Emission invisible

Emission invisible

It would have been hard not to spend time over the past year thinking about environmental issues. Besides increasingly urgent news coverage, the past 18 months have afforded plenty of time for reflection and comparisons between our lives now versus the before. In my case, the most obvious change was going from thousands of miles of annual travel to venturing little further from home than the dog walk. British Airways and South Western Railway’s loss was screen time’s gain. After a career largely spent in e-book and audiobook publishing, a year and a half of almost constant Zoom and streaming media has also made me question the environmental impact of digital content.

Looking through the environmental and sustainability policies published by major publishers, there is an overwhelming focus on paper and print. In fact, three of the Big Five trade publishers, all with healthy e-book and audiobook businesses, don’t mention digital at all. Where it is referenced, for example by Pan Macmillan and Bloomsbury, it is presented as an opportunity, the assumption being that digital publishing has a lower environmental footprint than print.

A printed book’s lifetime carbon footprint might range between 1.5kg–7.5kg of emissions. In contrast, the devices we use to consume digital content might have between 50kg–150kg of lifetime emissions from manufacture to use

That focus is not surprising given the importance of print, and how much more labour-intensive and resource-intensive the physical supply chain is. Digital impacts are arguably harder to separate and measure: the writing and editing processes are closely linked to the print edition, and presumably priced into publishers’ existing sustainability calculations. The bulk of the environmental impact happens downstream of the publisher, between retailer and reader—these are called Scope 3 emissions in the jargon; according to Deloitte, these can account for 70% of an organisation’s total carbon footprint. Talking to colleagues in the industry, there seems to be some level of “out of sight, out of mind” when it comes to e-books and audiobooks.

Intuitively, digital publishing and distribution should be more environmentally friendly than printing and shipping books: lower production expense, zero marginal cost, no shipping miles and no physical returns. But in fact, e-books and audiobooks contribute to some significant environmental impacts. Let me give three examples.

Depending on format, extent, distribution parameters and source of estimate, a printed book’s lifetime carbon footprint might range between 1.5kg–7.5kg of emissions. In contrast, the devices we use to consume digital content might have between 50kg–150kg of lifetime emissions from manufacture to use, with smartphones at the lower end of that range, and e-readers at the upper end. It’s not just carbon emissions, either. Almost a third of the elements in the periodic table are used in the manufacture of smartphones, and many of them are becoming scarce.

Secondly, digital reading apps rely on cloud computing infrastructure to enable us to download books or stream audiobooks. Collectively those internet services represent 3.7% of global carbon emissions, comparable to the global airline industry, which most of us would recognise as a more obvious polluter. Put another way, if the internet were a single country, it would be the fifth-largest global emitter, ahead of countries such as the UK, Canada, Germany and Australia.

Applying this thought process to an entertainment sector, researcher Kyle Devine suggests in his book Decomposed [MIT Press] that the carbon emissions of streaming music may now be nearly double those of the global music industry in the early 2000s. It is certainly something to keep in mind as the trade sees increasing audiobook sales, with an increase in unit bandwidth from a few megabytes for an e-book to hundreds (or more) for an audiobook.

Finally, there is a significant difference in the life cycle of print and digital books. Most digital content is licensed to an individual user and cannot be passed to others. In contrast, the higher lifetime carbon footprint for a printed book can be amortised across multiple readers as the book is loaned, gifted or resold—and that process can go on for decades, or more.

Spreading the impact

Of course, reading may not be the only use of a device—in the case of smartphones, it is almost certainly not. Books account for a small proportion of internet-related emissions, and the big technology platforms that sell digital content or provide cloud services for other companies are vying with each other to become the most sustainable. Certainly, they have the scale to be able to make a difference. One can also make the case, as Penguin Random House does in its sustainability presentation, that books have a power to inform and inspire readers—and, by implication, that the relatively modest carbon footprint of an individual book may be worthwhile in the context of the change it engenders. 

Work by Montreal-based researchers Ciraig found that either print or digital could be the lower-emission alternative, depending on the circumstances. But rather than asking which is preferable, we should acknowledge that both have consequences for the environment. Harder as it may be to measure, there is a negative effect from digital publishing. As an industry we’re not talking about it enough.

It is very likely that understanding the environmental impact of digital content will only become more urgent for publishers. According to the PA Statistics Yearbook, digital content already represents nearly half of UK publishing’s turnover, in a year when print revenue fell by 6% and digital increased by 12%. One can question whether that pattern will continue, but research by Wunderman Thompson showed over 50% of consumers expected to maintain lockdown purchase behaviours. I wouldn’t bet against it. Another pandemic trend, the focus by publishers large and small on direct-to-consumer digital sales, will move related environmental impacts from a downstream retailer or distributor to the publisher or their service provider.

A digital divide

Whether it is tenable for such an important business segment to be unacknowledged and unexamined in so many sustainability policies is a question for individual publishers to consider, but looking at trends in consumer attitudes, I suggest it is not. Spotify provides a positive example here, including a frank calculation of Scope 3 impacts (i.e. by listeners, which Spotify reckons to be 42% of its total emissions) in its Environmental, Social and Corporate Governance (ESG) reporting. Publishers and digital retailers could do the same. 

Ultimately all business activity has some impact on our environment, and few of us will give up buying books, upgrading smartphones or taking flights altogether. There are no easy answers, only trade-offs to be made. But we cannot ignore such a big part of the industry’s carbon footprint any longer.

George Walkley is an independent consultant working with media and publishing clients, and a doctoral candidate at Bristol Business School. He has worked in the book trade for nearly 25 years.