Determined sustainability action during COVID-19

Jamie delivering a Carbon Literacy Training session

Written by Jamie Saye, Senior Technician at Opera North

Jamie is a Senior Technician at Opera North, and a director and co-founder of Sustainable Arts in Leeds, a not for profit community interest company with the goal of uniting the cultural and creative industries of Leeds to tackle climate change together. He is passionate about sustainability, sitting on the Leeds Climate Commission as a member of the engagement and communications working group and is also a certified Carbon Literacy trainer.

Jamie shares with us the theatre’s ongoing efforts at engaging with staff and networks in Leeds to further their sustainability action, such as offering climate literacy training to furloughed staff.

Creative industry shut down

2020 was shaping up to be a fantastic year for sustainability at Opera North. We were going to stage a climate change-themed production, The Water Diviner’s Tale, and we’d even agreed with Leeds City Council to borrow an electric van to tour it. We were going full steam ahead with the planning for our main stage production of Handel’s Alcina, with a fully recycled set, and we were gearing up to launch Sustainable Arts in Leeds (SAIL) alongside our partners in ITV, Leeds City Council, Leeds 2023 and other creative and cultural organisations across the sector. Then of course, COVID-19 hit, the industry shut down almost overnight, and sustainability concerns had to make way for more pressing matters.

Carbon Literacy Training for furloughed staff

That doesn’t mean that we’ve stopped trying to act. Over the past year we’ve been rolling out Carbon Literacy training to our 250 staff, and before lockdown 121 of them had received the training. The senior management team of Opera North was keen for the training to continue, and therefore requested that the training course was redeveloped for online so that it could be delivered to furloughed staff. (A separate blog post on the experience of developing an online Carbon Literacy training course can be found here).

Contrary to our initial apprehension about adding climate change on top of things that people already had to worry about, members of staff were happy to have something to take their mind off the ongoing situation, were happy to see each other and to receive some learning. The training sessions always end with the provocation “If we can change everything in such a short space of time to combat COVID-19, imagine what we can do over the next few years to combat climate change?”

Creative climate commitments

The pledges that people made at the end of the sessions, too, were really inspiring and encouraging: for example many people pledged that they would take action in their personal lives, reducing their meat and dairy consumption, choosing more active travel options and moving their money away from fossil fuel companies. In the workplace, there were some fantastic commitments made around ensuring that we don’t go back to the status quo after lockdown, introducing more paperless workflows and being more conscious around the travel methods we use when we tour as an organisation.

We’ve now trained 181 Opera North staff, as well as members of staff from Leeds 2023, Leeds Playhouse and Leeds Conservatoire. In total, Opera North have trained 230 people in Leeds-based creative and cultural organisations, and through SAIL has plans to roll out the training even further afield.

Sustainable Arts in Leeds network

SAIL (Sustainable Arts in Leeds) is a member network of organisations and individuals that myself and Phil Holdgate from ITV started back in 2018, taking inspiration from the fantastic work that has been happening in Manchester with the Manchester Arts Sustainability Team (MAST). We had planned to launch the network officially with an event on 22nd April, the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, but COVID-19 made that impossible.

Creating a net zero roadmap

Instead, we decided to take a beat and do a bit more work behind the scenes. One of the things we did over the summer to have Julia Bachmann, a student from the University of Leeds create a Net Zero by 2030 Roadmap for SAIL. We are now working on how to implement this strategy, and are undertaking a Climate Action Readiness Assessment (CARA.)

The CARA framework was developed by the Leeds Climate Commission and attempts to quantify how ready Leeds is for Net Zero, where the obstacles are and how they can be overcome. SAIL is going to be hosting a series of workshops where we take the CARA framework and apply it to our sector, with the aim of developing an action plan of what we need to address and who is going to address them. The first of these workshops will be held on the 3rd November

We actively encourage all Leeds based creative and cultural organisations to join us, it only takes a moment through our website!

Despite COVID-19 disrupting our plans for this year, Opera North is determined to return in a sustainable way. The Water Diviner’s Tale has been rescheduled for June 2021, members of our staff are taking part in Leeds’ tree planting efforts, and we are continuing our work as part of the Spotlight programme to become ISO50001-compliant by the time our £18 million capital project is complete.

Featured image: Jamie delivering a Carbon Literacy Training session.