What Live Earth Really Meant

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Koji Watanabe / Getty Images

Kumi Koda performs on stage at the Tokyo leg of the Live Earth series of concerts, at Makuhari Messe, Chiba on July 7, 2007

Wandering the cavernous information hall at Live Earth's Tokyo site on Saturday — munching on a whole-grain, locally made peanut butter muffin and browsing for a 100% hemp towel — I noticed the solar panels. Like the events in Sydney, Shanghai, London, Washington and other cities, Live Earth Tokyo was intended as a rock festival-cum-environmental fair, where concertgoers could learn about the energy-saving benefits of fluorescent lightbulbs while jamming to groups like Genesis, who reformed for the London show. Organizers had stressed that the massive festivals themselves would be as green as could be — the Tokyo show was to be powered by solar energy and biodiesel made from recycled cooking oil. So I wasn't surprised to see an array of solar panels at the center of the information hall, apparently hooked up to a big-screen TV playing the feed from the concert stage next door. Very green, except for the fact that we were indoors, and there was no sun.

From the day the concert series was announced by former Vice-President Al Gore, Live Earth had to battle doubt and disinterest. The public had grown increasingly jaded over all-star charity rock festivals, particularly two years after the even larger Live 8 benefit shows for Africa and global poverty. (Live 8 organizer Sir Bob Geldof dismissed Gore's effort as "just an enormous pop concert.") And while the organizers claimed to be raising awareness, critics scolded that the global public is well aware of the perils of climate change.

Even more pertinent was the criticism that the giant carbon footprint of an event that involved jetting pop stars and their entourages around the globe, and encouraging hundreds of thousands of fans to travel to concert sites, was inherently at odds with Live Earth's energy-conservation message. Around half the carbon footprint in any given show usually comes from the audience traveling to the concert, and though Live Earth promised to offset those emissions, it wasn't yet clear how — not to mention that offsets are inherently dicey. The Tokyo show drew much of its electricity from an existing solar plant on the grid, but that meant that Tokyo homes and businesses normally supplied by solar would have needed to supplement their power from dirtier sources. That's a net loss for the environment. Many rock stars who sat out Live Earth felt the same way. "We're using enough power for ten houses just for lighting," Artic Monkeys' drummer Matt Helder told AFP. "It'd be a bit hypocritical [if we played]."

Even some Live Earth organizers admitted the contradiction. "It's very obvious that any event like this is not environmentally friendly," says Yu Nakajima, who was in charge of greening the Tokyo show. "It's probably better not to have an event at all."

Well, there is the music. Despite worries that some of the acts would play to acres of empty seats, the top shows in London and New Jersey were all but sold out, and more than 400,000 people arrived for a free concert on Rio de Janeiro's Copacabana Beach headlined by Lenny Kravitz and Macy Gray — even though a Brazilian judge had only authorized the concert days before. Even the smaller shows seemed well-attended, if a bit schizophrenic: the Tokyo concert segued from the gentle folk of Japanese pop star Cocco, who tearfully sang about manatees threatened by a military base on her home island of Okinawa, to the American rap-metal group Linkin Park, who urged the crowd to "get rowdy."

If Gore was being characteristically hyperbolic when he claimed the concerts could reach up to 2 billion people on the Internet — sure, and so could this story — the sheer size and spread of the events meant that for a day at least, climate change (or, the rock concerts it has prompted) dominated headlines across the world. But would the Earth have been better off if we all stayed home and did nothing, literally? "That's a fair thought," Linkin Park guitarist Brad Delson told TIME before his band's Tokyo show. "It's also a cynical one." He's right. It's time to get past the obsession over carbon footprint size and offsets, over who's an eco-hypocrite and who is truly green. We need to use energy far more wisely, both individually and internationally, but with hundreds of millions in the developing world getting richer and producing more carbon every day, the threat of climate change is far, far bigger than our personal conservation habits. It will require technological change and painful political choices such as carbon taxes, gas taxes and mandatory greenhouse gas emissions caps. That means, especially for the young, the un-rock star act of voting.

Live Earth's success will be measured not by the number of trees the initiative plants or the number of energy-efficient light-bulbs sold as a result, but by whether it motivates concertgoers to make climate-change their generation's political priority, and press their leaders to act on it. Al Gore and company deserve credit for putting forth a 7-point pledge for concertgoers that includes a demand that countries join an international treaty mandating a 90% cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. That will only happen if voters reward politicians who fight to cut carbon gas emissions, and punish those who don't. "It's not what we do today that matters," says Live Earth Tokyo's Nakajima. "It's what we all do tomorrow, and all the next days after. That's how we'll know how successful Live Earth really is."

—With reporting by Toko Sekiguchi/Tokyo