I was as surprised as any when it hit the news. Each Google search has the same environmental impact as making a cup of tea!? (20 mg)
Call me a bit dense but it hadn’t actually crossed my mind until that point. Of course online activity has an environmental impact – it just hadn’t occurred to me. (50mg)
Ok, there’s probably a certain amount of tabloid sensationalism going on – but the intervening few years has really brought serious researchers and analysts to turn their attentions to it. And it makes for pretty interesting – and confusing – reading. (100mg)
But we tend to think that because print is an old-fashioned, touchy-feely form of communication, that it’s gotta have more of an environmental impact than online. But that’s not necessarily what the research found. Dr Alexander Wissner-Gross, Environmental Fellow at Harvard famously declared that every second a person spends browsing a website creates around 20mg of CO2. (150mg of CO2 from reading this article so far – for sanity’s sake, I’ll leave it there)
McAfee calculated the amount of energy needed to send around the zillions of spam emails that get pinged into junk mail filters annually, could power 2 million homes.
Now, we don’t want to be doom-mongers – and given that many of us turn-on and plug-in for most of the day, I suggest you try and forget these scary statistics and crack on in blissful ignorance. I also suggest that some of these analyses are probably about as scientific as two blokes talking physics by the coffee machine.
The reason for this cutting appraisal is that there are just too many variables to assess and bring into the formula. I scanned a recent article from The Centre for Sustainable Communications in Sweden looking at the environmental impact of printing v digital media, and this highlighted a few of the variables which have to be considered.
Such as; was the printed item read by more than one person? Did buying it involve car travel? Without car travel, they found the CO2 emissions between an e-book reader and printed book were similar. So does that mean if you pick up a magazine at Tesco and you and your wife read it, that effectively has half the impact of the e-version?
What about if you’re using environmentally sustainable pulp for which several times as many trees were planted to replace the ones felled?
For the e-version, are the servers that distribute it powered by sustainable energy? Does the reader replace their PC whenever a new version comes out ( in which case their reading medium is probably not very environmentally-friendly compared to commercial printing) or are they reading it using mosaic on a 15 year old 486 PC powered by a dachshund named Lofty on a treadwheel? In which case it probably is environmentally sensitive – unless they print it out to read it, in which case it’s probably not!
You get the picture!
Some of these vagaries are highlighted in a recent NYTimes.com article entitled ‘How green is my iPad?’ and include the fact that some of the technologies used to produce the latest e-reader gadgets are closely-guarded by manufacturers, so it’s tricky to assess their environmental impact from manufacturing. However, I liked their rather low-tech and comfortable conclusion – that we should all probably use libraries more.
See their comparison at http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2010/04/04/opinion/04opchart.html
There are so many variables that it seems to be making research into the subject tricky at best. But as detailed elsewhere, given that the commercial printing business is so long-established and that carbon footprints are routinely tracked and offset all the way from forest to printer (given that it’s a tangible and certification authorities such as the PEFC and FSC have mechanisms in place to track it) there’s probably a pretty convincing argument for the environmental sustainability of print?