COP26, the UN climate change conference, is just around the corner. And as the world’s nations start to take a long hard look at what they’re doing to the planet, the world’s galleries and artists are doing the same.
The Gallery Climate Coalition is a relatively new endeavour, a charity that wants to help create a greener art world, and will this week be taking a stand at Frieze art fair in London. The coalition includes members like Thomas Dane, Sadie Coles, Kate MacGarry, and Frieze Board director Victoria Siddall, all of whom have been brought together to collectively reduce their carbon emissions by 50% over the next decade. Over 550 international institutions and individuals have joined so far.
The main ecological issue facing the art world is transportation. In a normal, non-pandemic year, a major fair like Frieze or Art Basel will see collectors flying in from around the world, and art and staff being shipped from galleries in every corner of the planet. The carbon footprint of art fairs alone is massive. Art and ecology charity Julie’s Bicycle released a report in 2021 that found that the art world’s total global carbon footprint was estimated at 70 million tonnes CO2e per annum based on 2019 activity, with shipping, travel and building use accounting for 52 million tonnes CO2e per annum of that.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that the future of green art would be digital. Surely digital art consumes fewer resources than painting, drawing or sculpture? Those are all physical, actual endeavours that use up wood, paper, cloth and stone - tangible commodities that have tangible environmental repercussions. A Jpeg on the other hand, or any digital image, must have a negligible impact in comparison. Well, you’d be surprised. The recent mania for NFTs has finally seen proper analysis of digital art’s physical footprint, and it’s not pretty. Minting an NFT is a serious environmental drain. The artist and climate activist Joanie Lemercier cancelled the minting of a series of new pieces because ‘my release of 6 CryptoArt works consumed in 10 seconds more electricity than [my] entire studio over the past 2 years.”
The same artist went on to point out that in just one day on the Nifty Gateway online auction platform ‘a single artist burned the equivalent of 49 years of electricity consumption, with an edition of just 2 artworks. CO2 emitted: 103,129 Kg’.
So how do galleries, artists and collectors combat this terrifying trend? One solution is to avoid flying, and use alternative transport - such as trains - to attend events and fairs. That solution is to put into practice in European countries, where the rail network is brilliantly connected and largely super-efficient. Another would be to change the kind of fuel used. Frieze organisers managed to reduce their carbon emissions in 2019 by 60% by changing to a waste vegetable oil called Green-D. And Christie’s, in tandem with the Gallery Climate Coalition, is exploring new sea freight routes as shipping alternatives. Other initiatives have seen a push for ecological packaging, which may not be as pristine or luxurious as the usual art shipping crates, but have far less of an environmental impact.
But the main aim of all this green-focus will be simply to spread awareness, and in the process foster a more mindful, ecological approach to the art world. If every gallery, every artist, and every collector does their bit, the art world will soon start to make the rest of the world’s industries green with ecological envy.