A History of Arts and Culture at COPs

6th August 2020

A history of arts and culture at COPs 1

A History of Arts and Culture at COPs. Image credit: Canva.

The Conference of the Parties (COP) is the UN’s annual summit on climate change. COP26, taking place in Glasgow 1st-12th November 2021, will be a particularly crucial summit, continuing major decision making from COP21 in Paris. It will be the largest international summit the UK has ever hosted and a huge moment for international climate change policy. 

Many people from arts and culture are keen to get involved with making the most of this moment, but what do arts and culture have to offer in this context, what has been done in the past, and what lessons can we learn? This resource provides a potted history of COPs and the roles of arts and culture since 2009, which we aim to keep updating with new information. You can also get general advice on our Guide to Making Plans for COP26 page.  

If you have any suggestions for additions to make to this resource, please get in touch with Lewis Coenen-Rowe 

COP15, Copenhagen, 2009 

COP15 was a particularly important summit and notable for a major scaling up of interventions from both civil society and arts and culture, although both were largely shut out of the talks themselves. Much messaging around COP15 from campaigners and the media was ‘now or never’, framing the talks as the last opportunity to prevent runaway climate change. The talks are widely seen as a failure and some have argued that the way the talks were built up by campaigners was unhelpful in the long run. While planning for COP21, Climate Justice Action stated:  

‘It was clear from the start that we were to learn from our mistakes and not reproduce the “Copenhagen hangover,” when back in 2009, people had mobilized together around the COP15, but failed to see beyond it. With the disastrous results that came out of the negotiations, people’s energy plummeted and the climate movement was destroyed in many countries.’ 

Arts events organised around COP15

  • ‘Seven Meters’: public art installations installed around Copenhagen during the COP, led by artist Jens Galschiot. Galschiot emphasised the importance of participation:  

It’s of paramount importance that ordinary citizens – residents in Copenhagen during the summit as well as people worldwide – get some opportunities of activism. So they will be able to send an impulse to the climate summit. Thousands of citizens will be engaged in the project as individuals or by joining a local group. The design of Seven Meters will enable people with different styles of activism to back the event’. 

  • RETHINK: Contemporary art and climate change’: a coordinated exhibition between 4 museums and galleries in Copenhagen, organised over a 5-month period including the lead up to and aftermath of the COP itself.  
  • Culture Futures: A conference for artists and cultural organisations held during COP15. Critiqued by some for its insularity and lack of awareness of broader climate context outside the Global North 
  • You can read a Centre for Sustainable Practice in the Arts publication on the arts at COP15 


The main alternative space at COP15, described as ‘the people’s climate summit’, Kilmaforum09 played host to NGOs who were excluded from the COP space itself. They produced their own declaration and set themselves up as an alternative vision compared to the official talks, which were increasingly seen as a failure. In their words: 

‘It is far from enough to have NGO side events under the same roof as the official UNFCCC negotiations. The popular understanding of the climate crisis must be lifted to a much higher level’. 

They produced their own Klimaforum self-evaluation, which is still available online. Some of the main advice from this report: 

  • Arts and culture were essential for creating a welcoming space, programming included 70 exhibitions, 43 film screenings, 16 musical events and concerts, and 11 theatre performances. 
  • ‘The evenings were mainly reserved for the cultural programme (music and theatre). However, the cultural programme received much less attention – except for bigger music events and concerts.’ They found that daytime events were much better attended.  
  • Getting attendance from people who were not already actively involved was difficult: ‘We have the impression that relatively very few “ordinary” Danes attended’. It acted as a space primarily for existing activists and campaigners.  
A history of arts and culture at COPs

Protesters at COP15. Image credit: Kris Krug.

COP21, Paris, 2015 

COP21 was another major event and is often seen as having been more successful than Copenhagen, giving birth to the Paris Agreement, although it was still widely regarded as insufficient by environmental organisations. Partly as a result of failures at Copenhagen, many campaigning organisations took a more oppositional stance to the talks, framing themselves as an alternative and focusing on movement building rather than trying to influence the outcome of the talks. There are more thoughts in this report on the changes of approach between COP15 and COP21. 

Campaigning group Alternatiba said:  

‘Yes, we need to change this strategy for COP21 and avoid saying it’s (…) the COP of the last chance (…).” But say: “It’s a very important summit,” and mobilise towards it, but the primary objective will not be to obtain the dream agreement because it is very improbable that it will happen. But instead (…) use it as an opportunity to strengthen the movement and reinforce the capacities of our society to implement the ecological transition. (…) You can call it a realistic mistrust based on the experience of previous COP and also based on a pretty sober assessment of the capacity of social movements to influence the decision-making processes on this international level (…).’


Organised by COAL and Cape Farewell, this was an international programme connecting arts programming in Paris and internationally. They saw it as important to ensure that not everything was planned to take place in Paris during the talks but was spread out geographically and across the time leading up to and following on from COP21. artcop21 remains accessible online. In their words:  

‘ArtCOP21 connected hundreds of thousands of people to the climate challenge through an extensive global programme of over 550 major events;  installations, plays, exhibitions, concerts, performances, talks, conferences, workshops, family events and screenings – plus a whole range of people power gatherings and demonstrations – taking place right across Paris and in 54 total countries worldwide. All these events highlighted the need for governments meeting in Paris to support strong climate action and signal the end of the fossil fuel era – making climate change a people issue, not one to be left solely to the politicians.’ 

