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Is paper old news?

Blog by Craig Simmons, Co-Founder and Director, 14 February 2012

Photo of Craig Simmons, Co-Founder and Director at Best Foot Forward

The Guardian is to be applauded for its attempt to quantify the carbon footprint of its online operations. BFF has helped a number of organisations struggling to understand their ‘digital footprint’ and the results have, invariably, shown that the electronic delivery of information is better for the environment than conventional means even when the ‘hidden’ upstream impacts of server farms are taken into account. 

Consider the ubiquitous Apple iPad. Research we did for one publisher showed that the cradle-to-grave impact of the device was roughly equivalent to reading 50-100 paperbacks. That was without considering the many other uses of the iPad or the energy use of reading lamps (which are of course unnecessary with a backlit screen). Work that we’ve done for The Wildlife Trusts, Ofcom, the Greater London Authority and learndirect also provides strong evidence that for a range of media and services, electronic delivery is anything up to ten times more carbon-efficient than conventional methods.

This is not, of course, to say that conventional media are dead but their use as a means of mass communication are probably coming to an end. The assessment we did on one scientific journal  - ‘Fuel’ for Reed Elsevier - perhaps provides the most telling insight into the future of hardcopy. We found that the carbon footprint for a frequently read, technical  journal is close to that of its electronic counterpart. So, for ‘limited edition’ or short run publication - only available on loan - the physical form may well endure for some time.