The Creative Industries and Climate Change – Reflecting on BEYOND 2022

BEYOND 2022, an annual gathering focused on research and development across the Creative Industries, was held in Cardiff in October. Now the dust has settled, Senior Research Fellow at the University of York and XR Stories Research Lead, Dr Jon Swords, reflects on the theme of the conference: the role of the creative industries for a zero-carbon future.

Despite the creative industries being the subject of policy focus in the UK for over 25 years, there has not been sustained engagement with environmental issues from either a policy or research perspective. In a recent report for the Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre (PEC), Julie’s Bicycle and BOP suggest this could be because the social sciences have received a tiny proportion of research funding directed at understanding climate change. Whatever the reason, this position is now untenable.

It was encouraging, then, that the focus of this year’s BEYOND conference sought to explore pathways to net zero. It was also positive that contributors to the main stage sessions expressed their commitment to change. What was more disappointing, however, was the lack of radical ideas. The general tone of contributions was that the creative industries are important for the economy, they are great at communicating climate change issues, and that reducing carbon is important. Approaches to the latter revolved around business as usual but engaging with carbon reduction strategies to mitigate the impacts. There was little discussion of the circular economy or more radical approaches such as degrowth.

This is unsurprising given messaging about the creative industries has been growth-focused ever since the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Support first defined the sector in the 1990s. Whenever the case is made for policy interventions, additional funding, new support schemes or tax incentives, the economic contribution of the creative sector, its employment levels and rates of growth are among the first things mentioned. But if the creative industries are to seriously address climate change and other environmental issues, we need to think very differently about how creative products and services are produced, distributed and consumed. Unfortunately, there is a lack of research on the carbon footprints of many areas of the creative industries, but we know that some sub-sectors contribute more than others. Those involving digital, IT and electronic devices are likely to have a larger impact than, say, crafts or heritage.

In the session XR Stories organised, ways to address environmental impacts of the creative sector were in sharp focus. It was my pleasure to chair the panel alongside XR Stories colleagues Nina Willment and David Gochfeld, together with Helen Brook from Sustainable Arts Leeds (SAIL) and Alexandra Dales from York St John University. 

David Gochfeld, Nina Willment and Helen Brook participating in a panel discussion in front of a seated audience at Beyond 2022

David Gochfeld, Nina Willment and Helen Brook at Beyond 2022

The environmental credentials of virtual production have been heralded alongside its creative potential, but the panel were more sceptical. Making film and TV shows can be environmentally damaging when cast and crew need to travel, especially if flying, as “transport has the largest impact in terms of carbon emissions, accounting for just over 50% of total emissions for tentpole productions” (Arup, 2020: 6). Shooting film and TV shows using virtual production techniques can save a lot of travel, but as we discussed, running LED walls, powering servers, streaming from cloud services and using multiple workstations still requires a lot of energy. Moreover, the essential electronic devices used have environmental and human impacts from the extraction and processing of rare earth minerals, through manufacture, to use and disposal.

Organisations such as SAIL and BAFTA-albert provide carbon literacy training, and shows commissioned by the BBC, ITV, UKTV, TG4, Sky and Netflix require certification from the latter. This includes calculating the carbon footprint of productions, and while calculators such as albert’s have been criticised for not being accurate enough, and for privileging carbon over other greenhouse gases and pollutants, it is a necessary and important starting point.

Applying principles of the circular economy can help too. As part of the panel, Alexandra explained this approach focuses on production and consumption where products can be shared, reused, leased, refurbished, repaired, or recycled to reduce their impacts. What this might look like in the screen industries is difficult to imagine, but might include the reuse of sets, scenery and props, and designing electronic equipment which is upgradable and repairable. There is a danger that the current generation of LED panels used in virtual production will soon be replaced by newer models, with the older ones scrapped or ending up on an e-waste pile somewhere in Asia. As Nina suggested, allowing their reuse by colleges and universities is a good alternative. Similarly, Helen wondered if sets and scenery could be shared or rented out amongst theatre companies and other performing arts organisations.

A further alternative would be to take a degrowth perspective. Advocates of this approach argue we need to reduce production and consumption and move away from a growth-oriented economy. Degrowth is seen as a radical way forward but is increasingly identified as an alternative, particularly as it integrates environmental issues with concerns about human exploitation. It is not yet mainstream and, as David noted, it would take a massive shift to convince the creative industries to produce less art, music, film or games etc.

Whatever the approach, it is clear more needs to be done. The creative industries do not have the impact that the energy or textiles sector have on the environment, but ‘whataboutism’ isn’t going to save us from the intersecting environmental emergencies we face. Nor is a business as usual approach with more carbon counting. Things need to radically change and quickly.

Published on 5 January 2023

Filed under: XR Stories