The carbon footprint of paper publications

Is it greener to get your news online rather than from a paper publication? Not really, according to a range of studies on the subject published in recent years.

At first glance, surfing the web to find out more about the latest comments from the American president, to learn of the most recent decisions of the Québec government or of what’s happening in Mont-Tremblant would seem to have limited ecological impact.

But this is not the case, because of the phenomenal quantity of energy gobbled up by the servers and other data centres, without which the web wouldn’t exist. Add to that the manufacturing processes of digital devices.

The energy used for an hour on the internet (on a world basis) is equivalent to 4,000 tonnes of oil, or 4,000 return trips Paris-New York,” wrote Josée Duplessis, chief executive officer of the Maison du développement durable (which translates as “House for sustainable development), in an opinion piece published last June in the newspaper Métro.

According to a summary of the results of six studies carried out in Finland and Sweden between 2010 and 2012, the carbon footprint of magazines printed and available online at the same time is similar overall, but also depends on several variables.

How many pages are there in the paper publication and what is its print run? How many readers per copy? What processes are used in making the paper and in the printing? On the web side, how is the energy to run the servers produced? How much time do the readers spend online? And lastly, do they print the articles that interest them more?

“Depending on the habits and time taken for reading, the print publication is often (even) better than the online or mobile versions because it has a lower carbon balance sheet,” submits Manfred Werfel, of the World Association of Newspapers (WAN), cited by the RTL network.

He adds that, “From the point of view of environmental protection, there’s no reason to reject printed newspapers for the benefit of their electronic version.”

The National Geographic

The venerable National Geographic magazine also took up the question by financing a study by the International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment.

The study showed that the average life cycle of a National Geographic magazine produces about 0.82 kg of carbon dioxide/equivalent. The quantity of greenhouse gas emissions per life cycle of each magazine produces about the same quantity of greenhouse gases as a car (8.5 kilometres per litre) over a distance of three kilometres.”

However, Josée Duplessis notes that the environmental impact of the web may be less in Québec, where hydroelectricity is considered to be “clean, renewable” energy, but to the degree that the sites visited be located here.

And what about books and tablets, you may ask? According to a collaborative report from the Rumour Detector and the site Unpointing published on the website of the chief scientist of Québec, researchers at Université du Québec in Chicoutimi have established that a paperback book published in Canada or the United States generates 2.71 kilos of CO2. 

Apple tells us that the iPad Pro releases 120 to 160 kilos depending on its life cycle, from the extraction of primary materials to its recycling.

“So the numbers tell us that after four years of intensive use (the average life of an iPad, according to Apple), an e-reader’s carbon footprint corresponds to that of 45 to 65 new books,” writes author Aurélie Lagueux-Beloin.

Moral of the story: you can read your Tremblant Express without a shadow of environmental guilt.  


Alain Bisson47 Posts

Journaliste depuis plus de 30 ans, Alain Bisson a débuté sa carrière au Journal de Montréal à titre de journaliste à l'économie. Au cours des dernières années, Alain fut également directeur du pupitre et directeur des contenus week-end à La Presse. / A journalist for more than 30 years, Alain Bisson began his career at the Journal de Montreal as a journalist covering economics. In recent years, Alain was also weekend content director and bureau chief for La Presse.


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