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Sustainable publishing: How the publishing industry can be more climate conscious

Raging forest wildfires, turbulent hurricanes and cyclones, uncontrolled melting of the ice sheets, extreme droughts and floods; these catastrophes have now become a reality that humanity is grappling with—the climate change crisis. Climate change is accelerating ecological degradation, natural disasters, economic disruptions, food and water scarcity, poverty, and terrorism. We have reached a record high in the release of CO2 due to the overuse of oil, coal, and gas for electricity, transportation, and industrial needs. According to NASA, we have seen a 47% increase in the CO2 concentration in our atmosphere since the beginning of the Industrial Age.

The climate change emergency is worsening at an alarming rate, and this calls for timely action before we face irreparable consequences. A report by the World Bank predicts that without concrete actions against climate change, around 143 million people of Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America will be forced to migrate from the hotspots of climate disasters to other areas by 2050.

This article focuses on how the publishing industry can reevaluate its processes to make a positive contribution to humanity’s fight against climate change.

The impact of the publishing industry on global climate change

Every organization, industry, and individual must contribute towards curbing climate change to the best of their ability. The publishing industry has expressed its social responsibility for various causes, and their participation in climate action is also critical.

The awareness of the Carbon Footprint (CF) of a publication is a significant first step towards combating global warming. However, even today, there seems to be a knowledge gap among publishers in this regard. According to a case study at Dalian University of Technology, the average CF of a scientific publication was 5.44 kilograms of CO2 equivalent with an energy consumption of 37.65 megaJoule (MJ). 

A study in 2009 reports that of the total Global Warming Potential (GWP) of the publishing industry, over 80% of it accounts for newspapers, office use, magazines, books, retail transactions, and “other” applications. Publishers ought to reconsider their processes and workflows to identify ways to minimize their carbon footprint or become carbon neutral.

How publishers can minimize their carbon footprint

The environmental crises we face today present the need for publishers to restructure some of their existing workflows to become carbon-neutral. When the amount of CO2 released into the atmosphere by a company’s activities is balanced by an equivalent amount being removed, that company is said to be carbon-neutral.

Print-on-demand

Print-on-demand (POD) prints only the precise number of the required copies of a book or journal based on the end-user demand. POD reduces the wastage of unsold copies and the energy consumption involved in producing them. As more publishers move towards online-only versions of content, if an individual or an institution requires a printed version, they can pay extra over their subscription fees to receive a printed copy. POD is best suited for micro-niches that have a relatively small reader base and require only a few printed copies.

Optimizing digital content

The production of paper leads to extensive deforestation and emission of high amounts of Greenhouse Gases (GHG). Considering this, digital content seems like the best, environmentally-friendly alternative. However, the carbon footprint from the usage of digital content is less talked about and much harder to track and measure. The mere acts of creating, storing, and accessing digital content cause extensive damage to the environment. Electronic devices that facilitate accessing ebooks contain a long list of minerals ranging from gold, tin, lithium, nickel, copper, and iron. The processes involved in mining these metals also give rise to significant environmental damage and degradation. 

Hence, the ever-growing digital resources cannot be seen as a greener alternative to print material. Publishers can use tools like Website Carbon Calculator and web hosting services that run on renewable energy to optimize their digital content and websites and potentially lower their carbon footprint.

Implementing policies on climate action

In the Paris Climate Agreement of 2015, ambitious goals were set to limit the average global increase in temperature. Publishers can contribute toward these goals by establishing robust policies that clearly state their commitment to climate action. They ought to also implement stricter environmental policies to operationalize their commitment, and these policies will act as the yardstick for the employees and other stakeholders in the institution.

For example, IOP Publishing has framed its environmental policies to reduce the impact of climate change and promote sound environmental practices. SAGE Publishing is one of the first publishers to sign the UK Publishers Association Declaration on sustainability. Over 200 health journals have simultaneously published an editorial on September 6, 2021, calling on governments to take emergency action against climate change in the interest of humanity and our planet. The journals involved in this initiative include The BMJ, the National Medical Journal of India, the Medical Journal of Australia, the East African Medical Journal, and more.

Scholarly publishers are influential entities that can persuade their stakeholders (editors, authors, clients, vendors, suppliers, and readers) to embrace environmentally safe practices through partnership and procurement policies and orientation programs. As the American climatologist Julienne Stroeve says, Everything is interconnected. If one part of the climate system changes, the rest of the system will respond.”

The publishing industry has begun to acknowledge its role in the climate crisis and take up the responsibility of tackling this pressing challenge. The climate crisis today calls for a meaningful and collective response from the publishing industry to replace traditional processes with energy-efficient alternatives even as publishers adopt the latest technological advancements.

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