Culture over Carbon mountains

Culture Over Carbon

  • 3rd place

Entered into the following categories


  • Third place, Sustainability

The United States’ cultural sector’s first in-depth energy use analysis, and the first estimate of the sector’s energy impacts on climate.


Culture Over Carbon (COC) created the United States’ cultural sector’s first in-depth energy use analysis, and developed the first estimate of the sector’s energy impacts on climate. With energy consumption in buildings accounting for an estimated 40% of global carbon emissions, and an estimated 33,000 cultural organizations in the U.S., this research was a crucial step to understanding and reducing greenhouse gas emissions from energy consumption and addressing climate change in the cultural sector. 

The study included 133 participants from U.S. museums, science centers, historic sites, gardens, zoos and aquaria and their 240+ buildings nationwide. Through individual analysis, many participants were able to see for the first time how their organization and buildings use energy, giving them the agency and case-making evidence to support energy improvements. Through the study’s collective findings we can see how energy use differs across the types of cultural organizations, understand the differences and causes, know the viable paths to reductions, visualize the greater impact, and empower the sector to change. The project findings were published in 2023 including an in-depth report, and two factsheets: recommendations for achievable next steps and a review of anticipated building codes and policies.

Key findings include: 

  • Collective energy use of the 133 participants totaled ~1 billion kWh; that’s equivalent to 120 wind turbines running for a year. 
  • Art museums, zoos and aquaria had the highest energy use of all the building types. This is because art museums have the strictest environmental conditions for their collections, while zoos and aquaria often have large campuses and habitats to maintain resulting in higher energy consumption. 
  • Through energy efficiency upgrades, a decrease in annual energy use by 20% would be possible for many institutions without impacting staff or visitor comfort. 
  • If all the cultural organizations that participated in the study decreased energy use by 20%, the energy saved would translate to ~$24 million in operational energy savings per year. 
  • Overall, the study indicated that collectively the cultural sector can make a great impact by reducing energy consumption, and therefore carbon emissions in their buildings. 

This work is foundational, leading to powerful sector-wide opportunities and innovations. As an example, when the initial COC research process revealed difficulty collecting energy data as the most common barrier to participation, the Carbon Inventory Project (CIP) was created. The CIP approach provided free, monthly skill-building workshops to help cultural organizations learn how to monitor and report their energy consumption using the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) free, online energy management tool, ENERGYSTAR® PortfolioManager® (ESPM). With these skills they were then encouraged to contribute their data to the first estimate of the U.S. cultural sector’s carbon footprint. Through the process, participants commented on the lack of a building performance rating for museums: currently museums have no way to compare their building performance to similar types of properties across the nation. Without the context of other buildings’ energy use, it is more difficult for organizations to chart their course towards energy efficiency. That is why we’re continuing the work of COC and CIP by creating a building performance rating for museums in ESPM. To do this, the EPA, New Buildings Institute (NBI), and Environment & Culture Partners (ECP) are collaborating on an in-depth energy survey. The project’s success will require a nationally representative sample of 200+ participants and their high-quality energy data. 

COC is a bedrock for capacity-building and action to reduce the cultural sector’s climate impact. 

COC is funded by an Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) National Leadership Grant. It is led in partnership by ECP, NBI, and New England Museum Association.


Environment & Culture Partners

New Buildings Institute

New England Museum Association

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