When concerts return, how can touring be sustainable?

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Coldplay made headlines in late 2019 when the band decided not to tour its new album “Everyday Life” over concerns about the detrimental environmental impacts of touring. Instead, they elected to play and record two shows that would be broadcasted to fans worldwide and to return to touring once they had found a way to do so sustainably.

Just five months later, this decision would no longer be considered so revolutionary, as the world promptly shut down to mitigate the pandemic, and livestreamed concerts are now the norm. Plenty of albums released in 2020, like “Everyday Life,” have not been toured at all. But as restrictions on large gatherings ease up in response to widespread vaccination, and the possibility of live music’s return becomes more and more feasible, Coldplay’s decision brings up a necessary conversation about the ethics of touring.

As is true in any sector, there are carbon emissions associated with every component of live music. Concert venues themselves have several limitations: How much single-use plastic is distributed at each show? Where is the merchandise sourced from? Electricity for lighting and sound equipment necessary to put on a show, too, have an associated carbon footprint. Not only does the band travel great lengths to perform in urban centers across countries and internationally, but every single audience member also travels to arrive at venues. How many of them do so via private vehicles?

In the case of worldwide tours, it is very difficult to get around the international flight, a practice that is increasingly necessary in an interconnected world, but very environmentally detrimental. A flight from New York to London results in nearly a metric ton of carbon dioxide emissions. And yet there are very few alternatives to traveling comparable distances: asking bands and their teams to cross oceans via sailboat, does not, at this moment, feel very realistic.

The band Massive Attack planned to travel by train for their European tour last year. Had the 2020 tour not been cancelled due to the pandemic, this would have been a great alternative to air travel or private tour bus. But in the case of U.S. domestic tours, train infrastructure is particularly limited.

This highlights the difficulty of addressing climate change: no industry exists in a vacuum. Touring cannot become completely carbon neutral without a total reimagining of the transportation industry. It will be difficult to make a concert venue completely “green” without changing its electricity source. Reducing the carbon footprint of a band’s travel accommodations, also requires a reimagining of the hospitality industry.

While touring is just one of many sectors that need to be completely changed to respond to climate change, it is vital that research and new initiatives be explored. And Coldplay is not the only group considering these difficult questions. For example, both the Dave Matthews Band and Billie Eilish have partnered with nonprofit REVERB to bring education about climate change and sustainability to their fans.

From a social standpoint, abolishing live music and migrating solely to streamed concerts is not the answer either. As has been seen with the abrupt halt to live music in light of COVID-19, art is extremely important for human connection and joy, and experiencing music live is an incredibly meaningful experience for both artists and fans. And while a band like Coldplay, a global household name, might have enough mainstream success to announce something as revolutionary as not touring, there are smaller artists for whom touring is a vital source of revenue — not to mention the many people who are employed behind the scenes in live music.

In the grand scheme of things, perhaps the emissions associated with touring seem minute in comparison to the large amounts emitted by large companies, but emissions from all sources need to be reduced in as many ways as possible to change the current catastrophic trajectory of the world regarding climate change.

While all measures to reduce environmental impact are laudable, actions such as banning plastic straws at venues or trying to carbon offset by planting a certain number of trees must happen in conjunction with measures to curb emissions. These measures might look like providing incentives to audience members who use public transportation, exploring solar-powered concert venues or using the least impactful method of travel.

Climate change brings about an existential threat that must be addressed for survival. It also presents us with an opportunity to build and enjoy a better, cleaner, more sustainable world. Since sharing art is integral to being human, we need to take action to ensure that live music can be a part of this cleaner, more sustainable future.

Contact Sarena Kuhn at [email protected].