Culture: The Missing Link to Climate Action

Research Summary

This new research considers how cultural policy, internationally, can strengthen the arts and cultural community and thereby mobilise climate action at scale.

“If ever there was a moment to mobilise the arts and culture this is it, the clarion call. This call is absolute.”
- Alison Tickell, Founder & CEO, Julie's Bicycle

The creative community globally has embraced environmental action at all levels — local, sectoral, national — with creative content and sustainable practice, converging climate, nature, and justice with cultural rights, protection and access. Much of this work has been led by local, grassroots and lone pioneers, though culture in the round — the networks and organisations — have grown significantly during  the  pandemic. Cultural  policy  nationally has not kept pace. As UNESCO reported, at a cultural policy level, initiatives are sporadic. “Reflection and initiatives to address environmental degradation and climate change, as well as the environmental impact of cultural production and artistic practice, are limited.”

This latest  research, led  by  Julie’s Bicycle  with  partners from  many  parts of the world, concludes that we are at a turning point: climate change has taken on the urgency and attention it requires and has rapidly escalated as an issue of critical concern.

“The call for urgent, collective action to address the climate emergency has never been greater.”
- Rami Tawfiq, Director of Partnerships, British Council

The cultural community no longer needs to be sensitised to the environmental emergency; they need the policy frameworks and authority, funding and accountability to be fully mainstreamed into national environmental planning. Cultural ambition everywhere  is high,  solutions  abound, and  creativity  is in abundant supply. An urgent and overdue policy dialogue with national policymakers, which supports this  expertise already  happening,  is  the missing link.

Research Highlights

Creative resurgence is everywhere.
Artists, organisations, and cultural networks are already deeply connected to environmental issues, bringing many perspectives, voices and ideas.
The arts & cultural policy community is at a turning point on climate action
with increasing ambition to respond to the climate crisis even though policy cycles are not keeping pace with the science of climate change.
197 countries are signatories to the Paris Agreement — this basic architecture is a good starting point.
Most countries have submitted climate change targets and pathways (Nationally Determined Contributions), which cultural policy must align with (though there is already a gap between NDC pledges and what is needed). All 193 member states of the UN have adopted Agenda 2030.
In spite of the Paris Agreement, requirements for climate action are still quite rare in national cultural policy.
In the main, priorities are not yet reading explicitly across commitments to achieving global net zero greenhouse gas emissions nor to environmental discourse on justice and just transition. There are some outstanding exceptions.
Formal read-across between culture & climate government departments is rare
(though there are some outstanding exceptions).
Many national cultural policy priorities are environmental issues — especially relating to justice — but the framing does not illuminate commonalities.
For example, cultural rights are often connected with environmental justice, and arts for transformation is connected with ‘just transition’. Translating cultural priorities into the vernacular of environmental policy, and also enriching environmental policy with cultural perspectives, is a good starting point.
Broad sustainability issues are well represented
in national cultural policy, especially as regards heritage, cultural rights and sustainable development. Connections to climate and environmental issues are often implicit; policy-dialogue with local and creative practitioners working from the ground up is urgently needed.
There is plenty of evidence of a focus on climate & environment at local levels
— artists, activists, creatives, as well as cities, local authorities, municipalities, networks and organisations (outside the scope of this research), which could be informing national cultural policy.
The arts, creative industries & heritage offer unique opportunities to accelerate environmental action.
They contribute to greenhouse gas emissions and need to align with targets, but they are also vital to national economies, contributing creative skills and ideas. They are highly innovative, and intimately connected to place and to community, they influence our tastes and lifestyles, and tell powerful stories.
National Policy can unlock the frameworks and resources to put culture at the forefront of action on the climate & ecological crisis.
Research in Numbers

This research combines data analysing publicly available national arts policies of 25 ODA countries, a survey to arts and culture bodies with a national mandate and 173 ministries, as well as in-depth roundtables and interviews with leading international arts leaders.

included in desk-based research on published national cultural policy & strategy.
in-depth conversations held in Indonesia, Turkey, Nigeria, Colombia, plus Milan.
attended roundtables, including arts leaders, policymakers, and grassroots groups.
survey responses
from national culture ministries, arts councils and public arts development agencies.
in-depth interviews
with policy experts and creative climate activists.

