At this pivotal moment in history, the art world has a choice. Climate science paints a nightmarish future, and to have a chance of avoiding it, the 2020s need to be the decade of climate action. Governments are failing to act with the urgency or ambition required, so it’s up to us to step up to halving global emissions by 2030.
The visual arts sector’s carbon emissions may not be on the same scale as, say, agriculture or construction. But the arts have an impact far greater than the physical space they occupy. Are we pulling together to build a better world, or are we clinging to outdated ways of working that will keep us spiralling into disaster? The example set by the art world matters.
Covid-19 has shattered the status quo. Leading artists and galleries are already talking about cutting flights to art fairs and greater reliance on online sales as the new normal, whatever happens with the pandemic. The challenge will be to convert these ad hoc measures into a more systemic shift. But care needs to be taken with the alternatives, too—NFTs built on energy-hungry blockchains could create more carbon problems than they solve.
In 2019, the artist Gary Hume decided to transport an exhibition between London and New York by sea instead of air, reducing the climate impact by 95%
We need to fly less stuff around as well. In 2019, the artist Gary Hume decided to transport an exhibition between London and New York by sea instead of air, reducing the climate impact by 95%. With careful planning and longer lead times for exhibitions, there are major carbon savings to be made in art logistics. While commercial galleries using the Gallery Climate Coalition’s (GCC) carbon calculator report that business flights and air freight typically make up 70% to 80% of their carbon footprint, for public galleries, energy use is by far the largest source of their direct emissions and this must be tackled. Ideas like the Bizot Green Protocol—guidelines agreed by the Bizot Group of museums in 2015—need to be updated, improved and applied across the board.
Who the art world chooses to work with matters, too. These days, it isn’t the Medicis who are using the arts to launder their reputations—it’s corporations and billionaires, including fossil fuel giants and the banks who fund them. While many arts venues—from Tate to the Van Gogh Museum—have dropped their oil company branding in the last five years, some, including London’s British Museum and National Portrait Gallery, still have promotional deals with the likes of BP, providing a veneer of respectability to the companies most responsible for the climate crisis.
But help is available. Organisations like the GCC, Ki Culture, Julie’s Bicycle and Culture Unstained provide guidance on everything from carbon-cutting action plans to ethical fundraising. Arts organisations could be a powerful force for change, by modelling a shift to low-carbon practices, supporting climate solutions through their partnerships and supply chains while presenting inspirational art and educational projects. There’s no better time to get started than now.
• Danny Chivers is a carbon analyst, author and performance poet. He is environmental adviser to the Gallery Climate Coalition, but writes here in a personal capacity