Cultural Leadership in Action

Sahar, Kim, Lucas and Kai at 4a Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, Sydney

Great news! Following the recent board meeting, the Biennale has appointed Sahar (Administration & Operations Coordinator) to lead the charge on creating a new Environmental Management Plan. The Biennale is making time available in Sahar’s work day so she can put some effort into this project.

Sahar has never done anything like this before, and she’s very excited about the opportunity – she strongly believes that it needs to be done.

But the first job, it seems, is to define the parameters of the job! How to begin?

Here’s one way: late last year, 4a Centre for Contemporary Asian Art sent out an email newsletter saying that that it had been certified “Climate Active”. When that email came into my inbox, it struck me as a strong statement of leadership in the art gallery sector. So, rather than reinventing the wheel, perhaps the Biennale could learn from 4a’s experience?

We called up 4a and organised to meet with Kai. He works as an Operations and Production Coordinator, and when he got the job back in 2017, he proposed that 4a should improve its environmental performance. Mikala (the director) got behind Kai’s initiative, and he became 4a’s environmental champion.

At our meeting, Kai was very helpful and ran us all through all his processes. In a nutshell:

He found an environmental consultancy called Pangolin, which took him through the steps you need to take. With Pangolin’s advice, Kai drafted a roadmap for change – what could happen immediately, what might take a bit more time, and how much the various parts of the journey would cost. He then wrote this up as a “pitch” to take to the 4a board. They were enthusiastic and very quickly approved the costings so the project could go ahead.

This basic pathway seems like it could work for the Biennale as well.

A lot of the labour of improving environmental systems seems to be about benchmarking where you’re currently at. How much carbon did our organisation produce through international flights? How much garbage did we throw out? What was the environmental footprint of visiting artists staying in hotels? and so on ad infinitum…

Most of these environmental impacts leave behind an associated financial breadcrumb (plane tickets, invoices etc). The benchmarking business involves a bunch of unglamorous detective work, going through expense records with your finance person and making up a custom Excel spreadsheet. … chasing up colleagues about the exact route of a particular flight, for example, so you can work out how much carbon was emitted.

And now, 4a is the first visual arts organisation in Australia to be certified Carbon Neutral.

A few questions arise… what does “carbon neutral” mean? … and what is “certification”?

The certification process involves getting approval from a trustworthy independent organisation (in this case, ClimateActive). From what I can gather, ClimateActive is the group that will inspect all your documents to make sure your claim is legit. I guess this stops dodgy operators from claiming to be environmentally friendly as a way to boost their business.

Being “Carbon Neutral” doesn’t mean you don’t emit any carbon. It just means you audit your emissions, then you take steps to reduce your footprint as much as possible, and finally you “offset” whatever emissions remain.

Offsetting is where you pay money to an approved entity that is doing an activity which is supposed to draw down carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. In 4a’s case, they chose to invest in 3 offset projects that were meaningful to them as an Australian/Asian arts organisation: a reforestation project in Tassie, an Indonesian Biodiversity project, and a Chinese hydro-electric company.

Kai told us that offsetting your carbon emissions is not the end goal. People can be pretty cynical about offsetting – and for good reason! I mean, you could be a big thermal coal mining company making a squillion dollars, and you just hive off some of your profits and offset your carbon emissions as a way of purchasing a “social licence to operate”, even though the very heart the your company’s business model is about emitting as much carbon as possible.

So, rather than looking at this whole certification process as a greenwashing campaign, 4a has focused on how it can transform the way they go about their business as usual. The certification goal generates a cheerful game-like pressure to make changes within the organisation, and in the process a whole bunch of cultural norms shift – the way things are done can never be the same again – not least because all this stuff is now written down and enshrined in an Environmental Management Plan.

So! At the time of writing, Sahar is beginning correspondence with Pangolin to get her first snippets of advice. We’ll report back on progress soon…

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