They also organised 37 public artworks to be displayed around Paris during the COP period. An independent evaluation was somewhat critical of the effectiveness of these works, with surveys finding that only three of the artworks displayed in Paris itself made a significant difference to people’s willingness to act, all of which were more optimistic in character and displayed in public spaces. The study suggested: 

‘that activist art including environmental art should move away from a dystopian way of depicting the problems of climate change, toward offering solutions, and emphasizing the beauty and interconnectedness of nature. The use of dystopian elements to initially catch attention, but with the remaining solution focused and hopeful, may be even more promising in encouraging action. Moreover, it is important to move out of the institutional space of museums into the public, in order to reach out to a bigger audience, and to avoid the connotation that art is something reserved for the educated part of the population.’ 

ArtCOP Scotland

As part of the wider ArtCOP21 programming, Creative Carbon Scotland organised a series of arts and culture events around Scotland. Independent evaluations of these are accessible on our website. Some evaluation points from us: 

  • Having a broad spread of locations and contexts was vital for reaching a broader audience. However, we still felt that reaching people who did not already have an existing interest in tackling climate change was difficult.  
  • The most effective work, such as that carried out by the Stove Network, was intimately connected with local communities and contributed to longer term developments for the organisation or the area 
  • The project was valuable for forming connections that have persisted ever since although in hindsight it would have been useful to promote more collaboration across arts/environmental divides as part of this programme 

Other events organised around COP21

  • Art of Change 21 was established in the leadup to COP21 and launched the Maskbook project, which has been running ever since
  • Artificial Climates: Contemporary art exhibition held in Paris across the COP21 period and beyond with a particular focus on exhibits that were immersive or participatory. Somewhat controversially sponsored by EDF. 
  • Global Village of Alternatives: An alternative civil society space set up in direct critique of COP21 in the Montruil suburb of Paris, including contributions from artivists and creative workshops. 
  • Bruno Latour’s mock COP roleplay: A participatory artwork organised in the run up to COP21, staging a simulated COP mixing the main negotiating countries as well as indigenous groups and personifications of the natural world who would not be represented at the COP negotiations themselves. 
  • Creative and artistic actions organised as part of the D12 Red Lines protest organised by 350.org.
ArtCOP Scotland: Scotland's Climate Change Arts Season 14

‘Cock and Bull’ was one of the pieces performed as part of ArtCOP Scotland. Image credit: Creative Carbon Scotland.

COP22, Marrakesh, 2016 

Hosted by Morocco, a focal issue of COP22 was water scarcity and water sustainability. Artistic engagements at COP22 included:

  • ArtCOP22: A contemporary art exhibition held in the ‘Green Zone’ at COP22. ArtCOP22 catalogue 
  • Art of Change 21A major arts side event organised during COP22, organised in partnership across sectors, including artist Hassan Haiji. The event included talks, debates, workshops, concerts, art performances and exhibitions. Sponsored by the Schneider Electric Company.  

COP23, Fiji/Bonn, 2017 

This COP was hosted by Fiji but took place in Bonn, Germany. A relatively small-scale COP undermined by the news that the USA was pulling out of the Paris agreement, it did include a number of arts installations, performances, and events during the talks as well as interventions from groups like the Artivist Network 

COP24, Katowice, 2018 

COP24 was also seen by many as ineffective with civil society largely shut out of the summit and a strong corporate lobbying presence (infamously including coal-based soap).  

Season for Change

An arts and culture programme organised in the UK during the runup to COP24, organised by Julie’s Bicycle and ArtsAdmin, including free online events and resources, artist commissions and events organised around the UK by 250 artists and arts organisations. The Season for Change listings remain accessible and they are planning a similar arrangement for COP26, although this has been postponed due to COVID-19.  

COP25, Santiago/Madrid, 2019 

COP25 was planned to take place in Santiago, Chile, but was moved to Madrid at a very late stage when the Chilean government announced that they would no longer host the talks due to widespread protests against the government that were taking place. 

Cumbre Social por la Acción Climática

A civil society hub planned as an alternative to the official talks, organised by FIMA among others. It still went ahead after the talks were moved to Madrid. Some advice from the organisers: 

  • The inclusion of arts and artists was essential for creating a welcoming environment. Arts events planned during the day were much better attended than in the evenings. 
  • Involving arts and culture in planning from the start is vital: it avoids silos and builds understanding. They had people from arts backgrounds in all their planning groups.
  • Avoid a segregated ‘arts’ element of programming and planning. Try using themes that cut across sectors instead.  

Cumbre de los Pueblos

The other main civil society ‘People’s COP’ planned for COP25 in Chile. It was scaled down once COP moved to Madrid. Planning included arts and culture as a main area of work. 

Social Summit for Climate

Organised in Madrid at short notice, this was set up as a civil society space that would serve as an alternative to the official COP talks. It included ‘exhibition spaces, art workshops, performances, poetry readings and musical shows’. They surveyed participants and produced a Detailed Critical Evaluation, which is available in English.

Art in the ‘Blue Zone’

At COP25 the 10 shortlisted entries for the COAL Art and Environment prize were all presented within the Blue Zone by COAL and DISPLACEMENT: Uncertain Journeys and the winners, Lena Dobrowolska and Teo Ormand-Skeaping, were able to discuss their project with delegates and receive feedback. An interview with them was featured on the Platform on Disaster Displacement website.

COP26, Glasgow, 2021 

Postponed from 2020, COP26 will now take place in Glasgow from 1st-12th November 2021.

You can find out more about developing plans for COP26 on our Guide to Making Plans for COP26 page. If you have any questions or suggestions, please get in touch with Lewis Coenen-Rowe

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