Myah Jeffers –Seven Methods of Killing Kylie Jenner by Jasmine Lee-Jones, Production Photos for the Royal Court Theatre (2021)

Creative Green!

Julie’s Bicycle - At the intersection of culture and climate

An interview by Diana Fehr / December, 2021

Graciela Melitsko Thornton holds the Creative Green Consultancy Programme Lead at Julie’s Bicycle, a UK-based charity that mobilises the arts and culture to act on the climate and ecological crisis. As a sustainability and climate change professional with more than 20 years experience she develops environmental management systems for organisations of all sizes, innovative multimedia training activities, and gives strategic advice to national government and international organisations. Julie’s Bicycle, partnering with over 2000 organisations in the UK and internationally,  focuses on high-impact programmes and policy change to meet the climate crisis head-on.


Diana: In 2006, Alison Tickell, founder, and CEO of Julies Bicycle (JB), had a vision of a future where festivals would be powered by solar energy. Fifteen years later, JB combines cultural and environmental expertise to focus on high-impact programmes. Why do you believe that the arts and cultural sector is able to support the Race to Zero emissions?


Graciela: Julies Bicycle originated from the Music sector and is now working with all sectors in the cultural and creative scene globally. Transforming cultural place and practice to meet the scale of this ecological emergency with energy, emotion, inspiration, and new perspectives can have an exponentially powerful effect far beyond our immediate environment.

Culture and the creative community have a particularly vital contribution to responding to the climate and ecological crisis. The climate crisis is also cultural; it reflects our beliefs and relationship with nature and the planet. Cultural values, narratives, identities, myths are captured in artistic and cultural expressive forms and located in cultural practice and places. In this context, Julie’s Bicycle (JB) encompasses convening, enabling, supporting, and amplifying creative climate action to support the journey towards Zero emissions.


Diana: JB’s Creative Green Community is designed for galleries, museums, theatres, cinemas, music companies, and festivals in the UK and globally. How are you able to mobilise such a diverse cultural landscape and get them to act on the climate and ecological crisis?


Graciela: We connect environmental and cultural expertise to find solutions and co-create programmes. We develop learning resources, research, monitoring online tools, training, and consultancy. In 2008 the Greater London Authority commissioned a series of guidances for individual sectors (e.g. theatre, cinema, visual arts, Music etc). All that work was developed in permanent consultation with Arts Council England and commissions representing the sector to provide continuity in the implementation.

Synergy with national and local policies is also crucial when working in Culture. The UK has been implementing climate change policies for more than a decade, and more than 450 municipalities joined this movement by declaring a climate emergency. The last four years have seen the rise of initiatives such as Culture declares emergency and Music declares emergency. There is a constant collaboration among organisations that are part of these collectives. In a nutshell, we want to scale and accelerate impact. To achieve this, we aim to translate long-term findings into policy, strategic and systemic change. See:

Diana: Can you give us some examples on what cultural institutions and especially museums can do to become more sustainable?


Graciela: Museums and the visual arts sector produce carbon emissions primarily from building energy use, planning and designing exhibitions, transporting artwork and people, procuring and selling goods and services (e.g., food, materials, merchandise, waste, water, etc.).

If we look at buildings, the focus should be on understanding where energy is used and what drives energy consumption. What can you do: implement energy efficiency, avoid blanket conditions for the whole museum. It is about considering building, art, and seasons more holistic, innovating with low carbon technologies, electrification of buildings, and renewable energy supply.

If we think about designing exhibitions, as much as 80 % of a product’s environmental impacts are locked in by decisions made during design, so it is vital to consider sustainability from the very beginning of the design process. By choosing more sustainable materials and considering alternative creative construction methods, it is possible to influence an exhibition’s environmental performance. An early design brief can maximiseopportunities to reduce, reuse, repurpose and recycle. The initial commitment needs to be followed up systematically throughout the exhibitions building.


In terms of transport, the key is on early planning and consolidation of the logistics, asking for sustainable transport operators and low carbon transport modes. Air freighting should be avoided when possible.


And the last few words about digital. Digital art trading does not have to result in high GHG emissions but depends on which technology platform and infrastructure dominate. We are still researching this area, and I want to encourage you to have a look at our digital brief. Consider: are you looking to understand the footprint of one digital project or to reduce the digital footprint relating to your daily activities, or perhaps create a procurement/circular strategy for digital devices.


Diana: According to your new research, you believe that we are lacking a government policy that takes a consistent, supportive approach in stimulating arts and cultural organisations to operate sustainably. Is this why JB has issued a Call to Action for governments to link national culture policy to environment policy?


