ICT – Killing paper off with a greener image?

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ICT – Killing paper off with a greener image?

May 10, 2010 - 02:44
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BRUSSELS, May 10, 2010 (RISI) -First of all, what is ICT? Well actually I only found out myself last week that the three little letters stand for:Information Communication Technology. This vast sector covers the multitude of devices, including PCs, gadgets, e-readers and tablets that are systematically eating into paper usage. And if you hadn't heard of ICT up until now, remember you heard it here first, because you will be hearing about it a lot more in the future.

I myself found out about it when I was asked to chair the Confederation of European Paper Industries' (CEPI) seminar, Paper & ICT - Co-existing in a Sustainable Society, held last week in Brussels. It is obviously a hot topic, the venue was jam packed with a variety of pulp and paper industry people from all walks of professions, and from across Europe.

Which is greener, electronic communication or paper?

The center-piece of the seminar was devoted to the presentation of the results of a study that was commissioned by CEPI to try and get some kind of handle on what sort of threat the ICT industry is to the paper industry particulary as regards the environment. The report, entitled, Analysing the ICT - Paper Interplay and its Environmental Implications, provided a festival of interesting statistics that had the audience hanging on the presenter's every word.

Commissioned specially to undertake the task, was Dr Peter Arnfalk, associate professor at Lund University in Sweden. Arnfalk confesses - that despite being a Swede - he is not an exponent of the paper industry, and his mission was to clearly identify and compare dispassionately the environmental implications of both ICT and paper.

Some of Arnfalk's discoveries during the course of compiling the report are fascinating:

*If it was supposed that the 430 billion mail items that are delivered globally each year were two sheets of A4 laid end to end, the total would add up to a journey to the sun and back

*If the 15 trillion emails that are sent annually were also 2 A4 sized emails, it would add up to a return journey to the sun 70 times over

*There is also around 60 trillion spam emails annually, that's 280 trips to the sun and back

Which begs the question: What environmental footprint is the greatest, emails or postal mail? More interesting figures:

The carbon foot print of traditional post is around 20-25 grams a letter, and a ‘legitimate' email - that is one that is not spam - is about 4.9 grams. A spam email equates to 3 grams, because these are not often opened, which is where the main energy usage comes from when reading emails.

Arnfalk's conclusion is that the traditional letter is two to six times more costly from an environmental perspective, however, due to the massive uptake of using email - up to 40 times more than traditional mailings - the total environmental footprint is up to 20 times heavier.

Not just emails - the hardware has a footprint too

Arnfalk, in his cradle to grave assessment of the ICT segment, also came up with another costly element in terms of the environment, he says: "ICT is currently being projected as a very clean segment of industry, particularly as it is seen to be ‘de-materalizing' by cutting down the use of paper. But this is not strictly true, not only does ICT consume energy, the devices also contain almost the entire periodic table of materials in their manufacture. In fact when totalled up, the production and running of ICT equates to 2% of the global emissions of CO2, which is equivalent to that of the airline industry, and it is set to grow at a huge rate, almost double by 2020."

"There are also social implications with the dissembling of ICT items," continues Arnfalk. "There are entire villages in China, and parts of Africa which are making their livelihoods from the recovery of gold, silver, platinum and other rare Earth metals, which lead to huge health risks."

So, good news for the paper industry?

Surely with all this information the paper industry must come out beaming and even smelling of roses. Unfortunately not, Arnfalk is adamant that nothing will get in the way of progress, and the paper industry must not be tempted to go head to head with the ICT industry, either on the environmental, or indeed any other front. "Take a look at the education sector, nearly half the global book market is educational, accounting for some $70 billion. Universities in the US have begun buying e-books for their students. This allows them to access a four year study directly, instantly, and economically. This is good for both learning and educating. In these situations, such enormous progress has been made, that going back to paper is simply not an option."

But surely the paper industry comes out of this report with some good environmental credentials, and at least something to feel optimistic about? Arnfalk responds: "Well actually, coming from Sweden, I am well aware of the work that the paper industry has done over the last 20 years. It is perhaps the world leader in terms of the way it has addressed the environmental issues. But it could still learn something from the ICT segment, despite it being such a newcomer. Leaders of ICT know that the energy consumption figures are high, and it is working on them. But most importantly the users of the technology know the ICT suppliers are working on them. ICT communicates the message at every opportunity. The paper industry needs to do the same; identify the areas where it could be the most environmentally effective alternative to ICT and communicate the message to the end user."

A clear example of how an ICT operator is addressing environmental concerns in relation to its carbon footprint is the newly launched search engineecosia. Backed by Yahoo, Bing and the World Wide Fund For Nature (WWF) it basically works like any other search engine but, unlike others, Ecosia gives at least 80% of its advertising revenue to a rainforest protection program run by the WWF. It states that around 2% of searches on its engine lead to a click on a sponsored link, which earns around 0.13 Euro cents per search. This it then calculates as saving about two square meters of rainforest with every search.

The CEPI seminar also had a variety of speakers from specialist environmental marketing, carbon footprint measurement and the EU Commission, in relation to the burgeoning ICT sector. We will be covering these and other developments affecting the future of the paper industry as regular and ongoing features.

"ICT - Killing off the paper industry with a greener image" is a series of articles.Part II,Part IIIandPart IVcan all be found on the RISI website.