 degree C average surface warming,” he says, referencing the temperature threshold that was the original goal of the 2015 Paris Agreement. “So if you’re developing a climate plan to maintain that, you’re just going to have to rewrite that plan.”

With that in mind, Fernández stresses that artists must remain open to evolving information on climate change, even at the risk of reworking preexisting sustainability pledges. “This is not unique to the music industry — what we’re seeing is that some companies have made climate commitments, they don’t feel good about the inability to fulfill them, and then they go silent,” he says. “Artists can’t go in that direction. They have to be part of inspiring people to take action.”

This story will appear in the March 30, 2024, issue of Billboard.

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