Graciela: Julie’s Bicycle’s recent international research was focused on how national cultural institutions are responding to the climate crisis. This work was supported by the British Council on the way to the Climate Conference recently celebrated in Glasgow in Nov 21. The research found pockets of leadership around the world. Still, cultural organisations highlight that there is currently little or no mandate to ensure that their culture sectors are aligned with national climate commitments, like carbon targets.


A formal mandate would facilitate access to the resources to enable the sector to decarbonise and unleash its potential to contribute to environmental priorities in programming or commissioning art. We could be developing innovation labs, ecological requirements for funding, data sets that contribute to supporting the business cases, programmes that promote education. And above all, we need to accelerate policy mechanisms since we still have a window of opportunity, but we should be looking into reducing 50% of emissions by 2030. Learnings can be found on:

Diana: Culture: The Missing Link – A lens on Policy, took place at COP26, where Julie’s Bicycle was accompanied by artists, activists and environmental experts. The discussion was centred around creative and cultural responses to the climate crisis and the unique capacity of the arts to raise awareness and create action. What was the outcome and can you tell us more about your series of Culture and Environment Roundtables?


Graciela: The Culture and Environment Roundtables were also part of a partnership programme called Climate Connection, which is the British Council’s global platform for dialogue, cooperation, and action against climate change.


JB organized the roundtables as a series of five digital policy/practice roundtable conversations to explore current creative practice and policy in four different countries: Turkey, Indonesia, Nigeria, and Colombia, with a concluding roundtable event in Italy aligned with the Pre-COP Summit. The partnership wanted to do these events as inclusive as possible, and we brought together policy makers, artists, cultural organization to sit down and discuss and find new opportunities. It is an invitation to radically rethink the creative economy to be equitable, resilient, and environmentally restorative. All the country reports and short films featuring voices from the creative climate movement worldwide can be accessed in our revamp policy space of the website.


Diana: In the Environmental Responsibility Annual Report you provide data, projections and initiatives from the years 2019 and 2020, to inspire environmental action across the sector. Can you highlight the most successful stories?


Graciela: Julie’s Bicycle and Arts Council England have worked in partnership since 2012 to inspire environmental action across the arts and culture sector, focusing on the National Portfolio Organisations (around 800 organisations) that receive funding. A critical element of the programme is that organisations report their environmental impacts in the digital platform that JB hosts and commit to developing an environmental policy and action plan.


Another key programme called Spotlight supports large organizations in reducing and decarbonizing energy use. Organisations like the National Theatre, Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums, and the Royal Opera House are the first cluster of major cultural organisations to set decarbonisation targets to reach net zero carbon and has reduced its energy use emissions by 18% in 2019/20.


The use of plastics is another area where we see growing action. 70% of Arts Council NPOs are on the way to eliminating single-use plastic, and business vehicle ownership is increasingly discouraged in favour of car club schemes and low-emission taxi services (29%, up by 8% compared to 2018-19).


Diana: Does the pandemic affect your activities, when we consider that the creative and cultural sectors have been hit really hard?


Graciela: Yes, the pandemic has impacted on the sector and the way we work. To support organisations through this challenging times we increased our free on line webinars, and brought together the sector in different activities towards COP 26. We are learning to work differently internally as well. We are also growing new digital services, developing on line tools specifically created for cultural and artistic organisations to calculate the carbon footprint and evaluate environmental impacts. We run pilots in Canada and Germany last year and are now developing a project for the independent music labels associated with IMPALA.


Diana: What comes next? What steps are you planning to take, and what vision does Julie’s Bicycle still have for the future?


Graciela: We want to do more consultancy and partnership work for organisations working together in clusters to maximise impact. JB is also developing a hub on environmental justice that will be launched in the next couple of months. We think the work on environmental justice is central to climate action.


Not everybody is impacted in the same way; we need to consider geography, economics, race, gender. Those most affected are the least responsible for carbon emissions driving climate change. Loss and damage were a hot topic in the climate negotiations. The term is essentially about responding to climate change impacts that can’t be prevented or recovered (‘Losses’) as well as those that may be able to be restored (‘Damage’).


We need to go back into that conversation and identify actions addressing those issues. Personally, since I was born and bred in South America, I want to continue building bridges with the region, bring more visibility to the impacts of climate change in that region when I have an opportunity when working with the cultural sector. In that respect, we recently finished a publication in Spanish for Chile to contribute, focusing on the role of Arts and Culture in the climate emergency.


Thanks for this space to share our work!


Diana: Thank you for sharing these insides with me, and good luck with all your projects.

Images: Headline image – Myah Jeffers –Seven Methods of Killing Kylie Jenner by Jasmine Lee-Jones, Production Photos for the Royal Court Theatre (2021) 

Portrait – Sigi Kirkpatrick / Others – Julie’s Bicycle