Case Study: Edinburgh Art Festival and Ellie Harrison on adaptation and advocacy through art

5th March 2021

A woman walking down the street, in front of a billboard showing Ellie's carbon graph.

Tonnes of carbon produced by the personal transportation of a ‘professional artist’ by Ellie Harrison installed at Edinburgh Art Festival in 2020 (Photo: Stuart Armitt)

Edinburgh Art Festival is the platform for the visual arts at the heart of Edinburgh’s August festivals, bringing together the capital’s leading galleries, museums and artist-run spaces in a city-wide celebration of the very best in visual art. In this case study, Green Champion Amanda Airey explains how the Art Festival is working on climate mitigation, adaptation and advocacy. Artist Ellie Harrison talks about her work that featured in the Art Festival’s 2020 August offering, and her aim to create discussion around how we must transform our cities, society and economy in an equitable way.

You can watch a filmed version of this case study here.


Amanda Airey on the Edinburgh Art Festival’s comprehensive approach to climate action

Amanda Airey speaking into camera.

Amanda Airey giving a talk about the Edinburgh Art Festival’s environmental efforts for the Cultural Adaptations Conference.

Each year, the Edinburgh Art Festival features leading international and UK artists alongside the best emerging talent, major survey exhibitions of historic figures, and a special programme of newly commissioned artworks that respond to public and historic sites in the city. The vast majority of the festival is free to attend.

Over the last few years, we have been looking at all aspects of environmental policy and developing an approach to reducing our emissions, with the aim to become net zero by 2030. Through annual emissions reporting we can identify key areas where we can lower our footprint, including through travel, print, energy usage, waste and recycling. We are also working to set carbon budgets and develop a route map to net zero.

The decisions we make today will influence how we live with climate change in the future.

At the Art Festival, we believe that building resilience to the current and expected impacts of climate change through adaptation will be crucial to cope with threats, and to find innovative ways to explore new opportunities.

As part of our advocacy role for environmental awareness, we work with artists for whom environment and climate change issues are at the heart of their work. In 2020, while unable to deliver a festival, we worked with a number of artists to present an August offering, including artist and activist Ellie Harrison, whose practice makes connections between literal and social mobility and highlights the consequences of our travel choices for our climate.


Ellie Harrison on her work and motivation

The piece I made for Edinburgh Art Festival last summer was a graph visualising the carbon impact of all 3,988 journeys I have made over the last 17 years, since I registered as a self-employed ‘professional artist’ in 2004. The work is titled Tonnes of carbon produced by the personal transportation of a ‘professional artist’.

The research involved a lot of work looking through my self-employment records, old diaries and photos to make a list of all the journeys, then working out the distance of each, and finally using the UK government carbon conversion factors to work out the carbon impact.

It took a very long time!

But it was worth it to be able to see with my own eyes, something that I was feeling – that as I got older and more ‘successful’ my lifestyle was becoming more unsustainable and my carbon footprint was increasing.

I initially made the graph in 2019 as the central illustration of my book The Glasgow Effect: A Tale of Class, Capitalism & Carbon Footprint. The graph visualised the impact of my 2016 project ‘The Glasgow Effect’, for which I refused to leave Glasgow’s city limits or use any vehicle other than my bike for the whole calendar year.

It was a protest of sorts against our increasingly globalised world, which enabled me to slash my carbon footprint for transport to zero, and to pioneer a new localised lifestyle, within a 5km radius of my front door. This is a concept which is now increasingly being promoted by governments in the form of the ‘15-minute city’ or ‘20-minute neighbourhood’.

When the first lockdown was announced in on 23 March 2020, I was instantly aware of the impact the new public health restrictions would have on my own carbon footprint, but also on everyone else’s. The localised lifestyle had suddenly become an obligatory experience, which made everyone more aware of the impact of their travel choices on the climate. So I extended my original graph up until the end of July 2020, for presentation at the Edinburgh Art Festival, to show the carbon impact of the lockdown.

The ultimate aim in all my work is to create discussion about how we must transform our cities, society and economy in an equitable way, so that this sort of low-carbon living becomes the norm, not the exception.

A man cycling past a billboard of Ellie's carbon graph, in a tunnel, near a doorway through which there is a leafy green area.

Tonnes of carbon produced by the personal transportation of a ‘professional artist’ by Ellie Harrison installed at Edinburgh Art Festival in 2020 (Photo: Stuart Armitt)

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