Companies are increasingly being asked to calculate their carbon footprint, and if they're public, publish it. Good idea? Perhaps. But it's harder than you might think, and the results can sometimes be counterintuitive. Take my own industry, magazine publishing. Surely dead-tree media is bad for the climate, and web media is good, right? Well, not necessarily.
Let's look at the total carbon cycle. The thing we're trying to do when combating climate change is to decrease the amount of carbon in the atmosphere (ie, have a net carbon-negative process). This is what happens with magazine publishing:
- Trees take carbon out the air. Carbon negative
- Sustainable forestry companies (the only kind we use) cut down those trees, and plant an equal number to replace them (trees absorb the most carbon in the young, high-growth period of their life. Update: see comments for more on this). Carbon neutral
- The cut trees are turned into pulp and then paper in a decarbonized process. Mills are generally on rivers and the pulp process is driven by hydro-generated electric power. Additional power is generated by burning bark, and the carbon from that is usually captured and sequestered. Carbon neutral
- We print and bind that paper into magazines, which are delivered mostly by the US Postal Service, which runs the same routes whether they're carrying our magazines or not. Since the printing plants tend to be away from urban areas and near rail distribution, they tend to be pretty efficient from an energy perspective. Slight carbon positive
- Subscribers read (relish!) the magazines, and then throw them out. Since our readers tend to be upper middle-class urban and suburban dwellers, they're almost certainly either recycling the paper or it's being properly landfilled. In either case, the carbon is sequestered, which is to say it doesn't get back in the atmosphere. Carbon neutral
Now compare that with our website. The carbon cost of creating content is the same as the magazine (people in a building with computers and lights on), and the carbon cost of running our webservers 24/7, plus the carbon cost of more than 100 million minutes of time a month on all of the computers used to read those pages, along with their share of the Internet infrastructure in-between, is at least as much as the cost of running the magazine's printing plants once a month. But the big difference is that we lose step #1 above: although it generates no more or less carbon than magazine publishing, web publishing takes no carbon out of the atmosphere.
So by this analysis dead-tree magazines have a smaller net carbon footprint than web media. We cut down trees and put them in the ground. From a climate change perspective, this is a good thing.
And what about magazines printed on recycled paper? Well, putting aside the inconvenient truth that there isn't enough recycled paper to go around and that it's ruinously expensive for large-circulation titles such as ours, it has the same problem as the website. It doesn't take any new carbon out of the atmosphere--there's no net sequestration.
Now if you'd asked me to actually put a number in front of each of these directional arrows--say how much better print is than the web from a carbon perspective--I couldn't do it. It involves too many third parties, from our printing presses to the recycling or landfilling practices of all of our subscribers. But I think the basic conclusion about which is most climate-friendly is right. Surprised?
[UPDATE: Joost in the comments points us to this excellent paper from the Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm, which puts hard numbers on much of the above. It compared printed newspapers to people reading those newspapers on the web, and concluded that for the same time reading (30 minutes) the printed newspaper has a lower carbon footprint. Our magazine scenerio is even more favorable than that, since in the Swedish report they assumed that the paper would all be recycled (ie, they don't capture new carbon, the way we do with virgin pulp) and since they're newspapers, they have to do their own daily distribution at significant carbon cost, while we ride along with normal postal delivery.]