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The Courtauld and the Climate Crisis: How Are We Doing?

by Esme Garlake | 24 June 2020

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Illustration by Esme Garlake

The majority of new undergraduate students coming to The Courtauld in September 2021 will be the same age as Greta Thunberg. Some may have taken part in the Youth Strikes for Climate, and most will have some knowledge of the climate crisis. Although the current ecological breakdown can leave many of us feeling hopeless – there is only six years until we reach an irreversible tipping point in global warming – the desire for climate action among young people is a source of inspiration for us all.


In this article, I want to look at what The Courtauld is currently doing in response to the climate crisis, and what more it could do. As both an art institution and university, The Courtauld has a responsibility to not only ensure that its impact on the environment is a positive one, but also to foster critical discussions about human-nature relationships in art and history. The more we look at art history from an environmental perspective, the starker the relevance – and value – of such a critical outlook, as I have consistently found when writing my column Art in the Age of Extinction this year.


The Courtauld’s Carbon Management Plan

The Courtauld’s Carbon Management Plan was written in April 2015, and outlined targets for carbon emissions reductions over the following five years – that is, by 2020. The baseline target was to reduce Scope 1 (all direct emissions) and Scope 2 (indirect emissions) carbon emissions by 38% by 2020, and Scope 3 emissions (all other indirect emissions, outside the organisation’s control) by 10% by 2020 (see here for a quick definition of the difference between Scopes).


I met with The Courtauld’s Director of Operations, Robert Thorpe, and the Head of Estates and Facilities, Anthony Tyrrell, to find out more about the 2015 plan, whether there was any chance of a renewed one and, more generally, how students of The Courtauld can access this information more easily.


Robert and Anthony told me that The Courtauld exceeded the targets for Scope 1 and 2 emissions. This is certainly good news, but we do also need to take into consideration the impact of Somerset House being closed for much of that time, as well as the consequences of Covid-19 (for example, significantly fewer people were using or travelling to the main sites). Scope 3 emissions have, in fact, increased, and so the target to reduce these by 10% by 2020 was missed. This is in large part a result of the construction work for The Courtauld Connects project and so, with the project soon coming to an end, these emissions will hopefully be reduced but challenges will remain.


It is very clear that the data on carbon emissions depends on a wide range of variables. Robert and Anthony pointed out that if we are going to draft a new Carbon Management Plan, it is probably better to wait until nearer the end of 2021. By this time, The Courtauld will be a more stable environment, after the easing of lockdown and the re-opening of the gallery. However, carbon emissions data inevitably fluctuates, and so there is also a question of making this data as accessible to students and staff as possible. As part of plans for a page dedicated to these environmental issues in the new Courtauld website later this year, the latest operational carbon emissions figures from our buildings will be included and updated on a periodic basis.


Although there are no ‘formal’ consequences if the targets are not met, it was obvious through talking to Robert and Anthony that they have a real commitment to making The Courtauld’s buildings and business activities as sustainable as possible (and it is not an easy task, considering the age of the buildings they are working with). The support and engagement from students and staff at The Courtauld will make a crucial difference in this process of decarbonisation.


In advance of the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26), taking place in Glasgow from 1st November this year, The Courtauld could even join Race to Zero – a global campaign to rally Higher and Further Education institutions to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050 at the latest (although most climate scientists now agree that even 2050 as a target is far too conservative).


Where does The Courtauld rank among UK universities and sustainability?

In 2019, the student network People and Planet published a University League that ranks UK universities according to their performance on a wide range of environmental topics (including carbon emissions, public policies, workers’ rights, investments, food waste, and student and staff engagement). The Courtauld is ranked at 120th place – just four places short of being a Failed University.

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The Courtauld ranks four places above a failed university in its environmental performance ( 

As part of the measurements of a university’s environmental performance, People and Planet lists exactly what universities must do to become an environmentally-friendly. As is so often the case when looking at solutions to the climate crisis, all of the information is there; it is a question of whether or not we implement it.


The proposed changes to make a university environmentally-friendly would truly benefit The Courtauld’s staff, students, visitors and the local community. Changes include using local food, providing free drinking water on university sites, encouraging environmental campaigns and funded projects among students and staff, and granting equal access to education for long-term residents with irregular migration status in the UK. Some of the proposals on the list are inspired and exciting, others less so, but they are all perfectly possible. Top-ranking universities such as University of Gloucestershire, Manchester Metropolitan University, and University of London (London’s greenest university) are examples of how successful these changes can be for a university’s community.



Fossil Fuel Divestment

According to People and Planet, The Courtauld currently invests approximately £3,386,435 in fossil fuel companies through its investments in stocks and bonds. It is a shocking figure in many respects, but it can perhaps be easily dismissed – it is, after all, a drop in the ocean in comparison to the overall profits made by fossil fuel companies. Yet however large or small these investments are, it remains indicative of the long-established relationships between art institutions and fossil fuel companies. By providing significant financial support to the art world, fossil fuel companies are able to claim they have positive cultural impact on society, whilst continuing to inflict major damage on the environment and, often, indigenous lands. A quick scroll through the website of campaigning organisation Culture Unstained shows the shocking extent of fossil fuels’ sponsorship of culture in the UK.


At The Courtauld, we have a moral obligation to stop supporting the corporations that are willingly causing ecological collapse and the destruction of indigenous lands and essential natural habitats for profit. The money can, instead, be invested in environmentally and socially responsible businesses and projects. There are currently only 19 universities in the UK that have signed the Fossil Free Declaration – The Courtauld should be on there.

To ensure divestment, it is also crucial that students and staff are able to clearly access information about The Courtauld’s stocks investments – without transparency there can be no accountability.

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The Courtauld Climate Society

As students, we play a crucial role in encouraging The Courtauld to become environmentally responsible, both on practical and academic levels. The Courtauld Climate Society has now officially been established for the first time, and hopes to provide a place for students and staff at The Courtauld to engage in discussions about the climate crisis in relation to the art world.


One of The Courtauld Climate Society’s central aims is to ensure that every student engages with some form of environmental critique during their studies at The Courtauld. This approach draws inspiration from the efforts of students and staff across UK universities to decolonise the curriculum. The Courtauld has made considerable progress in this area, with reading groups and changes to the curriculum. Given the close connection between colonial histories and environmental destruction, it is essential that our curriculum continues to build on these discussions.


And here is the moment where I present an even more shameless plug than usual, and invite all students and staff of The Courtauld (or indeed anyone who is interested outside of the institution) to offer their suggestions to The Courtauld’s new Environmental Reading List here. Art history can tell us so much about humanity’s relationship with the natural world, and hopefully this reading list will allow us to begin exploring art history through an environmental lens.


The Environmental Reading List will form one section of a new VLE page dedicated to The Courtauld and the climate crisis, where a wide variety of academic and practical resources will be available for all students and staff.


To join the Courtauld Climate Society, please email or get in touch via Facebook. Alternatively, feel free to contact Esme with any queries via The Courtauldian’s Instagram page.

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