What on earth do the arts and culture have to do with climate change?

Claire Buckley, URBACT Lead Expert and Director of Environmental Sustainability at Julie’s Bicycle on 17.05.2018


In the grander scheme of things, the arts and culture sector is not the biggest contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions. And so, the question from Radio Wrocław “What on earth do the arts and culture have to do with climate change?” to representatives from Manchester (UK) and Wroclaw (PL) during a day of exchange on this issue, did not come as a big surprise. It is, however, well worth unpacking and, one at the heart of a new project on how the arts and culture can lead climate action in cities, funded by the EU’s URBACT programme.


According to the World Bank’s 2017 Urban Development Overview, cities generate over 80% of global GDP and more than 70% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Rapid urbanisation (with predictions of 60-70% of the world’s population living in cities by 2050), coupled with the effects of extreme weather and sea level rise, are putting increasing strain on city infrastructure and resources, exacerbating challenges such as air pollution and impacting on people’s health and wellbeing. Urgent and rapid city action is crucial if we are to limit global temperature rise.Human activity and our dependence on fossil fuels is changing our climate. This is taking an increasing toll on the natural systems which sustain us, on our health, wellbeing and prosperity.


Climate change is a systemic issue, rooted in global economic, social, cultural and value systems locking in unsustainable consumption, inequality and a disconnection from nature. Policies, technology and investment alone will not be enough to address it. We need hearts, minds and a shift in our cultural values. No sector is better placed to bridge the gap between what we know and what we feel and support a values’ shift than the arts and culture. This is particularly relevant when it comes to cities, on the front line of climate change, and where art and culture connect citizens to the cultures which define them.


While the economic and social value of the arts and culture is increasingly recognised in cities, there has been much less recognition of the contribution they can make in creating future-proofed, sustainable cities. This is starting to change, as evidenced for example through the World Cities Culture Forum’s Culture and Climate Change Handbook for City Leaders (2017). Manchester is one city which already demonstrates what the sector can achieve by working together on climate change and how it can support city climate change strategy. The Manchester Arts Sustainability Team (MAST) has become one of the city’s, and indeed the UK’s, most successful examples of environmental collaboration and, in 2017, Manchester was awarded URBACT Good Practice City status in recognition of MAST’s work.


MAST is a network of 27 arts and cultural organisations – from community-based arts centres and iconic cultural venues to an internationally renowned festival and national broadcasters - working together on climate action. It has come a long way since it started out in 2011. From a small group taking practical action, with external facilitation and funding, it has evolved into a network funded and run for and by its members, achieving emissions reductions in line with city targets, engaging its stakeholders, and actively contributing to the city’s climate change strategy. MAST enables members to meet face-to-face, share common challenges and opportunities and link directly to what is happening on a city level. MAST’s five-year report (2017) tells its story, shares its achievements and learnings as well as a wealth of good practice from the network.   


MAST grew from the Manchester Cultural Partnership’s desire to explore how arts and cultural organisations could contribute to the city’s first climate change strategy - Manchester A Certain Future 2010-2020. The group supported development of the city’s new climate change strategy and is now represented on the Manchester Climate Change Board which champions delivery of the Manchester Climate Change Strategy 2017-50 and the city’s ambition to become zero carbon by 2050.


Arts and culture-based activities proved particularly effective and popular in 2016’s Climate Lab. This was an experimental programme, run by the Manchester Climate Change Agency, to test different ways of engaging the people of the city in developing its 2020-2050 climate change strategy, and which reached 100,000 people. One of the highlights was Climate Control at Manchester Museum, a six-month long series of exhibitions and events exploring what kind of future people hope for and how to make it a reality.


“Creativity and collaboration are what we do best. Working together since 2011 and applying our strengths to the complex and challenging issue that is climate change, have not only helped us reduce our impacts and engage our teams, audiences and communities but, have also put us firmly on the map as a key player in the city’s climate change strategy. We are now also seeing how this collaboration can contribute to our resilience as a sector and the emergence of a ‘green’ creative economy – from new skills to ‘green’ products and services.”

Simon Curtis, Head of Production at the Royal Exchange Theatre and MAST Chair


For Dave Moutrey, Director and Chief Executive at HOME Manchester, a MAST member, and Director of Culture for Manchester City Council, it is no surprise that the sector has come together to act on climate change and shape the city’s climate change strategy. “Culture is in Manchester’s DNA. We understand the value of culture to our well-being, prosperity and vitality as a city, and the arts and culture sector has a well-recognised part to play in contributing to all city priorities.” He also says that “While we are immensely proud of what has been achieved so far, we also recognise there is much more to do and are already thinking about how to develop a zero carbon culture roadmap.”


As an URBACT Good Practice City, Manchester is now leading a transfer network - C-Change: Arts and Culture Leading Climate Action in Cities - to share and build on its experience. Manchester and the other city partners, Wrocław and Mantova (IT), all have culture at their heart. Wrocław, for example, was European Capital of Culture 2016 and Mantova, Italian Capital of Culture 2016. They also all share strong climate change ambitions and are i.a. signatories to the Global Covenant of Mayor’s for Climate and Energy. Crucially, they also share a recognition of the role the arts and culture can play in climate change strategy, action and engagement.


As a city already experiencing the consequences of climate change and dependence on a largely coal-based energy system, climate change mitigation and adaptation are central to Wrocław’s sustainable development. According to Katarzyna Szymczak-Pomianowska, Wrocław’s Head of Sustainable Development “We now aim to support arts and culture in our city in coming together to act on climate change and support us in helping our citizens understand the issues we face and take action themselves. Manchester’s experience and that of the other cities in the C-Change network will be invaluable to us in achieving this aim."

Following an initial partner meeting in Manchester in May, a team from Manchester visited Wrocław and Mantova to share good practice with city and sector representatives and explore how the partner cities can establish a similar approach. One of the main challenges is that the approach represents a different way of working – cross-sector, cross-departmental and across sector and city. Adriana Nepote, Councillor for Research and Innovation, University and European Projects in Mantova says “Mantova is particularly excited about how exchange with other European cities can help us bring our cultural and our environmental strategies closer together with active involvement of the arts and culture and help us in working towards our priorities as a city, from climate change to urban regeneration, heritage conservation and public participation.”


Living wall at Wrocław’s Capitol Teatr


From energy efficiency in cultural buildings, to people-powered phone charging in libraries, art and culture climate action was already evident during the city visits. In Wrocław, its year as European Capital of Culture saw the success the Backyard project and mikroGranty programme, supporting public participation by bringing art and culture into people’s backyards and resulting in a range of community-artist initiatives on i.a. urban greening and community food-growing. Examples from Mantova include Carrozerria Orfeo’s Cous Cous Klan, a play which explores the relationship between climate change, water scarcity and inequality, and Pantacon, a cultural co-operative involved in a range of urban regeneration projects.


Exchange with other European cities is already providing new impetus for Manchester’s approach, such as building stronger involvement of the city council’s cultural department and city-run cultural venues and events. Three new city partners are also about to join the network and support development of a roadmap for this innovative and timely collaboration. There is no time to waste.