Coldplay’s sustainability team take Access behind the scenes of the band’s world stadium tour to see how the innovative steps taken are successfully helping achieve the goal of reducing carbon emissions by 50%.

When Coldplay announced their Music Of The Spheres World Tour, they promised to reduce consumption, recycle extensively and cut CO2 emissions by 50% compared to the band’s A Head Full of Dreams Tour  in 2016.

The band decided against touring 2019’s Everyday Life album due to concerns about the environmental impact. Instead, Coldplay’s team set about exploring ways in which a world tour could be carried out with a considerably reduced footprint. Among the first people to be brought on board was Hope Solutions founder & director Luke Howell.

An events sustainability specialist whose many clients include Live Nation and Glastonbury festival, Howell was contacted by Coldplay’s managers Phil Harvey and Dave Holmes in 2019, and by December that year he was actively seeking sustainability solutions for the band’s tour.

The tour kicked off in Costa Rica in March and has involved dates across central America, the US and Europe, including six dates at Wembley Stadium (cap. 90,000) and two at Hampden Park (52,000) in August.

Among the many environmental measures taken have been the use of kinetic venue flooring and bikes powered by fans, an app encouraging and rewarding low-impact travel, solar power installations at venues, hydrotreated vegetable oil (HVO) instead of diesel, and a pioneering mobile and rechargeable show battery that was created in partnership with BMW and made from recyclable BMW i3 batteries.

Coldplay has also promised that 10% of all earnings from the tour will be channelled into a fund for environmental causes including ClientEarth, One Tree Planted and The Ocean Cleanup. Meanwhile, climate change experts at Imperial College London’s Grantham Institute will quantify the impact of the tour on the environment.

Howell says the actions taken so far are already paying dividends and the tour is on track to reach the 50% reduction goal: “Things are looking very, very positive. I’m confident we will more than achieve our target.”

Having analysed data garnered via the tour app, Howell says emissions from audience travel is down 50%, while travel emissions from the touring group is down by more than that: “Through the use of less vehicles, and the vehicles that we are using running on HVO or sustainable aviation fuel, we’re seeing more than a 50% reduction so far.”

HVO controversy

Coldplay were branded “useful idiots for greenwashing” by a journalist from The Guardian for partnering with the Finnish oil company Neste on the supply of HVO for the tour. Neste has reportedly been associated with deforestation for palm oil production.

The article was met with frustration by many in the live music industry. Shambala festival’s Chris Johnson described it as a perfect example of how journalistic thirst for an angle can undermine positive leadership, while LIVE CEO Jon Collins said, “If perfect is the enemy of good, then we are left in a position that can, all too often, lead to paralysis.”

Explaining the move to HVO, Howell says, “Our initial starting point was reduction; can we reduce the amount of travel, can we reduce the number of generators and can we increase energy efficiency? There’s less travel and transport of people and equipment now than previously, but it got to a point where we couldn’t reduce in perpetuity while still having a show.

“We’ve spent a huge amount of time looking into electric vehicles; buses, trucks and other types of personal transport, but right now they’re not where they need to be to be effective for a tour run. So, we looked at mitigation of impacts and alternative fuels were the best option for that. We spent a huge amount of time doing research and due diligence into all the pros and cons of alternative fuels. We landed on HVO that is sourced in the right way, virgin-palm-oil-free. We’re not saying HVO is the right solution in perpetuity but it’s today’s solution. We’re always looking at what is tomorrow’s solution, because we want to adopt the best options and best practices as we go forward.”

Charging ahead

Among the many pieces of tech involved in the tour that Howell is excited by are the rechargeable mobile batteries, which can be used to reduce the need for HVO.

He says, “That’s a major piece of innovation, we’ve seen batteries in use at festivals and venues, but we’ve never seen a battery system designed to support touring in this way. We’ve condensed batteries down into a small space, so they are tourable but still have a huge capability in terms of storing energy to run a whole show.

“It has given us an opportunity to take ideas or concepts and refine them into something transformative.”

“A very exciting part of this whole project is the research and development of solutions. It has given us an opportunity to take ideas or concepts and refine them into something transformative, certainly in terms of the reduced environmental impact and the savings that will be generated off the back of decreases in fuel use. Even if we switch 100% to HVO, which we’re doing on as many shows as we can, you’re still burning a fuel of some sort. So being able to negate that by utilising the batteries is really exciting.”

