ereaders: an ecological argument

Paul Raven @ 11-03-2010

From Sam Jordison of The Guardian: what difference do ebooks make to a reader’s carbon footprint?

I’ve only managed to find one report – on the Kindle (by The Cleantech Group) – but it backs up suggestions that so long as e-readers are used as book replacements rather than supplements, they soon start to pay back in carbon terms. The report states that a book uses up “approximately 7.46 kilograms of CO2 over its lifetime” and that the Kindle produces “roughly 168 kg” during its lifecycle, making it “a clear winner against the potential savings: 1,074 kg of CO2 if replacing three books a month for four years; and up to 26,098 kg of CO2 when used to the fullest capacity of the Kindle.”

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However, I parted company with Ritch’s positive view of e-readers when she suggested a further advantage: “the consumer who purchases an ebook often has the rights to use it on five or more devices, meaning multiple users within a household would not have to purchase multiple physical versions of a book.” I’d actually view that as a problem, as far as fiction goes. Five or more devices probably gives the ebook a lifespan of little more than 10 years if my experience with such machines is anything to go by – and that’s if you don’t share it. A book (so long as it stays together) can be shared with hundreds of people over hundreds of years.

I also have concerns about the supply side. There’s no information available about the energy required to run Amazon’s “whispernet” and it’s hard to work out the amount involved in supplying other books for download. The internet is too often thought of as a cost-free resource in carbon terms – but it’s recently been suggested that Google alone produces as much as some nation states. Ritch suggested a good comparison would be that “a physical book purchased by a person driving to the bookstore creates twice the emissions of a book purchased online.” But of course, that depends on someone driving rather than walking to the shop.

In short, I think the ecological argument for ereaders is a non-starter for either side, though that could change with time (especially once ereading becomes a software matter rather than a dedicated hardware platform matter. What do you reckon?