The Hidden Climate Benefits of eBooks

Paper books vs eBooks

I’m reading a book by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) called Cooler Smarter: Practical Steps for Low-Carbon Living, and by and large I recommend it. They start with the biggest impacts and work their way down to less important ones, offering a lot of sound advice on the way.

However, there are some errors and oversights in the book, and one of these underscores how eBooks can be much more climate-friendly than paper books. It’s important to stop here and mention that book-buying accounts for only a tiny proportion of our individual carbon footprints, but enough people changing their book-buying habits can have a significant impact.

Here’s what UCS has to say about eReaders versus paper books:

When analysts crunch the numbers, they estimate that the emissions caused in manufacturing an electronic reader are about the same as those caused in manufacturing 20 to 40 books … What the debate obscures, however, is that a standard paperback book is responsible for around five and one-half pounds of carbon emissions in its manufacture and transport to your local bookstore. But we are each responsible for more carbon emissions than that when we drive six miles round-trip alone in a typical car to the bookstore [emphasis theirs]. The point is this: don’t waste time worrying about the carbon footprint of the way you read.

OK, raise your hand as soon as you see their mistake. Yes, you got it: buying an eBook doesn’t require any travel. Of course, you can also order your paper books to be delivered to your door, and in most cases that’s likely to save emissions compared to you driving a car to the bookstore, but there’s still a noticeable impact for the transportation of the book from the store to your door–not to mention from the pulp source to the paper mill, the paper mill to the printer, the printer to the publisher, the publisher to the distributor, the distributor to the retail hub, and the retail hub to the retail store. Additionally, any book that ends up in a landfill is all set to add yet more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere as it decomposes, probably anaerobically (without access to air) and therefore producing methane, a greenhouse gas 20-25 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

I may be objecting too much about too small a thing, but I’ve seen enough poorly-reasoned claims that eBooks are worse for the climate than paper books that it seemed worth taking up.

Of course, using an eReader or tablet requires electricity, but the amounts are quite small and aren’t likely to have nearly the impact of the manufacturing or transport. If I wanted to be snarky, I could also point that reading a paper book often requires electricity too, but since it’s possible to read by sunlight, and since people usually don’t read eBooks in dark rooms, I’m going to try to leave that one alone.

One more point that was missed about eBooks: often people read them on devices they purchased for other purposes. If you would have a smartphone or tablet regardless of whether you read eBooks on it, then it’s really inaccurate to count the emissions from manufacturing that device as being due to the eBooks that are incidentally being read on it. If you are buying a new tablet or eReader, though, please consider a used model rather than the latest, greatest thing. A tablet that’s saved from gathering dust or being dumped into the landfill and that thereby prevents a new one being manufactured reduces your carbon footprint by (depending on the tablet) around 130 k-coes, according to this article. Since a sustainable individual footprint is only about 2,000 k-coes per year (compared to the average American footprint of 28,000 k-coes!), that 130 really counts.

So it’s true that if you only read a few books a year and you purchase a brand new tablet or eReader primarily to replace paper books, you are probably pissing Mother Nature off. If you’re a heavy reader and/or already have a tablet or smartphone (or buy one used), however, the advantage is strongly on the side of eBooks.

To be responsible about this post, I need to bring it back in the end to the very solid point UCS brings up in their book (which I bought as an eBook and read on my 5-year-old Kindle Keyboard, by the way). The most important climate change choices and actions have to do with the biggest areas of emissions: travel, home heating and cooling, electricity, and food (in that order). In the grand scheme of things, books–e or otherwise–make only a small difference. Now that you know, though, why not make that difference in the right direction?