To paraphrase Mark Twain, rumors of the print book’s death have been greatly exaggerated. About ten years ago, it seemed like books kept showing up on the endangered species list, but print books continue to outsell e-books in every category. Independent bookstores are also making a comeback in the age of Amazon, drawing more people than ever. And even though print books continue to outsell e-books, the publishing industry, in both print and digital formats, has an environmental impact. The manufacturing of e-book readers, for example, requires resources and contributes electronic waste.
Nearly 700 million books were sold in 2019, and the carbon footprint of these printed books is complicated. After they are printed, these books need to be packaged and delivered. The logging of trees at the start of the process leaves a complicated web of impacts, from pollution to the destruction of natural habitat to carbon emissions. And the logging of all this data presents challenges, too, as the production of paper, transportation, manufacturing facilities, warehouses, retail stores and libraries all require water and energy.
While we have all been reading these books over the last few years, the publishing industry has made strides to improve its overall sustainability. In 2016, Penguin Random House (PRH), the largest of the Big Five publishing houses, announced its 2020 Social Responsibility Commitments, which set two targets: to source 100 percent of its paper from mills certified by the Sustainable Forestry Initiative or the Forest Stewardship Council and to cut its carbon emissions by 10 percent. By the end of December 2019, the company had purchased 98 percent of its certified paper by mills that had earned sustainability certification. PRH had also surpassed its 10 percent goal emissions goal, adding that it could likely reduce its emissions by 20 percent by 2025.
With those achievements in hand, Bertelsmann, which acquired majority ownership of PRH in 2019, announced plans in February 2020 that they would be carbon neutral by 2030, with PRH’s targets as an integral part of the strategy to meet that goal. The plan includes switching to 100 percent renewable power, improving energy efficiency, working with partners to reduce emissions from the print and digital supply chain, and finding a way to offset the rest of those emissions.
Typically, when we think of books, print or e-books, the sustainability aspect centers on paper or e-waste. While those are probably the biggest direct environmental impacts, the carbon neutrality goal is important because it looks beyond the materials. The energy and water required to produce, transport, and distribute books across the globe is considerable - and the extent of the impact is unclear.
The most recent industry-wide evaluation of carbon emissions coming from the publishing industry dates back to 2008. And estimates can range widely because of the number of variables involved, including where and how paper is sourced, the type of ink used, and manufacturing facilities’ energy use. In order to set its science-based targets, Bertelsmann must be clear about its own carbon footprint. As more companies in this space step up to reduce their own emissions, better data will need to be collected, and they will need to share this information to enable other publishers to emulate such goals.
Deforestation is estimated to represent 8 to 10 percent of global carbon emissions. But energy and transportation top the list of emitters. Then we need to add another factor, and that is the reality water will likely be the resources most affected by climate change. All of these challenges play a role in what could happen in the future with the books we enjoy.
Tackling climate change requires every stakeholder within the publishing industry to contribute to succeeding on the world’s most pressing challenge. Books have fed our minds for thousands of years; now, those who publish them can help solve our greatest challenge.
Kate is a writer and policy wonk, with a focus on water, clean energy, climate change and environmental security. She spent over a decade running energy-water nexus and energy efficiency programs at Environmental Defense Fund as well as time at the U.S. Departments of Energy and Defense, U.S. Government Accountability Office, and state and federal legislatures. She serves as an Advisory Board member of CleanTX, which aims to accelerate the growth of the clean tech industry in Texas.