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Connecting Culture and Sustainability

17 January 2020

Artist painting watercolor

How does culture contribute to sustainable futures?

We recently hosted a roundtable discussion to find out.

Along with our co-hosts from the Canada Council for the Arts, and guests from a range of stakeholders in arts and culture, we tackled questions concerning the ways the culture sector as a whole can significantly impact sustainable development:

  • What is the link between culture and sustainability?
  • How is culture an asset for sustainable development – especially when faced with global challenges?
  • How can we ensure that culture is represented in sustainable development plans?

This was the first time that the Canadian Commission for UNESCO (CCUNESCO) brought together its partners in culture to discuss the 2030 Agenda. It was a multi-stakeholder dialogue that included both government and civil society representatives.

Culture in the 2030 Agenda

With the creation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, culture was included in the global development agenda as part of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in an unprecedented, cross-cutting way. Although no single goal is devoted to culture, cultural aspects are weaved throughout the different goals and targets, such as those related to climate action, sustainable cities, poverty reduction, and food security.

Four years after the adoption of the 2030 Agenda, there remains a need to continue defending and promoting the role of culture in the SDGs. A recent report by the 2030 Goal Campaign showed that, although culture is broadly mentioned in the countries’ plans to implement the goals, more must be done to support climate action and sustainable development. With 10 years left to implement the 2030 Agenda, monitoring, measuring, and implementing culture as part of the SDGs was identified by this group as an urgent priority.


Alison Tickell, Founder and CEO of Julie’s Bicycle, a UK-based charity, emphasized that creative communities are uniquely positioned to transform our understanding of climate change and advocate for new narratives and green initiatives. At Julie’s Bicycle, Alison and her team support the creative community to act on climate change and environmental sustainability because they know the culture sector is well placed “to integrate the environmental dimension with social and financial dimensions: in part the narratives have already been written.”¹ This is a point that Denis Bellemare, representing the UNESCO Chair in the Transmission of First Peoples’ Culture to foster Well-Being and Empowerment, also made when he spoke of the need to redefine, redesign, and represent our narratives by localizing the sustainable development goals. Denis demonstrated that changing our governance models and research methodologies to ones that are participatory and rooted in local and Indigenous community values is a first step in attaining the SDGs and climate action.

Gretchen Fox was invited to represent the Indigenous Heritage Circle by its president, Karen Aird, and to deliver a paper they wrote together on the current state of Indigenous heritage work. Gretchen explained that Indigenous-led heritage work offers ways to connect local organizations with resources while striving to attain the SDGs. Canada, she said, should reconsider the 2003 Convention (Canada has not ratified this accord) as a resource for safeguarding intangible cultural heritage and measuring the impact of culture on the implementation of the SDGs. For his part, Christophe Rivet, President of ICOMOS Canada, also discussed the importance of measuring the impact of culture on the SDGs. Christophe said that land use and waste management are significant elements linked to cultural heritage, which contribute to the quality of our environment and to our quality of life. For example, protecting built heritage prioritizes responsible waste management and reduced carbon emissions while contributing to societal well-being by linking people to place.

Different stages of the growth of a plant with words related to culture (from left to right): values, perspective, stewardship, heritage, history, identity
Concept developed by Alison Tickell, Founder and CEO of Julie's Bicycle

Dialogue and Key Findings

The final session of the day was moderated by Sara McGillivray, culture lead of CCUNESCO’s Youth Advisory Group. Sara presented a synthesis of the discussion and raised some key findings:

  • Culture and the arts connect people to place and to one another; they hold the potential to raise awareness about climate issues and to be a generator of climate action.
  • Mobilization for climate action is happening across the arts and culture communities. Ongoing movements can be better connected to the international frameworks on climate change and sustainable development.
  • Among the 17 goals, Climate Action (SDG 13) is essential and will have an impact on all other elements. Action needs to be taken now.
  • Indigenous peoples must be at the heart of conversations about culture and the SDGs in Canada.
  • Methods must change for systems to change: implementing inclusive and participatory governance is a form of climate action.
  • Reporting and monitoring is key to demonstrating the impact of the arts and culture in sustainable development and developing action plans.
  • Youth must be engaged and empowered as a source of action and change.
  • Existing networks, such as the UNESCO Creative Cities Network, should be harnessed for raising awareness and sharing wise practices.

Questions to Consider

How do we...

  • Ensure arts and culture organizations reflect the SDGs and promote climate action?
  • Engage local communities and connect their work to global challenges?
  • Create a movement in the arts and culture fields and keep momentum?
  • Engage and empower youth?

Next Steps

CCUNESCO will continue to engage with its partners on connecting culture, climate, and the SDGs. Working closely with our Youth Advisory Group and the Canada Council for the Arts, and learning from the contributions of participants, our next steps will be:

  • Assessing good practices and identifying key collaborators
  • Developing and disseminating awareness-raising materials about culture and climate
  • Exploring opportunities for continued dialogue with a wider range of participants

Culture is not a luxury. Culture is a fundamental right to protect and defend. At the same time, culture must play a role in addressing global challenges.

We welcome your input and help to spread the word.

For Further Reading

Culture in the Implementation of the 2030 Agenda: A Report by the Culture 2030 Goal Campaign

Brochure Culture for the 2030 Agenda (UNESCO)

Towards Canada’s 2030 Agenda National Strategy

Canada’s Voluntary National Review on the SDGs (2018)

Future of Our Pasts: Engaging Cultural Heritage in Climate Action

The Hangzhou Declaration: Placing Culture at the Heart of Sustainable Development Policies 



  • Tag Environment
  • Tag Heritage
  • Tag Sustainable development