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The Carbon Inventory Project and Collective Climate Action in the US Cultural Sector

Category: Alliance Blog
A banner graphic reading "Carbon Inventory Project: Calculating the Cultural Sector's Carbon Footprint One Step at a Time," with the logos of the organizations behind the initiative
A new joint initiative is aiming to create the first carbon footprint and energy benchmark for the US cultural sector as a whole. Here's how you can submit your organization's data to the count and why this collective action matters.

The energy use of buildings is one of the largest sources of carbon emissions worldwide, at an estimated 40 percent of total emissions, and cultural institutions are no exception. The buildings that house your museum, zoo, aquarium, garden, science center, or historic site use significant energy to light galleries, manage the environmental controls of collections, and to power shops, cafés, offices, and event spaces. With this energy use multiplied across an estimated thirty-five thousand museums in the US, you can imagine how great of a carbon impact our sector has. But beyond this general idea of the scale, we don’t know exactly what the number is. Fortunately, we are about to find out—if you’ll help.

The Carbon Inventory Project (CIP)—a joint initiative of the New England Museum Association, New Buildings Institute, and Environment & Culture Partners—is working to create the first US cultural sector carbon footprint and energy benchmark. Organizations like yours will submit their individual data, which will be anonymized into a single public number we will announce on the first annual Carbon Day, June 16, 2023. To galvanize this effort, we are asking organizations to sign up to participate by April 30, 2023. Museums that have already joined include the Exploratorium, Science Museum of Minnesota, Minnesota Marine Art Museum, Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum, The Museum of Russian Icons, The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, Cincinnati Art Museum, SFMOMA, the Customs Museum, and Eau Claire Children’s Museum, just to name few.

With funding from an IMLS National Leadership Grant, CIP provides the resources necessary to help organizations learn how to measure, understand, and report their annual energy use. Whether you’re already collecting energy data, or this is new territory for you, we will help you along the way. Since the project began, CIP has been offering monthly presentations and office hours to support the success of its participants, which are all recorded so you can catch up if you want to join in.


CIP is a result of the 2022 research study Culture Over Carbon (CoC), which sought to understand the impact of energy use in museums. Participants from more than 130 organizations across the spectrum of museum types submitted one year of energy-use data which the study analyzed for trends and opportunities. The official report will be released in summer 2023, but one notable finding was that the group’s total annual energy consumption was equivalent to 25 percent of the power produced at the Hoover Dam! Overall, the study indicated that the cultural sector stands to make a major impact by reducing energy-use carbon emissions in our buildings—but to do this, we’ll need to work together.

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In recent years, more museums have started to respond to the need for climate leadership, examining the sustainability of their operations and leveraging their well-documented public trust to influence the public conversation. Museums across the nation are creating an increasing number of sustainability manager positions and sustainability strategic plans, as well as hosting educational programs and conference sessions about climate topics. There are even several sector-professional groups devoted to the issue.

But in addition to this simultaneous individual work, it’s important that we find ways to combine our efforts to maximize our impact. One of those is benchmarking the sector’s energy use through projects like CIP. Benchmarking energy use is the starting point from which we can compare, understand, and reduce our annual energy use and associated carbon emissions. Measuring and understanding energy use in our buildings is a high-return and low-risk effort for individual organizations, and sector-wide it has the potential for powerful collective climate action and environmental leadership. What might we learn about how we use energy? Are there simple things we can do to reduce it? What are the potential impacts on our communities who see us doing this work? What other behaviors might we start to change as a result?

You might be thinking, “This project sounds interesting, but my organization’s stakeholders or leadership team don’t have sustainability goals,” or, “My organization is too small for this extra work.” But even if you have these hesitations, there is good reason to participate anyway. This is a collective action for collective good, and it will also benefit your individual organization and community. Understanding how energy is used in your building may help you target opportunities to save money and create avenues for new funders and funding opportunities. One CoC participant, for instance, found an issue with a temperature sensor for one of its boilers, which helped them start saving energy—and money. Learning to report energy use now will also help prepare your organization for compliance with new or upcoming building codes and energy regulations, giving you a head start before it becomes a requirement. You may also find a sense of community among other organizations that are working towards sustainability. As another CoC participant put it, “No matter the size of the non-profit, all cultural orgs are in the same place—all struggling to tackle this and having shared experiences.” And equally important, while you’re doing this work, you’ll be modeling climate awareness, action, and resiliency for your community.


Whether you’ve been logging energy data for years or are new to this and starting from scratch, this project needs you—you and your organization’s data count. We hope you will sign up by April 30, 2023. For those who do, you will receive an email with instructions for submitting your carbon emissions totals; we recommend using the free measurement tool, EnergyStar Portfolio Manager, but because we want everyone to participate, a simple Excel tool will be provided for those that use a different method to measure energy use. Your totals will be aggregated on June 1, 2023, and a single figure announced on Carbon Day, June 16, 2023. We know that not all stakeholders support this kind of work, so you can choose to stay anonymous. Your participation encourages others, and a growing list shows the sector’s growing commitment to understanding and reducing carbon emissions from energy use.

Sign up for the Carbon Inventory Project:

To learn more about CIP: visit the site page, register for upcoming Office Hours, and watch previous sessions to help you get started.

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