The Long TailTangled in Green



Chris Anderson, Editor in Chief of Wired Magazine and proponent of the Long Tail theory – the idea of selling less of more – has raised some green ire with a recent post on his blog. He has made a somewhat controversial if not dubious argument that his company’s print publishing is more carbon efficient than web publishing. Wired is part of the Conde Nast stable of magazine publications


 Chris’s argument goes something like this –

  • trees take carbon out of the air and do so more rapidly during growth phases – carbon negative 
  • assume magazines use only paper sourced from sustainably managed forests and therefore harvested trees are replanted on a two to one ratio – carbon neutral
  • assume the paper pulp processing mills utilize hydro electric power – carbon neutral
  • assume the printing process is super efficient – slightly carbon positive
  • assume distribution by rail and the US Postal Service and since these are scheduled routes and services only minimal, marginal carbon costs apply – slightly carbon positive
  • assume the magazine reader is upper middle class suburban dwellers (not sure about this one) and therefore more likely to ensure the magazine is recycled or landfilled where the final carbon emission is sequestered – carbon neutral
  • Next Chris assumes presenting the same content over the web with webservers running 24/7, with 100 million minutes a month Wired readers spend on their computers and the energy consumption of the infrastructure in between is equal to the carbon cost of production and distribution of a paper magazine.

But the big difference is …………although it generates no more or less carbon than magazine publishing, web publishing takes no carbon out of the atmosphere. ………  So by this analysis dead-tree magazines have a smaller net carbon footprint than web media. We cut down trees and put them in the ground. From a climate change perspective, this is a good thing.

But wait a second, Infoworld reached the opposite conclusion in April 2007 when it announced the magazine would cease to print and shift solely to the web.

The world of traditional print publishing takes a heavy toll on our planet, much of which derives from the energy involved in simply cranking out paper. According to a 2002 study by the Energy Information Administration, a division of the U.S. Department of Energy, the paper industry emits the fourth highest level of carbon dioxide among manufacturers, after the chemical, petroleum and coal products, and primary metals industries.

Chris makes a reasonable point that in a carefully managed process, it maybe theoretically possible to harvest trees at the right time and after a short stint in the form of a magazine the paper can be recycled or landfilled with the associated carbon captured and sequestered. However, his controlling assumptions are completely flawed as it does cost significant carbon to harvest these trees, print & distribute the magazines and haul away the waste for recycling or to the landfill. He ignores also the pollution caused by the paper milling and ink production processes. Chris’ assumptions about server energy burn are also outdated.  

Its well worth reading Chris’ post and the many informed comments to get a sense of how complicated it can be to account for carbon without established rules. But here we see two publications serving similar markets who independently evaluate the environmental economics and come to opposite conclusions. Emerging carbon markets are in dire need of a common framework to account for and financially cost carbon emissions. Without this we are likely to see those who can squeeze financial costs associated with production without investment claim the green halo and those who can only do so with capital investment play with the numbers. Not least, consumers who are currently prepared to pay a premium for carbon off set will soon tire of paying extra based on accounting alchemy such as this.

 I agree with Chris’ comment:

Companies are increasingly being asked to calculate their carbon footprint, and if they’re public, publish it. Good idea? Perhaps. But it’s harder than you might think…………



One response to “The Long TailTangled in Green

  1. Pingback: Print - not so green… « The Book is Dead

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