Download the Summary Report



The opportunity to limit global warming to 1.5° C is rapidly diminishing. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest scientific assessment is a Code Red alert; the time to take swift, all-society, all-sector transformative action is now, with concrete commitments and pathways to 2030 (IPCC,  2021). Yet in spite of compelling evidence,  commitments from almost all countries and  sectors  are still woefully inadequate (IPCC, 2021). That includes concrete commitments from the arts, culture and creative industries which have, by and large, been excluded from national statutory requirements  to meet and contribute to climate targets.

There is  nothing exceptional  about  arts practice. It draws on the same infrastructures, systems, and processes as the wider global economy and is subject to the same forces. It follows that it should do its part, and align to the science, agreeing targets and pathways to reduce global emissions in line with 2030 goals immediately.

But culture is exceptional in what it does in community and in society. Creative pioneers are everywhere, some at the frontlines of environmental activism, others in workshops, studios and boardrooms.

In spite of its power to connect  and  communicate, design and innovate, or simply as a net contributor to greenhouse gases, culture has not been a focus for climate solutions. That must change.

This research builds on a similar study in 2015 by Julie’s Bicycle and the International Federation of Arts Councils and Culture Agencies  conducted just before the Paris COP21.  In  the intervening seven years of mounting environmental crisis, this research finds that national policies for culture and the arts generally are still not yet aligned to climate science, nor to national  commitments  under the Paris Agreement.

The research considers how cultural policy can strengthen the creative climate movement, and thereby mobilise action at scale. Explicit cultural policy linked to climate goals can unlock the crucial resources to strengthen and accelerate the efforts of the sector itself. Cultural policy can embrace narratives that link art and culture with the overwhelming imperative of climate transformation. At scale, this might just be the missing link.

Definitions & scope

For this report our focus is on the term ‘climate’ (change/crisis). We recognise that the term ‘climate change’ can specifically mean the warming consequences of greenhouse gases, but can also be used as shorthand for a range of other climate- related issues which describe the state of the planet (i.e. sustainability, biodiversity loss). Our scope is climate change as defined by the IPCC:

Climate change: A change in the state of the climate that can be identified (e.g., by using statistical tests) by changes in the mean and/or the variability of its properties and that persists for an extended period, typically decades or longer. Climate change may be due to natural internal processes or external forcings, or to persistent anthropogenic changes in the composition of the atmosphere or in land use.

— IPCC, Glossary in Special Report: Global Warming of 1.5º C

We have focused on culture policy at a national level with a statutory mandate for arts (theatre, music, dance, literature, visual arts and galleries).

This research covers national policy, not municipal, regional, network, city or organisational policy. There is a good deal of progressive policy, which links climate and culture in all of these areas, many of which have declared climate emergencies. No national statutory arts and culture funding body that we could find has yet independently declared a climate and ecological emergency (although some might be, by default, within national declarations).

We have had to be flexible with our definitions and interpretations: there is no uniformity in the organisation and remit of cultural policy operating nationally; centralised, federal, arms-length, advisory, regional, all coexist. There are also vastly different resources and financial frameworks for culture and the arts relative to national economies.

What this research is not

This report does not claim to be definitive. In terms of language and activities, there are varying interpretations, aims, and mandates of culture. The exact parameters for ‘arts’, ‘culture’, ‘heritage’, ‘creative industries’, ‘sustainability’, ‘arts councils’, ‘cultural ministries’ and ‘government-backed arts development agencies’ are different depending on countries and sector boundaries. Therefore, our findings are indicative of wider narratives and trends rather than absolute and specific.

Relating to the sector, national portfolios for culture vary and throughout the research there are overlaps between the arts, heritage, culture, creative industries, and tourism, however this research is focused specifically on the arts.

This report does not focus on:

• Heritage, although it recognises its overlaps (for example, museums, cultural rights).

• Creative Industries, including design, film and media, gaming, fashion, even though design, innovation and the circular economy are mutual areas that are highlighted in this report. Creative industries policy is an important area for further research.

• Tourism, although it recognises that the arts and culture are reliant on and closely bound to tourism in many countries.

Participation in the research was voluntary; this inevitably means that direct inputs from many countries are missing.

Finally, this report does not offer an analysis of the impact of any programmes or policies.

This research was delivered as part as part of a programme of work in partnership with the British Council for The Climate Connection

"The challenge is to be able to provide assistance with resources and tools to all cultural makers, producers and agents...” 
- Ministerio de Cultura de la Nacion