A climate for change

As floods swamp Britain in yet another reminder of the weather extremes engendered by climate change, this week’s announcement from German media giant Bertelsmann, parent of Penguin Random House, that it has set a 2030 target to become “climate neutral” comes as a welcome marker for the industry’s green progress. The target is to be achieved through heavily cutting emissions, although also 50%  through offsetting, and will involve PRH moving fully to green energy by 2022. The publisher has already cut carbon emissions by 10% and is on track for another 20% by 2025.

Similar announcements from other publishers are no doubt in the pipeline. Pearson, an early mover in the field, says it is already carbon neutral in its direct operations and business travel, buying 100% green energy, and that it has reduced its carbon footprint by 60% from a 2009 baseline, cutting global greenhouse gas emissions by 19% just last year—though the shift to digital must be playing its part.

It’s not just the big players who are looking to make major changes, either. Indies are showing “a great appetite” for action, says IPG director Bridget Shine, who brought Extinction Rebellion’s Clare Farrell to last autumn’s conference for a rousing speech; a Sustainable Action Group has been set up, and an accreditation scheme for sustainably produced titles is being mooted.

Change is complex both to measure and enact. For many publishers, the vast part of their carbon footprint will be in paper and printing. For others, it’s different. Springer Nature’s 2018 company report revealed that as a global research publisher, more than half its emissions were from business flights—though the company cut total emissions by 18% that year too. Springer Nature is “encouraging colleagues to be thoughtful about their business travel, reducing trips when they can, investing in systems that enable us to better connect virtually, and balancing flight emissions through high-quality carbon offsets,” its sustsinability spokesperson Thea Sherer told me.

Cross-industry working is crucial, and resolving some of the challenges posed by the climate crisis could also result in better business practices—most notably with the thorny issue of returns. So it will be important to see the progress of the Booksellers Association’s industry push, the Green Bookselling Manifesto, launched last summer. A new Publishers Association Sustainability Taskforce will meet for the first time this month, too, with an important role to play.

 Just as the book trade helps to shape public understanding through its thought-leading climate titles, it must also contribute by example. And targets like Bertelsmann’s may be needed. As Christiana Figueres, former head of the UN climate change convention and author of The Future We Choose, said earlier this week: “We have delayed appallingly for decades. But science tells us we are still in the nick of time... This is the decade, and we are the generation.”