Why museums need to know their carbon footprint

Maurice Davies, 17.05.2010
Maurice Davies looks at the main reasons why a museum should find out its carbon footprint, from making the case for funding to saving money

1. Carbon footprints help prioritise improvements

The planet’s climate is changing and natural resources are running out: every organisation knows it needs to go gentle on the environment. There are dozens of things a museum can do to lessen its impact - and a carbon footprint helps determine which are best.

Matt Stephens, area manager of Church Farm Museum in Lincolnshire, explains: “If your carbon impact is massive in one area, there’s no point addressing another area where it’s insignificant.”

A carbon footprint can also help highlight potential inefficiencies.

Simon Townsend, museums services manager at Banbury Museum in Oxfordshire, says: “We know how much energy we use, but we don’t know how much is used by each part of our operation – what per cent is our air conditioning chiller, what per cent is our lighting.”

Ultimately, a carbon footprint is the first step to improving your museum’s performance. Nigel Thompson, assistant director at Manchester Museum, says its carbon footprint has been “the absolute bedrock of everything we’ve done”.

2. Carbon footprints help make the case for investment

There’s funding available to make green improvements and museums are finding that their carbon footprints help them make the case for investment.

Stephens explains: “If you can’t measure something, it’s hard to advocate for it.

“[Thanks to Church Farm Museum’s carbon footprint] I can say if I invest £X amount in, say, rainwater harvesting, it will pay back a return of £Y per year. I get a much better response from funders than if I say: ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if we could do a bit of this’.”

3. Funders and government increasingly expect carbon footprints

Bodies that fund, support and govern museums increasingly want to reduce carbon emissions.

Central government is ahead of the game with each department, including the Department for Culture Media and Sport (DCMS), having its own ‘carbon budget’ complete with targets for reducing it.

Museums funded directly by the DCMS are already under pressure to know their carbon footprint and set targets for reducing it. Before too long, the DCMS will look more widely and start pushing all cultural organisations in England to know and reduce their carbon emissions.

Local authorities are increasingly setting targets for carbon reduction. Katie Pekacar, policy adviser for excellence, improvement and innovation at the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA), says: “They will look to all council services to reduce their carbon emissions and those with big, draughty buildings are going to be pretty high up the list for specific attention.”

Elsewhere, the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) has started to trial an approach to carbon footprinting and reduction for its current major grant projects (over £5m), such as St Fagans National History Museum in Cardiff (pictured).

This is designed to help applicants understand the carbon impact of their proposals and investigate ways of reducing it during detailed development work.

If successful, it may be introduced for all projects over £1m. HLF is the first lottery distributor to do this, but other major funders are likely to follow.

In January 2010, universities were told by the Higher Education Funding Council for England that they must reduce carbon emissions by 48 per cent by 2020. The University Museums Group is looking at the ways university museums can respond.

Finally, the revised accreditation scheme, run by the MLA, is likely to encourage museums to undertake carbon footprinting.