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On-screen sustainability

Carys Taylor, director of albert, on how sustainable storytelling can influence TV and film audiences
The VOLTstack used on the James bond set

Main image courtesy of Green Voltage

This article first appeared in our COP27 special issue of My Green Pod Magazine, published on 11 November 2022. Click here to subscribe to our digital edition and get each issue delivered straight to your inbox

When the world turned its gaze to Glasgow and COP26 – still in the weakening grip of the global Covid pandemic – there was no mistaking the huge challenge that lay ahead.

A year on, at COP27 – with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, an unravelling energy crisis and global food security issues – it’s clear that global policy challenges are becoming increasingly entangled in ‘the issue of all issues’: climate change. 

Global leaders of our planet have their work cut out. The scale and pace of change required to meet our vital targets requires action through bold leadership and effective policymaking, which will in turn need the support of the public.

Surely the film and TV industry could be an important ally.

A global reach

In 2021, film and TV contributed over 120,000 tonnes of carbon to global emissions – the equivalent average emissions of around 9,500 people living in the UK for a year.

While this isn’t massive when compared with some sectors, our industry also spends $200bn a year globally on content, touching myriad supply chains ranging from construction and international shipping to cameras and cosmetics.

As a result the industry has significant purchase power – meaning there’s a huge opportunity to shift supply chains from dirty goods and services to cleaner alternatives.

Crucially, though, the industry also attracts the attention of more than 5.4bn people worldwide – more than 70% of our global population. It’s a huge platform through which we send daily signals about the world we live in and the choices we make.

New narratives for TV

albert is the TV and film industry organisation for environmental sustainability; it provides tools and resources globally to help reduce the off-screen impacts of productions and to help those working in the sector understand how to embed climate change and sustainability into storytelling. 

The industry has come a long way. In 10 years of collaboration we’ve seen the emissions created by an average hour of TV go from 9.9tCO2e to 5.7tCO2e – a 42% reduction.

We also hear from production companies adopting innovative solutions – from the VOLTstack electric generators used in James Bond (see main image) to Jurassic World’s reusable dinosaur moulds.

The conversation has certainly moved on from simply recycling plastic bottles.

However, there’s only so far productions can go on tight budgets and timelines. For ours, and all industries, the governments of the world need to invest in the future-proofed infrastructure that will enable us to adapt.

Too complex for the public?

We need clever policymaking to reduce the cost of green premiums and de-risk new technologies for industries like ours.

This would support a virtuous feedback loop and help to build a greener economy for all – yet such bold investment would require public support.

Policymakers and television execs have something in common: they have a tendency to underestimate the sophistication and ability of the public and our audiences when it comes to understanding new information.

For years, creative content leaders have told albert ‘the public can’t engage with climate change – it’s too complex’ – but when faced with the Covid-19 pandemic, information and understanding thankfully spread faster than the virus. 

Our annual Subtitles to Save the World report revealed that the word ‘Coronavirus’ was mentioned 11 times in 2019 but, perhaps unsurprisingly, more than 130,000 times in 2020.

Detailed data analysis was presented to the public and politicians answered questions on a regular basis, flanked by experts who could provide scientific background and steer us to understand the complications in decision-making.

We need the same for climate change. Until then, the film and TV industry will be doing what lifting it can. 

When TV makes an impact

Our young industry has form in shaping debate, highlighting the issues of our time and applying responsible storytelling to effect change.

When the United States had a troubling trend of drink driving-related fatalities in the 1980s, TV writers inserted drink driving prevention messages into scripts of shows like Cheers – and ‘designated driver’ became a household phrase.

Blue Planet II captured the imaginations of global audiences and arguably kicked off the ‘war on plastic’ and, more recently, Love Island has ignited an interest in pre-loved fashion through its partnership with eBay. 
While much of the world is reeling from the hottest year on record, extreme flooding, droughts, wildfires and energy crises, climate change can sometimes still be seen by some as an intangible, ‘not going to affect us’ issue.

Our industry is in a unique position to tell stories across different regions and genres, and can help different audiences to engage with the challenges of – and solutions to – mitigating this challenge.  

The power of storytelling

We can learn so much from young people who are facing the effects of climate change today, native communities who have lived in harmony with their natural environment since well before the Industrial Revolution and from engineers the world over who are inventing the next technology to replace fossil fuels.

But without the television and film industry, it is unlikely that these stories would ever reach our living rooms. 

The more that governments of the world can support production in ‘walking the walk’, the more able they’ll be to turn their attention to what they do best: story tell.

The public – our audiences – are sophisticated. They deserve to be given the opportunity to hear the details, nuance and the complexities of science-informed decision-making, set in the context of political and economic arenas.

And policymaking would be all the better for it.

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