Genius Interviews

Aaron Matthews, BAFTA: “The Principle Impact We Have Is Via The Content We Make.”

FEED talks to Aaron Matthews, BAFTA’s head of industry sustainability, about saving the planet through the Albert Consortium, one episode at a time.

FEED: How did you come to work on the Albert project at BAFTA?

Aaron Matthews: I studied the environment and geography at university – my passion is understanding natural systems and how they operate. Obviously, climate change is the most interesting example, because it’s at the interface between society and natural systems. And that was what pushed me into this area: the need to understand climate change.

My first job in this area was working on Warner Bros. Entertainment at Shepperton and Leavesden, trying to help them reduce their carbon footprint. Then I was at the BBC for a number of years, working with production teams. And I’ve been at BAFTA for five years now, working to coordinate an industry response to climate change.

FEED: The BBC and BAFTA collaborated to create Albert, the sustainability initiative for the UK film and TV industry. What is Albert?

Aaron Matthews: Albert is a collaborative project where everyone in the industry is welcome to come and talk about sustainability challenges and implement common industry solutions. It’s a project that brings film and TV businesses together in a neutral space and allows them to allocate a bit of resource to collaboration and working together to implement industry solutions.

FEED: Where are we now in terms of transitioning to sustainable practices?

Aaron Matthews: The end of 2018 saw the release of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C. It was an update on how much time we’ve got left to beat climate change and on the prevailing political will to limit the amount of warming the planet can tolerate. In that report, the limit we can tolerate was revised from 2°C to 1.5°C and the window for us to deliver it was reduced from 20 years down to ten.

In defiance of that, there has been a rise in optimism. International leaders are calling for people to be optimistic about this challenge, because the report was clear this still remains completely within our grasp, which is good to hear.

FEED: What reactions do you encounter when you talk to people in the industry about climate change?

Aaron Matthews: When I tell people, ‘Your carbon footprint is around 12 tonnes of CO2 a year’ or when I tell a production team their carbon footprint is a total of 50 tonnes, they ask me, ‘Well, what should it be?’ And they are kind of astonished when the only answer is zero! Because that’s the goal. We have to get to a zero-carbon footprint. And that’s hard for industry organisations and people to wrap their heads around. However, it’s what’s required – and also, of course, what is possible.

But what I think is interesting is you’re getting organisations publishing their own carbon targets that are out of line with reality. For example, Pinewood Studios, at the end of last year, proudly released an article saying they’ve got ambitious plans to reduce their carbon footprint by 50% by 2050. And I’m thinking, ‘Hang on, what the science tells us is we have to peak our carbon footprint by 2020 and 50% less by 2030, not 2050!’ You’ve got these organisations kind of inventing their own way of how climate change works.

“There are options for everyone with regards to carbon-neutral hosting and it’s not that much more expensive.”  

FEED: Does Albert work internationally with other sustainability organisations? 

Aaron Matthews: We’ve been working for about eight years in the UK and we’ve amassed lots of tools and training materials over that time. So, when we get approached by international organisations who are keen to learn more, we’re happy to share. 

We’ve helped projects in Canada, in Ireland, in the Netherlands, in Dubai, all get off the ground and approach sustainability in broadcasting. We work internationally as partners and can share the materials we use with similar organisations around the world.

They refer to the initiative differently depending on the country. In the Netherlands, they still call it Albert and the same in Dubai. In Ireland, they call it Screen Greening. And in Canada, it’s called Reel Green. But they’re all similar organisations, using the same Albert toolset we’ve created. The name is the least important thing to us, really. If it needs to be changed to fit that local community then great. 

FEED: How can companies start to make sustainability an inherent part
of what they do?

Aaron Matthews: I have asked Broadcast magazine about whether they should include sustainability as one of their criteria for their Best Places to Work in TV listings. That data has never been picked up by an organisation with any kind of league table on sustainability to see who’s on track and who’s risen to the challenge – and who hasn’t.

A zero-carbon footprint can mean something different for different kinds of organisations. For production, for example, it’s going to mean different technology, certainly. It’s going to mean working with low-energy lighting, using different vehicles, switching your energy contract. About 50% of a production’s carbon footprint is just electricity. It’s really simple to just switch over to a renewable energy tariff and you’ve already cut 50% of your carbon footprint.

A post-production organisation is easier. They’re entirely energy, with a little bit of travel. So, for them, it’s about switching energy providers, then offsetting their remaining impact. 

Here Comes The Sun For production, companies, just switching to renewable energy tariffs can cut their carbon footprint by up to 50% 

FEED: The media industry is relying more and more on cloud computing and server farms taking up a huge amount of energy for production and delivery. What impact does that have?

Aaron Matthews: What’s very clear is there is an increased carbon footprint for viewing content online. The lowest carbon way to get your content to audiences is to transmit it from an antenna on top of a hill. Pushing things round the internet carries about five times the carbon impact.

What you’re seeing with a lot of the big innovative brands – like Facebook and Amazon – is they’re hosting their servers in carbon-neutral environments, which mitigates that impact. They’re doing that by creating their own energy and by offsetting their remaining carbon footprints.

