Opinion: we need to introduce urgent changes in how culture is made and consumed that go beyond tokenism and greenwashing

With the notable exception of recent pilot events, it has been almost 18 months since most people in Ireland were able to attend concerts or live sporting events in person. While there has been much justified lamenting of what has been lost, there has been an ecological benefit to this cultural absence. This is because the climate cost of the creative and cultural industries extend far beyond the rubbish left behind by revellers at festivals.

The major ecological costs include the carbon emissions that result from the transport, construction and production that the sector entails. Putting a number to the sector's contribution to climate change is a difficult task, but global sport's carbon emissions alone are estimated as "the equivalent of nations as large and populous as Angola or Tunisia, and that is at the low end of estimates."

The necessary escapism offered by the creative and cultural industries can blind us to their resource exploitation at the heart of the current ecological crisis. The significant contribution of cultural production and consumption to climate change is often overlooked. If we consider the material ecology of recorded music for example, we could be forgiven for mistakenly thinking that the progression of dematerialisation, from shellac to cloud based files has reduced the ecological impact.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Drivetime, do data centres pose a threat to our climate change targets?

Kyle Devine has recently shown that LP and CD production processes are guilty of "exposing workers to toxic fumes, releasing toxic chemicals into the air and dumping toxic wastewater down the drain". Streaming doesn't get off the hook either and could have "potentially higher greenhouse gas emissions." This is due to the energy required to power such online services and the production of the associated devices coming from fossil fuels. In short, the solace found in the virtual concert and the broadcasting of the game from behind closed doors, is unfortunately not a carbon free pleasure.

Given that Ireland is the largest data hub centre in Europe, this is something that we need to be particularly attentive to. These facilities are estimated to already contribute to about 2% of Ireland’s carbon footprint and this number is expected to grow in the coming years.

It is obvious that the arts can foster a deeper insight to the challenges of climate change. For example, the plight of the albatross is out of sight, yet Chris Jordan’s work on these birds in Midway Island helps us to visualise the global impact of our polluting of the oceans. Equally, while carbon is invisible to naked eye, the work of Real World Visuals demonstrates the scale of carbon pollution.

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Trailer for Chris Jordan's Albatross

In 2019, Creative Ireland commissioned a report on climate change, culture and creativity. Engaging the Public on Climate Change through the Cultural and Creative Sectors found that "few sectors are better placed than the culture and creative sectors to bridge the gaps between what we know and feel about climate change, and to critically examine and provoke a shift in cultural values and norms."

It is important that we recognise that the ecological literacy that only the arts and heritage can deliver in local contexts is essential, but the associated costs must not be overlooked if artists and cultural practitioners are to speak with authority. This will have to be a literacy of both the precious heritage sites and cultural venues and practices we will lose to rising temperature, but also the contribution of the cultural practices themselves to this situation.

We must now begin to attend to the potential for sustainable models of resource use in the creative and cultural industries as well as the farming, architecture, transport and the military sectors, to name a few. If the cultural sector is to play its part it needs to urgently engage with the national and international climate action plans and sustainable goals. Communicating, offsetting and eliminating the climate impact of the energy used in cultural practice must become the norm.

From Scotland's Climate Assembly, how the creative arts can decarbonise to tackle climate change

One step in the right direction is provided by Creative Carbon Scotland, which provides helpful tools for artists and arts organisations to understand, calculate, manage, organise and disclose their carbon emissions. Other obvious steps include ending the petro-chemical and aviation sponsorship of sports teams and museums and committing to goals such as outlined in the UN Sport for Climate Action Framework.

The thought of not being able to return to some of the comforts of pre-pandemic cultural consumption patterns may be thoroughly depressing. However, tackling the challenges that climate change presents entails facing up to tragedy that the modes of cultural engagement we have developed are part of the problem. Recent research suggests that, despite a pent up demand, audience behaviour may have irrevocably changed when events begin again in earnest.

These changes include a focus from more risk averse audiences on increased local attendance and greater digital engagement. These trends and new cultural practices, amidst the turmoil of the pandemic, present an opportunity to begin the urgently needed changes in cultural production and consumption that goes beyond the tokenism and greenwashing we have grown accustomed to.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