Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The inconvenient truth for publishers

Another shoe is about to drop on the battered newspaper industry and it is going to be a big, fat, green Birkenstock.

With global warming and soaring gasoline prices focusing consumer, political and eventually regulatory interest on environmental sustainability and energy consumption, people looking to be kinder to Mother Earth are going to start wondering about the impact their daily paper makes on the environment.

They might not like what they learn.

A prototypical publisher selling 250,000 newspapers on each of the 365 days of the year adds nearly 28,000 tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, according to calculations we’ll explain in a moment. That’s roughly equivalent to the CO2 spewed by almost 3,700 Ford Explorers being driven 10,000 miles apiece per year. (Disclosure: I own a 12-year-old Ford Explorer. Anyone want to buy it?)

CO2 matters, because a dangerous buildup of the gas in the atmosphere – caused by the growing consumption of fossil fuels and the decimation of our forests – is causing the earth to warm to such dangerous and unprecedented levels that the health of the planet and its inhabitants are imperiled.

The problem for even the most environmentally sensitive print publisher is that every aspect of the business does uncontestable violence to the environment.

From chopping down trees, to carting them to mills, to processing them into pulp, to hauling reels to warehouses, to powering massive presses, to delivering the finished project by truck and automobile, newspapers and magazines not only consume tremendous amounts of energy but at the same time require the harvest of millions of trees that otherwise would be gobbling up CO2 via photosynthesis.

But that’s not all. Even more energy is consumed when old newspapers and magazines are responsibly collected and hauled off for recycling, where the process (apart from felling more trees) essentially begins anew.

A neat summary of the newspaper supply chain is below in a clip of the introduction to the first “Lou Grant” television show in 1977. (It’s the one where he has to take an airport bus to his job interview, because he feared the publisher wouldn’t pay $22 for a taxi.)

In contrast to the inherent un-green-ness of print publishing, companies like Google assert their goal is to avoid adding CO2 emissions to the environment. The company’s plan for carbon-neutral operation in 2007 included generating electricity through massive solar arrays at the Googleplex and a dam to power an Oregon computer center. To offset unavoidable CO2 emissions, Google invested in such programs as a project to make electricity out of manure in Brazil.

I say Google “asserts” that it intended to be carbon neutral in 2007, because the company can’t yet confirm it achieved the goal, according to Niki Fenwick of its public affairs department. “Currently, we have a third party assessing our corporate emissions inventory and verifying our footprint,” she said in an email. “Our footprint is calculated globally and includes our direct fuel use, electricity, business travel, estimates for employee commuting and server manufacturing at our facilities around the world.”

She did not answer the specific question of whether Google’s carbon audit took into account the custom-fitted Boeing 767-200 that ferries the company’s founders. Information gleaned from ChooseClimate.Org and Boeing.Com suggests that a B-767 filled with 225 passengers and crew would generate 337.5 tons of CO2 on a round trip from San Francisco to London. With the flagship of the Google air fleet reportedly configured for only 50 lucky souls, the carbon footprint would be 6.75 tons per passenger.

Having said all that, it must be emphasized that there is more art than science to the task of estimating the carbon footprint for any product or activity. Several of the online sites offering free calculators even give slightly different outcomes for the same input. So, we have to take this stuff with a jumbo grain of kosher salt.

But one thing is sure: The growing concerns over fuel costs and global warming virtually assure that consumers (and the government) increasingly will begin scrutinizing the carbon produced by every sort of product or service. It’s already happening in the United Kingdom.

With the UK government aggressively prodding businesses to disclose and reduce their energy consumption, British Airways is selling carbon offsets when you book a ticket and the Tesco supermarket chain is starting to post carbon counts on the labels of everything from orange juice to light bulbs to detergent.

Trinity Mirror PLC, which publishes some 150 titles in the UK, undertook a study of the environmental impact of its operations with the goal of striving for carbon neutrality. In so doing, it funded a study that determined its Daily Mirror, which is said to be printed on 100% recycled newsprint manufactured in England, consumes about 0.956 ounces of carbon for every ounce of the paper’s weight.

Applying the Daily Mirror figure to a newspaper with daily and Sunday circulation of 250,000, the paper would generate in 27,965 tons of CO2 in a year, assuming it averaged 8-ounce papers during the week and 24-ounce editions on Sunday.

Here's the problem for publishers:

While thriving companies like Google have the profits to invest in green projects or buy their way to carbon neutrality, the deteriorating economics of publishing argue against the likelihood of similar voluntary investments by newspapers and most magazines. Future government mandates, no matter how well-conceived, would amplify the commercial stress. And even in the best of circumstances, there is no getting around the fact that printing on paper requires the sacrifice of millions of trees a year at a time we can ill-afford to lose them.

Meantime, at the bottom of the publishing food chain, Newsosaur is happy to report that it produces less than a quarter of a ton of CO2 each year by limiting energy consumption to a single laptop that is turned off a night, a DSL router shared with the family, a single-bulb desk lamp and the power required to run a simple mobile phone.

Because a daily and Sunday New York Times subscription theoretically adds only a dainty 0.02 tons to my carbon footprint, I think I’ll keep it. But the Explorer has got to go.

4 Comments:

Blogger Frequent Reader said...

I love this blog, thanks for sharing.
- George Ya76oo

5:55 AM  
Anonymous Danny Sanchez said...

Interesting point, Alan. However, let's not leave out the large amounts of energy required to run the data centers of large Web sites. I'll venture it's not as much as a printing plant, but it's certainly not an insignificant amount.

1:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wouldn't it be easier to just point out all the errors in the climate science and recognize that CO2 is critical to life?

It can be amusing to watch enviro-whackos make themselves dizzy chasing their own tails, but they are forcing so much of their religion on others that they are doing real harm. The ravages of malaria, which go well beyond the millions needlessly dead from banning DDT, should be a warning. They don't care about true science. They have true religion.

Why won't the news media point out the fraud? The biased temperature recording, the manipulation of temperature records, the demonstrated error in statistical modeling, the fatal errors in the differential equations employed in the climate models, and the inability of the models to predict anything with accuracy?

Only a true believer would swallow that much evidence and still believe.

6:18 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My guess is that you have vastly underestimated the "carbon footprint" of print publishers. I suspect that canceling your daily newspaper subscription may do more to reduce your individual carbon footprint than buying a hybrid Toyota Prius.

6:30 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home