TAITMAIL Altogether now…. NET ZERO!

There’s long been a perception that artists are in the vanguard of the campaign for environmental virtue, and so they are. Mostly.

Artists’ aesthetic instincts tend to make them feel more easily at one with nature - and therefore often the most militant about its survival and therefore the importance of that survival to our own - than the rest of us. A new report this week, The Creative Industries and the Climate Emergency, tends to support that https://pec.ac.uk/research-reports/creative-industries-and-the-climate-emergency. It comes from the partnership of the Arts & Humanities Research Council, the Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre, Julie’s Bicycle and BOP Consulting, the result of a survey of sub-sectors within the creative industries. 

“Actors, musicians and creative leaders have been at the forefront of environmental campaigns and industry action” says its foreword, written by the chairman of the AHRC, Christopher Smith. Through its cultural value project the AHRC “has made the case that promoting environmental sustainability is an important example of why culture matters so much. Those who have brought the natural word so vividly before us have naturally been leaders in protecting it”. The image shows Dress For Our Time, made from a decommissioned UNHCR refugee tent by Helen Storey, London College of Fashion. The photographer is David Betteridge. 

They get to real people when audience members are not in elector mode, and it’s not worth not mentioning yet again that in the last published figures the creative industries were delivering £115.9bn GVA to the UK economy, accounting for 2.2 million jobs and exporting more than £50bn a year.

For instance, there was a big moment last year when Coldplay announced that through ingenious methods of harvesting power by, for instance, harnessing their own fans’ dance floor energy they would cut their own CO2 emission by half on their next tour, with the band minimising flights and paying a premium for air fuel used.

So, actors, musicians, creative leaders… and the visual arts? Well, no.

The problem is the carbon footprint of gallery audiences. A 2019 Tate report found that 92% of its carbon footprint - 240m tonnes - was from its visitors. A report last year into the global visual arts sector by Julie’s Bicycle, the organisation founded in 2007 to mobilise the arts to action in the climate crisis, found that a major obstacle to progress is galleries’ limited engagement with the climate emergency: The visual arts are predominantly not prepared for the transition to Net Zero carbon” it said. “On the basis of our research the sector has a limited understanding of its environmental impacts, with a small number of galleries, fairs and artists making their carbon footprints public. More carbon footprint data is needed, and the methodology should be standardised, footprints shared and progress monitored.”

There is a Galleries Climate Coalition, born out of London’s commercial art sector in 2019, which has 900 UK members and an international network weaving into 20 countries so far, and dedicated to reaching a 50% carbon reduction by 2030. But the GCC says there are still large gaps in commitment in other areas of the visual arts sub-sector.

Then the Art Fund points to the devastation caused by the lockdowns to the economies of museums and galleries for whom Net Zero carbon might be a nice ambition, but immediate survival is the priority.

Then there’s the art market. While auctions are more and more often held online now, there has been a flood of new international art fairs with concomitant business travel and artwork freight, in a high-end market that has no interest in obeying national climate targets.

The report also points at the fact that while other creative sub-sectors have developed programmes to educate their members, since the closure of the Visual Arts and Galleries Association in 2014 galleries in this country no longer have a body representing their interests.

The report says there needs to be more commitment to renewable energy generation - solar panels on the roof of galleries, for instance, specialist education, programmes for waste reduction, a circular economy and rental services for gallery equipment. But all this needs first leadership and second investment, neither of which has so far been identified.

But generally the cultural sector – I wish they’d get out of the way of calling it “the industry” as if it’s like ship-building - knows the importance of climate and the environment with businesses promoting positive change marked through their own declarations and public statements, most importantly work programmes, and companies are even starting to appoint executives in charge of sustainability at director level.

The UK’s hosting of COP26 last year was a starter pistol for arts organisations to give public commitments, launch initiatives, create tool kits, which then waited for policy guidance from the government on what to do next. They’re still waiting.  

“The government’s Build Back Greener strategy makes little reference to individual sectors, and none at all to the creative industries” the report says, in the polite terms report writers tend to use: “…it is clear that industry would welcome a stronger read across from national priorities to sector policy” it says. The government needs to set guidelines, standards and targets to encourage the whole of the creative sector to make the right decisions.
Coldplay’s announcement last year drew jubilant headlines and was followed by a platforming of artists for their excessive carbon footprint in comparison, but there’s no evidence that such individual high profile commitments and shaming have led to reductions in the touring footprint across the music business.

And despite the dramatic interventions of organised groups such as BP or not BP? and Just Stop Oil there’s no sign that appreciable numbers of sponsors and philanthropists funding the arts are making low carbon emission a condition of their grants.

As Professor Smith concludes in his foreword: “We have not yet brought our creativity to bear on our own sustainability challenge. I hope this report will mark a moment of change. The creative industries must look in the mirror it has so brilliantly shown to the rest of the world and take steps to meet the challenge of our environmental crisis”.

There needs to be a new body garnering information and methodology to co-ordinate programming of teaching and investment channelling for the creative industries, established within the sector with unconditional Defra funding. COP27 opening in Sharm el-Sheikh on November 6 would be a good moment to announce its birth.


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