Solar power has also played a key role in reducing the tour’s carbon emissions. A mini-solar farm provides a charge station for portable batteries that have been used to provide power for applications including stage backline, LED lights and video control racks.

The tour has also seen the rollout of reusable and compostable plant-based plastic wristbands.  Developed by Coldplay head of special projects Arman Chaparyan and PixMob, they feature LED lights to enable audience members to interact with the concert production during the shows.

“On previous tours the wristbands were worn once, they flashed, the batteries died, and they were unusable,” says Howell. “At the end of each night we collect wristbands back in. We’re hitting return rates of more than 90%. They are then refurbished, repurposed, and go out again at the following show. It feels really important we are making tangible reductions in those areas.”

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In the zone

Overseen by Tim Benson, Smart Power founder and ZAP Concepts technical director, the people-powered Energy Zone has seen the electrical team, under the guidance of head electrician Paul Traynor, harvest energy from the movement of Coldplay fans.

The zone features two raised platforms that work as kinetic dancefloors. Created by Dutch firm Energy Floors, the platforms produce energy from crowd movement that is used to charge Wattsun battery packs. There are also bikes fitted to Kinetic Effects’ PedGen bike stands that house motors able to produce hundreds of watts each.

Says Benson, “We produced the bike generators for Coldplay and used 60 bikes and three battery systems to power their performance outside Alexandra Palace for the Earthshot Prize awards. The band really liked what they saw and then asked if we could build a touring bike system, which is in the Energy Zone that sits on all the stadium floors. Zap was also commissioned by Coldplay to design the huge stage power battery system.”

Howell says Coldplay recognised that solutions could be found to make the tour low impact, such as using alternative fuels, but they wanted something that the audience could physically engage with: “We do a lot in terms of telling people what’s happening but if you can’t see, touch and feel it, how do you contextualise it? We wanted to find something that would have a meaningful energy generation capacity that gave people a chance to engage.

“The zone is having a really positive impact on audience attitude and behaviour, it is making people more engaged with the wider topic. At the end of the night the stadium floors are far clearer of waste than we have seen on previous tours.”

With a focus on reducing the impact of audience travel, the tour app was developed in partnership with SAP. It recommends low-impact travel options and provides fans with the opportunity to get discounts on the band’s merch if they choose to travel to a show via low carbon transportation. The journey planner is coupled with a carbon calculator that clearly shows the impact of each travel choice.

Howell says,“Through the preliminary data we are collecting from the app we are seeing a trend towards a much more engaged audience that are trying to either use public transport or arrive in bigger groups. In pretty much every territory we’ve been to we have been able to link up with local transport authorities to offer and incentivise the use of public transport.

“From a carbon accounting and sustainability perspective, it is hard to get good quality data on audience travel. The app is allowing us to really get a granular level of detail on that.”

Aside from seeing the ideas and new technology come to life on the tour, Howell says another highlight has been experiencing the level of engagement from the entire Coldplay team, including promoters Live Nation, suppliers and the production crew.

He says, “Arman’s team and I are in constant liaison with the Live Nation team around things like implementing our sustainability rider, making sure venues are engaged, and in territories where not everything can happen the way we would like it’s about how we can go to the next best solution.

“What has been really exciting about the whole exercise, for the last couple of years, is the level of engagement from all the different stakeholders including production manager Jake Berry and his team. They’ve really bought into it, and they bring decades’ worth of knowledge and experience in the operation and logistics of a major international tour. It’s been amazing to see how wholeheartedly people have embraced it.”

With everything on track to achieve the target 50% cut in tour emissions, Coldplay’s team is planning to compensate for the residual footprint with a drawdown of more CO2 than the tour produces by supporting projects focused on positive action such as reforestation, rewilding, conservation and carbon capture.

Says Howell, “The band’s intention is to go beyond Net Zero and into the realms of climate positivity. That can be a nebulous term sometimes but what we mean by that is we will overcompensate for the bit that we can’t physically reduce right now.”

“There are things that we’ve learned that can be applied to any level of tour, like principles of energy efficiency and the use of less vehicles. Our intention is to share the learnings from this project with colleagues in the wider industry, so we will create a report summarising them. We will also highlight some of the challenges, so it will also act as a call out to the wider industry to find solutions.”