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New Zealand's longest-running online daily news and commentary publication, now in its 24th year. The opinion pieces presented here are not purported to be fact but reasonable effort is made to ensure accuracy.

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Buy a book and save the planet?

4 December 2018

EBooks are the future and eBooks are environmentally friendly... right?

After all, to make a book requires felling trees, transporting logs, turning those logs into pulp, turning that pulp into paper, transporting the paper, cutting it, printing it, binding it into a volume and then transporting that volume to distributors, retailers and, eventually, to the bookcase in your home.

That's got to involve a lot of energy and therefore, a lot of carbon emissions --right?

So how can that be more environmentally friendly than simply logging on to the Net and downloading a few MB of 0's and 1's?

Surely eBooks require far less energy to create and deliver than old-fashioned paper-based books.

Well the reality of the situation may surprise you.

It just might be that old-fashioned paper-based books are much better for the environment than digital versions.

Allow me to explain.

It is true that the entire process of making a book, from felling the trees through to you placing it on your bookshelf or your lap *is* energy intensive, so is the process of storing, delivering and using an eBook.

According to this report, data centres will consume a full 20% of all the energy used on this planet by the year 2025.

So that you can buy them online, eBooks need to be stored on a server somewhere, transported via the Net (fibre, copper, RF or a mix of all), delivered to your device(s) and then displayed on a screen of some kind. Each step along the way uses energy and, perhaps most importantly of all, every time you read an eBook, you are using more energy.

So the green credentials of an eBook are not quite as good as you might think, especially given the energy cost each time you open it up.

Then there are the often unconsidered environmental benefits of paper-based books.

Let's face it, a bookcase filled with paper-based books is a fantastic demonstration of sequestering carbon. Each volume is comprised largely of cellulose fibres and each molecule of cellulose contains six atoms of carbon. In fact, 44% of the cellulose in paper is carbon. It is quite likely that the inks used to print the text have a very significant amount of carbon in them.

So, as long as you don't go burning your books or allowing them to rot and decay, the average bookcase filled with weighty tomes can effectively be sequestering several kilos of carbon -- for a lifetime or more.

By comparison, eBooks sequester no carbon -- and each time they're used, more carbon is emitted into the atmosphere, by way of the electricity required to run the device on which they're being displayed.

That "energy per read" increases even further if you're using WiFi to access the book or download it from your own server.

Even "clean green" countries like New Zealand, which gets up to 85% of its energy from renewables, still relies on some fossil fuels for its electricity production so eBooks still have a carbon penalty here.

With that in mind, perhaps paper-based books are a really great idea for a Christmas gift. Not only will you be giving something tangible with heft and a physical presence, but you will also be helping save the planet at the same time.

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