Concern about climate change and the need to reduce carbon emissions has drawn the attention of the journal publishing industry. We know we can do better and are aware of our place on the list of industries that significantly contribute to carbon emissions. Journal publishing affects the environment in several ways. Traditional publishing ramifications extend from raw paper production to transportation and industrial processes. Digital solutions have a significant — often overlooked — carbon footprint as well. Meaningful change demands reevaluation and adaptation at every step of the publishing life cycle. What is the industry’s current climate footprint? And what can publishing do to inhibit global climate change?
The state of our footprint
The Scholarly Kitchen says of the publishing industry, “We have emitted large amounts of greenhouse gases, like carbon dioxide and methane, as our industrialization progressed.” It is true that the traditional print process, its mechanical setup, and production facilities affect the environment. A 2009 study found that 80% of the industry’s global warming potential (GWP) resides in newspapers, office productivity, magazines, books, retail transactions, and “other.” The research mapped the biggest CO2 contributors in the professional publishing industry:
- Newspaper production
- Office production (paper waste)
Twelve years is a lifetime in terms of technological development, and it is common knowledge that paper newspaper printing has significantly decreased in that time. A 2013 study from the Book Industry Environmental Council and the Green Press Initiative showed significant progress in environmental responsibility efforts from paper manufacturers, printers, and publishers. And where action had yet to be taken, there was at least an increase in good intentions. And as the Scholarly Kitchen says, “In simple terms, the publishing industry can reduce carbon or greenhouse gas emissions from all steps of publishing a journal or a book.” So, what happens when those “good intentions” combine with the latest in digital technology?
Are ePUB and PDF the answer?
At first glance, e-books are the obvious answer for reducing publishing’s carbon emissions, but while e-publishing addresses the industry’s historical reliance on paper, it doesn’t necessarily leave a lighter footprint.
Paper use is an easy target for reducing deforestation and carbon emissions from academic and non-scholarly publications. The 2009 study says, “Paper has significant embedded Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions resulting from other phases of paper’s life cycle.”
So, e-publishing seems poised to answer publishing’s environmental challenges — until you dig a little deeper. A 2010 VQR article notes that each e-reader contains gold, “lead and tin in circuit boards and solder, copper in wiring and integrated circuits, lithium in rechargeable batteries, and nickel and iron in the structural components” of computers, cell phones, and other electronic equipment. These metals are mined quickly, primarily in poor countries, by exploited workers in horrific working conditions — and their extraction has significant negative environmental impact.
E-reader production is clearly costly for the environment, but there is yet another concern about the carbon footprint of digital publishing. Data centers — which collect, store, and distribute digital content — use a lot of energy. A 2018 article in Nature says, “Data centres contribute around 0.3% to overall carbon emissions, whereas the information and communications technology (ICT) ecosystem as a whole — under a sweeping definition that encompasses personal digital devices, mobile-phone networks and televisions — accounts for more than 2% of global emissions. That puts ICT’s carbon footprint on a par with the aviation industry’s emissions from fuel.” Will e-books offset the publishing industry’s carbon footprint by adding to ICT’s? And what is the net gain or loss for the environment?
In a study of the environmental impact of Amazon’s Kindle, the researcher concluded that producing a book has less impact than producing a Kindle. But over the life of the device — and with readers committed to the format — the Kindle will have an equal or lesser carbon footprint after the purchase of approximately 25 e-books.
Are there other options?
Print on demand combines digital technology with paper publishing. Content is stored digitally, and the producer can print a precise number of physical versions to meet customer demand — down to a single copy. With this production protocol in place, publishers create two primary opportunities to reduce GHG emissions:
- Digital technology enables a new print on demand strategy that minimizes overruns.
- Targeted content and distribution reduce waste.
Traditional publishers of print academic journals must examine the whole production process, evaluate all available options, find room for improvement, and implement sustainable solutions.
How much carbon does your journal use?
The Scholarly Kitchen lists some workflows academic publishers can immediately act upon to cut their carbon footprint. Examples include:
- Manage energy consumption and waste at publishers’ offices
- Use virtual collaboration to reduce transportation and energy consumption required by in-person meetings
- Shift toward a less paper-centric process during editing, design, and manuscript development
- Review the environmental impact of transportation of raw materials and shipping of the finished product
To reduce its energy consumption, a publisher might choose a renewable energy provider — or even produce energy on-site with solar panels. Process innovation and energy-saving technology reduce carbon footprints. Energy-efficient choices in office equipment, lighting, and heating/cooling will also help. Substituting goods produced with fossil fuels with those made from renewable resources is a key step. Mitigating climate change should be a shared goal for everyone in the publishing supply chain.
Sheridan focuses on environmental policies that make sense for the future of our clients, our business, and the environment. You can check out our environmental policies here: /about-us/environmental-practices.
Contact your Sheridan or KGL representative for a consultation or visit our contact pages (Sheridan contact page / KGL contact page) to learn how we can help streamline and simplify your publishing processes.