Facing up to digital pollution

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Liz Martin asks: what can publishers do about the environmental impact of digital content?

When we think of greenhouse gas emissions, it tends to conjure up images of cars, aeroplanes, and factory buildings with smoke billowing from the top. We talk a lot about the need for renewable energy, and the need to move towards electric vehicles, better public transport, and more cycling. And rightly so. But questions are now also being asked about the energy consumption associated with digital technologies. 

There is a perception that digital content is ‘carbon light’ and there is no doubt it is certainly ‘lighter than printed publications. However, digital pollution is a growing issue. Every time we browse, communicate, meet online, upload images or stream videos a small amount of carbon dioxide is emitted and in the last year or so this has increased beyond expectations. These carbon emissions are a result of the data storage and the network infrastructure needed to support the internet and store the content we access, which are incredibly energy intensive.

A white paper published by the Carbon Trust estimates an average carbon footprint of 55gCO2e per hour of video streaming in Europe in 2020. For context, the European Environment Agency reported that in 2019 the average new car or van in Europe emitted 122.4gCO2 per kilometre.

In 2020, we published over 100,000 research articles online which were downloaded over 70 million times, and what we don’t yet know is exactly what the impact of this is on the environment. Until now, it has been virtually impossible to calculate the carbon emissions of our digital publishing activities and the use of our publications. Even now nobody has all the answers, but thankfully it is an increasing area of focus and research. Getting to grips with digital emissions is a priority for IOP Publishing.

As a part of the wider calculation of a carbon footprint, the first step is to get a comprehensive and accurate picture of digital emissions. To achieve this, we’ve joined a collaborative project that helps the digital media and publishing industries better understand their digital carbon footprint. Developed by computer scientists at the University of Bristol in collaboration with sustainability experts Carnstone, DIMPACT provides an online tool to track and map carbon emissions. 

The information we will gather will help us to understand the energy consumption of our entire system across data centres, networks and user devices and crucially where our ‘hotspots' are. From there we can start to put in place measures and make choices about how we create, process and deliver our content that will reduce the environmental impact of our activities; avoiding and reducing emissions where possible and finding ways to accurately offset the rest. 

We cannot do this alone and working with our technology providers and other suppliers will be a fundamental part of our efforts, alongside empowering customers with information to help them make the best decisions about how they interact with our content. 

Taking responsibility for our digital carbon footprint is just one example of how we’re committed to creating a more sustainable future. We look at sustainability through a broad lens, taking an approach that considers our role as a publisher, how we work with customers and suppliers, our operations and how we manage our office. 

We already operate a green office programme at our UK headquarters, ensuring that the efficient use of energy, water and other resources is always considered and are developing similar programmes in our network of offices across the globe. We use renewable energy wherever possible, have pollution and waste reduction measures in place and insist on re-use and recycling for cardboard, paper, glass, batteries – we even have a crisp packet recycling point! 

Our staff are incredibly committed to, and passionate about, the environment. Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, when we were all commuting into the office daily, our central location and great transport links meant that the majority of UK colleagues would walk, cycle or take public transport into the office. Working from home eliminated the emissions from commuting, but will have hugely increased digital traffic, which is likely to remain the norm. As we start a new hybrid working norm, we aim to do this in an environmentally responsible manner. We’re developing new business travel policies and, as we adapt our office space for more flexible working, we’re embedding sustainability into the plans at every step. 

We also know that if we’re to affect real change we need to engage with other organisations across our industry. Key to this was becoming part of the Publishers Association Sustainability Taskforce to input into the industry-wide sustainability strategy and leverage collective action to drive improvements in publishing supply chains. 

Another example is joining the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) Publishers Compact – it’s a pledge that sees us working with other publishers to achieve the United Nations SDGs by 2030 by developing sustainable practices and actively championing the goals. Publishers have an added responsibility to sustainability: to acquire and promote content that advocates for themes represented by the SDGs, so we’ve launched our Sustainability Collection which brings all the SDG-related content that we publish together in one online, searchable hub.  

Despite all this, we know that we’re only just scratching the surface and there is so much more that we can do.  Being able to track and measures our digital emissions and use what we are learning to create change will be a great start to making a difference. 

Liz Martin is head of production and sustainability lead at IOP Publishing