During the APEL organized Book 2.0 event held in Lisbon, it was the first time net zero as a topic of shared importance was discussed in Portugal. I was honoured to share the stage with António Redondo, CEO of The Navigator Company to discuss the impact of printing books. Here are some reflections from our conversation.

Set our goal to be net zero

Net zero and carbon neutrality are terms that can be confusing, especially as we increasingly see companies, or countries, committing to becoming “net zero” by a certain date. We are also starting to see products claim to be “climate or carbon neutral”. This is exactly how apple, in the newly released video about their progress towards 2030 frames their new apple watches. So, what exactly is the difference, and what should publishing be doing?

Firstly, it is good to note that net zero and climate/carbon neutrality are distinctly different. Net zero is firstly a global ambition, where the world must reduce all greenhouse emissions caused by human activities to as close to zero as possible. Any remaining emissions need to be removed from the atmosphere by supporting “carbon sinks”, essentially a fancy word for a tree or the oceans. The measurement of greenhouse gases is often shown as unit called CO2 equivalent or CO2e.

Carbon neutrality, on the other hand, focuses on one greenhouse gas – carbon, with the aim for any carbon emissions associated with an entity (such as company, service or product) to be quantified and balanced out by an equivalent amount of carbon being offset somewhere else. This “elsewhere” being investment from a company into projects such as reforestation or building renewable energy that can occur anywhere in the world.

The problem that arises with claims of carbon neutrality, is that despite products from multiple sectors claiming to be carbon neutral, in reality, the world continues to emit higher and higher amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. It is unsurprising then, we see greater scrutiny over such claims, and of course many companies have fallen foul of green washing. In our discussions we emphasised that our shared goal should be to understand the drivers behind our climate impact and actively work to address these. With no defined industry standards, any claims about carbon neutrality are unclear, incomparable, and most likely going to work against us in the future in the eyes of our readers and authors.

Format is important but we need to collaborate across our supply chains

Publishing, like every other sector, doesn’t escape the reality of needing to rapidly decarbonize. Yet, in many cases, the first question inevitability is about what is better for the climate, paper or digital? The answer is not so easy, and both have pros and cons with big areas still needing further data and research.

Paper remains an important format that is not going away in our sector. People love the smell or feel of paper; studies have proven its effectiveness in learning outcomes in education and even instagramers use books as core pieces of décor in their posts. But it also has an impact from the raw material, the trees, used to make books. The first rule of thumb in sustainability is that we need to reduce waste by maximising the use of raw materials. It is encouraging to see efforts from across the supply chain to reduce trimmings and waste during paper production and printing, to ensure that books are sold and read, and that they can be recycled or store carbon as they sit on your bookshelf.

Conversely, digital also has an impact. The critical minerals needed to make digital e-readers, or the energy needed to cool data servers, all have an impact on the climate. From a reader’s perspective, digital may make sense if you read a lot of books on your kindle, or perhaps if you are a researcher, you might read your scientific articles from your laptop or electronic device. When Elsevier mapped our carbon footprint back in 2021, we found that 30% of our footprint was from physical books and journals. Yet in terms of revenue print only accounted for 11%. Other sectors, such as textbooks and children’s books, a hybrid or print approach might work best. The key here is around understanding audience and impact.

Our biggest impact is inspiration.

Whilst most studies will show the carbon impact of an individual print book will be minor, a few kilograms of CO2 equivalent, arguably our biggest impact as a sector is to inspire the climate action of the future. The content of our books is what matters most. When we think of the changes faces society between now and 2030, we have the power to use books as tools for action. Outlining a bright and happy future where we have a great life, in a net zero world, with books at our fingertips!

Follow the following links to download a free net zero glossary and net zero guide.