Will Ebooks Jeopardize the Carbon Reduction Goals of the Book Industry?

By Raz Godelnik

The shift towards ebooks is having a significant influence on every part of the book industry, from publishers working to reinvent their value proposition to brick and mortar bookstores fighting for their future.

But what about the carbon footprint of the book industry?Does this shift represent an opportunity for the industry given the growing number of books sold without even one tree falling down? Or, maybe it is also a potential risk as ebooks can actually hurt the efforts of the industry to reduce its footprint? Well, apparently it can be both.

In April 2009 the Book Industry Environmental Council (disclosure: Eco-Libris is a member of BIEC) announced a goal of reducing the U.S. book industry’s greenhouse gas emissions by 20% by 2020 (from a 2006 baseline), with the intent of achieving an 80% reduction by 2050. When the announcement was made, ebooks had less than 5% market share and weren’t considered to have a significant impact on the industry’s carbon footprint. In 2020 the picture will loom very different – some predict that ebooks will represent then as much as 50% of the market (some estimates go even higher), which means that every second book sold in 2020 will be an electronic one.

This forecast represents not just a dramatic change in the book industry, but also in its carbon footprint. The carbon footprint of the industry that BIEC’s announcement referred to was 12.4 million metric tons (carbon equivalent), or 4.01 kg CO2 per book (source: Book Industry Environmental Trends and Climate Impacts Report). The largest contributor to this footprint, according to this report, is the logging and manufacturing of paper, which constitute 87.3% of total carbon emissions.

If you eliminate the paper, one must assume, the book industry should have no trouble meeting its 2020 goal. Well, not so fast. E-reading is indeed paperless, but it doesn’t mean it is has no carbon footprint. For example, Apple’s iPad, according to the company, has a carbon footprint of 130 kg (carbon equivalent), which is equal to the footprint of 32.4 paper books.

Trying to determine how e-reading will influence the total footprint of the book industry is not an easy task. First, most device sellers like Amazon and Barnes & Noble do not provide any information on the footprint of their devices. Second, in the case of tablet computers like the iPad, we’re talking about multifunctional devices where reading books is just one of their functions and often not even the most popular one.

Still, the data available is enough to conduct a preliminary analysis, and thus we created various scenarios, taking into consideration different carbon footprints of e-readers and related variables such as the number of e-books read during the life time of a device.  The results we got were a bit surprising – even if the carbon footprint of all printed books sold by 2020 will be reduced by 20%, the chances the book industry will meet its goal are not very high.

According to our analysis, the carbon footprint of an e-reader should be between 70-80 kg (carbon equivalent) in average to enable the book industry to meet its goal. Right now, it looks like we are still far from it, as the footprint of e-readers seems to be much higher. Under these circumstances, e-reading could become an obstacle in reaching the 20% reduction goal by 2020, no matter how successful other efforts to reduce the footprint of paper books will be (using more recycled paper for example).

This is a new challenge for publishers who are currently focusing their efforts on greening up their supply chain. We need to start thinking on ways to reduce the footprint of e-reading if we want to make sure the industry will meet its 2020 goal. Right now it looks like our best chance would work with e-reader producers and get them to green up their devices, as manufacturing is a major contributor to the carbon footprint of these devices – 58% in the case of the iPad.

Whether we like it or not, e-reading is becoming the key that will determine if the book industry will meet its carbon reduction goals. It can help the book industry to move ahead even faster, but it can also become an obstacle that will delay the 20% reduction benchmark in 5-10 years. Publishers and other parties in the book industry that are involved in the efforts to reduce its carbon footprint should do whatever is in their power to get e-reader producers to get greener. It’s not an easy task as e-reader producers like Amazon and B&N don’t seem to be too interested in their footprint right now, but it’s a one we can’t avoid on the path to make the book industry greener.

Raz Godelnik is the co-founder and CEO of Eco-Libris (http://www.ecolibris.net), a green company working to green up the book industry in the digital age. He is also an adjunct professor in the University of Delaware’s Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics.

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