As Cop28 opens in Dubai, museums grapple with net zero.

As Cop28 opens in Dubai, museums grapple with net zero.

As Cop28 opens in Dubai, museums grapple with net zero.

As world leaders gather to attend the United Nations’ climate talks, a new report outlines how the UK government could help cultural venues divest from fossil fuels.

Monira Al Qadiri’s Benzene Float (2023), a gigantic representation of petrochemical compounds, is on display in Dubai during Cop28 Photo: Seeing Things; © the artist

Monira Al Qadiri’s Benzene Float (2023), a gigantic representation of petrochemical compounds, is on display in Dubai during Cop28Photo: Seeing Things; © the artist.

Scientists predict that 2023 will turn out to be the hottest year recorded as greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise globally. This sobering fact is the inspiration behind a new body of work by the Kuwaiti artist Monira Al Qadiri, who is exhibiting in Dubai to coincide with the annual United Nations (UN) climate talk, which are taking place in the UAE’s most populous city this month (30 November-12 December). Shortly before the talks were due to begin, the city suffered flash flooding after unusually heavy rainfall.

Al Qadiri’s Benzene Float consists of five larger-than-life inflatable sculptures that take the form of super-sized petrochemical compounds. The iridescent creations, represented in shocking pinks and blues, hang suspended from the ceiling. They are designed to recall the decorative floats found at festival parades.

“It’s interesting to me how these molecules rule our lives and yet we never see them,” Al Qadiri says. “They are almost like a magic potion in the background of our lives. They are invisible, so I wanted to turn them into hyper-visual forms to show the size of their impact on the world. They are big, so, when you’re in the gallery, they feel almost oppressive.”

Making petrochemical molecules visible, Al Qadiri says, is a way of bringing into focus the actions of the petrochemical industry itself. The industry, she notes, covertly lobbies governments and influences global policy to slow action on climate change. This year’s climate summit, Cop28, will be hosted in Dubai and is overseen by Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, the UAE’s industry minister—and also the chief executive of ADNOC, the UAE’s state-owned oil company. An oil executive overseeing a summit designed to tackle climate change has caused considerable controversy, not least because he has opposed calls for the meeting to set a date for the phasing out of fossil fuels.

Al Qadiri says she hopes to see a phase-out date agreed at Cop28. “Climate change has always been controversial in the Gulf,” she says. “No one wants to talk about it. But I think it’s very important to have the UN talks in this place. These subjects have to be spoken about.”

The tangible realities of climate change are forcing the conversation, she says: “People in the Gulf are a bit more open to imagining different futures, because I’m not sure it’s really livable anymore—Kuwait has recorded some of the hottest temperatures on earth.”

I lived through the Gulf War in 1991. That was the first time I saw oil burning everywhere. The oil burnt for two years, and it really polluted every nook and cranny of that country.

Monira Al Qadiri, artist

Al Qadiri’s fascination with oil comes from what she calls her “biographical relationship with the substance”. Born in Senegal, raised in Kuwait and then educated in Japan (which inspires her work’s colorful aesthetic), she now lives in Berlin. “I lived through the Gulf War in 1991,” she says. “That was the first time I saw oil burning everywhere. The oil burnt for two years, and it really polluted every nook and cranny of that country. The toxic air, the land and sea, it’s so polluted.” In Kuwait, she says, temperatures are unbearable, and many people now rarely venture outside: “It’s like living in a country from the future, post climate collapse.”

Benzene Float will be accompanied by another work, Nawa (2023), which means “rope” in Japanese. In Nawa, Al Qadiri has used the metal cables used in oil drilling, cutting them into 50 two-dimensional shapes so they resemble flowers in bloom. The work, she says, fuses gaiety with darkness: “My work is also about the seduction of wealth. It holds a poison, the poison apple in the Garden of Eden.”

For those attending Cop28, both series can now be seen at ICD Brookfield Place, a 1 million sq. ft office and retail complex in Dubai’s financial quarter (until 3 January). The 53-storey building boasts a range of sustainability features. It recycles 87% of its construction waste and includes a system for watering the surrounding grounds with reused moisture from the air-conditioning system. It plans to be net-zero by 2030. Malak Abu-Qaoud, the head of arts and events at the complex, says: “Sustainability is a huge part of our DNA. That’s why we commissioned this piece for Cop28—we wanted something really impactful.”

London’s 2030 net zero challenge

The issue of decarbonizing arts buildings has also been the focus of a new report in the UK, which has revealed that many venues in London will need to be retrofitted with electric heat pumps if the capital is to meet its 2030 net zero target. Heat pumps convert energy held in the air or ground into heat. They are widespread in Scandinavia, where they have proven to be effective even in very cold conditions. The study, by Community Energy London, identifies 14,667 arts and community buildings in Greater London. Of these, museums, galleries and libraries make up 20% of the heating demand. If cultural institutions begin to use heat pumps, it could have a significant impact on the reduction of carbon emissions in the sector overall.

The report’s lead author, Dave Powis, says heat pumps are particularly well suited to galleries and museums as they provide “low and slow” heat, allowing them to maintain a constant temperature. “There is a need to accelerate the deployment of heat pumps in London’s community buildings,” he says. “These buildings are not going anywhere. For the majority of these sites, heat pumps are the only route for them to decarbonize their heating by the target year of 2030.”

The UK government recently agreed to increase the grant for residential heat pump installations to £7,500, and Powis wants more action for other buildings. He says: “Community groups are starting to deliver heat pump retrofits—but there remains an absence of policies or support mechanisms to help the large-scale deployment of heat pumps in community buildings in the cultural sector.”

Ahead of Cop28, museum leaders have held their first “Museum Cop” at Tate Modern, where they committed to take collective action on climate change. In a statement, the group said that they felt “a responsibility to speak out about the climate and biodiversity crisis”. Since 2016, 16 leading UK cultural organizations have cut their ties to fossil fuel funding, including the Tate, National Museums Scotland and the National Portrait Gallery.

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