However, we’re not necessarily seeing that with other streaming media organisations. I don’t know if UK video offerings like BBC iPlayer and ITV Hub are hosting in carbon-neutral environments, but the fact I don’t know leads me to believe they’re probably not. 

People just have to ask the question of their suppliers. Whenever you’re enlisting any kind of product or service, you have to ask what the carbon footprint of it is and take responsibility for it. There are options for everyone with regards to carbon-neutral hosting and it’s not that much more expensive.

FEED: Isn’t choosing a sustainable company going to be a lower priority for people when they evaluate whether to work with someone? 

Aaron Matthews: People understand broadly, now, that we’re facing huge environmental challenges. As a result, they want to be associated with a brand that is moving in the right direction. Sky, for example, has been managing its carbon footprint with great success. It’s a huge part of the Sky brand and what it means to work at Sky and everyone there knows it. They’re proud to work there and to be working towards that agenda. Whereas at other organisations, it just isn’t really a part of their culture. However, there’s no reason why every organisation can’t do it themselves. Every organisation within the industry can tackle their environmental footprint in a meaningful way and do well out of it.

We’re seeing massive spikes in the number of companies who want to be put on our suppliers list. It’s becoming business-critical: to be demonstrating action positive for the environment.

The Host With The Most Big brands now host servers in carbon-neutral facilities

“The lowest carbon way to get your content to audiences is to transmit it from an antenna on top of a hill.”

FEED: Media isn’t a major polluting industry like manufacturing or agriculture. How much impact can it have?

Aaron Matthews: The principle impact we have is via the content we make and how we portray sustainability. For example, it’s OK for the BBC to do climate change reports and some factual programming around the issue of sustainability and climate change. But if it’s also pushing an opposite message in its entertainment, drama and current affairs, then that’s not necessarily helping.

At the moment, we’re working with all the broadcasters to help them understand how they can use entertainment, drama and comedy to inspire sustainable living. Our impact as an industry isn’t huge – as you say, we’re not horribly polluting – but our opportunity is in being storytellers, in the content we put out there. It’s how we portray sustainability – whether it just feels like something very leftist and inaccessible or whether it’s a part of the everyday narrative.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach – it has to be specific for each genre – but the main thing is authenticity. It’s got to feel right for the programme. One key way is to talk about the human elements of it. There is some great stuff happening in the continuing UK dramas (Eastenders, Coronation Street and Emmerdale) who are just weaving it into the narrative in an authentic way, which allows people to understand it’s OK to talk about it.

We’re at such a critical point of change, with such monumentally important climate limits, if you’re putting content that hasn’t considered that, then you’re kind of risking the authenticity.

FEED: Is there a comparison to be made with showing other harmful behaviours in TV, say, showing smoking or drug use?

Aaron Matthews: I think it’s exactly the same. There are lots of different social interventions the industry has done in the past. One is, obviously, Ofcom regulations about what sugar and fat content you can see on the plates of the characters in UK continuing dramas.

Another example is around the use of seat belts in children’s programming, which has largely been in response to audience pressure. So, Peppa Pig wears a seat belt now, because parents wrote in and asked her to. Another example is highlighting designated drivers, which was a project in the 1980s between Harvard University and some American soaps. The idea was to slip the term ‘designated driver’ into soaps to create a culture where drink-driving became less acceptable.

It’s thinking about the problems society is facing – what is our opportunity as an industry, with this huge, unrivalled platform, to make a contribution to turning it around?

FEED: There has been an aggressive, deliberate push to roll back sustainability thinking in multiple places throughout the world. It seems like, as there becomes greater awareness in some quarters, there’s an equal or greater pushback in others.

Aaron Matthews: Yeah. I would agree, but I’m a stubborn optimist. Of course, the greater something grows in awareness, the greater the threat to people with a vested interest. It’s not at all surprising to me we’re seeing a kind of pushback against the mood and the general direction. I think it would be surprising if that wasn’t the case.

Obviously, politics is hugely important, but it’s only part of the global picture. We’re fortunate enough now it’s cheaper to make renewable energy than it is coal, nuclear and any other way you make energy. So, at some point, the politician doesn’t really matter. Of course, we would be making better progress without Trump and whatever-his-name-is in Brazil.

FEED: [Jair] Bolsonaro.

Aaron Matthews: Yeah. But I’m optimistic. You have got to expect a pushback, because there are huge amounts of money involved here for companies who have got a vested interest. We are moving in the right direction and I’m optimistic we will get there.

FEED: What is next for Albert? 

Aaron Matthews: We are launching a new resource called Planet Placement, which will be for industry creatives. To help them better understand opportunities to inspire their audiences to live sustainably. I think, for a lot of people, it feels a bit like, ‘Hmm, how am I going to write recycling into my programming?’ and that comes from a lack of understanding about what the transition towards sustainable living really means.

Sustainable living is about fashion, it’s about diet, it’s about travel, it’s about communities, it’s about every aspect of our lives, but that’s still not where the industry is, in terms of its thinking. So, with this resource, we want to really introduce sustainability in the widest, broadest sense, to the industry and highlight the different opportunities for different genres to pick up these narratives and run with them.

This article originally appeared in the February 2019 issue of FEED magazine.

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