Can You be Carbon-Neutral in Film and TV?

Solar Panel Farm

We learn much of what we know about global warming and greenhouse gasses from television and films, but ironically, these same pieces of media are themselves major generators of CO2.

What can producers of programmes and features do to reduce their carbon footprint, and is it realistic for the industry to aim for carbon neutrality?

What Does Being Carbon Neutral Mean?

To be carbon neutral is to achieve a balance between the carbon you emit and the carbon you absorb from the atmosphere.

There are various methods for achieving carbon neutrality.

One is the principle of the carbon sink. This is something that absorbs more carbon than it emits. But so far, this only applies to natural phenomena, such as forests, oceans and soil. We have yet to devise an effective manmade carbon sink.

Therefore, the realistic alternative for human activity to achieve carbon neutrality is by carbon offsetting.

This is where one sector offsets emissions in another by reducing them. The major forms of this are:

  • Renewable energy
  • Energy efficiency
  • Other low carbon technologies

Examples you’ll most likely recognise include windfarms to replace carbon-based energy generation and improving building insulation to reduce the consumption of energy for heating.

What is the Environmental Impact of Film and TV?

The British Film Institute (BFI) has produced a sustainability report as a guide for UK film production.

In it, the BFI points out that a blockbuster film (a film with a budget over £53.3 million) produces an average of 2,840 tonnes of carbon. This is the equivalent to the amount of CO2 a 3,700 acre-forest would absorb in a year.

But another issue is that there is no firm method or system for measuring the carbon footprint of film or TV productions.

However, what the BFI report has found is that over 50% of emissions in film production are related to transport. Most of this from land travel, followed by air.

The rest of the film industry’s carbon footprint is through energy consumption. 34% of an average blockbuster film’s energy consumption is via mains electricity and gas. 15% comes from diesel generators.

For television production, the picture is also poor. One hour of TV contributes to 9.2 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions. This is the equivalent of the total annual CO2 emissions of the average American.

A 2006 UCLA study found that the total emissions of the US TV and film industry were over 14 million tonnes.

While this is nowhere near the carbon footprint of larger and more carbon-intensive industries, it’s still making a significant contribution.

Alongside the emissions that come with TV and film production, there’s also cases of film crews actively impacting the environments they’re shooting in. This isn’t anything new. As far back as 1924, a film production moved bison from the Great Plains to California to film them, but then failed to move them back.

There’s also examples of plastic water bottles being left unrecycled, and crews leaving huge amounts of waste when they’ve finished filming.

How to Move Towards Carbon Neutrality

Carbon neutral film and TV might seem a long way off or even an unrealistic aspiration.

Sky has announced its plan to become net carbon zero across its entire value chain by 2030. This will be a challenge, and ultimately it will require new technology.

But are there things you can do to reduce the environmental impact of a shoot?

  • One of the issues is transport. This has the largest impact on a production’s carbon footprint. A way to address this is to look at what needs to be filmed on location and what doesn’t. And to consider the number of vehicles required, and what their energy consumption is. The move towards electric vehicles (EVs) may help to address this issue.
  • Another issue, as we’ve already highlighted, is waste. What can a production do with its waste, and can it ensure that it recycles as much of it as possible?
  • Supply chains and sourcing is another point. Productions can control who they use in the supply chain, and what their green credentials are like.
  • A big source of the film and TV’s carbon footprint is energy consumption. But here there are green alternatives, such as greener alternatives to diesel generators.

The BFI report’s recommendations highlight the need to explore how to become more carbon-neutral at the production planning stage, including things like materials used in set construction, as well as location filming.

For smaller scale videographers and filmmakers, the best approach is to take personal responsibility for the things you can control in your production, such as waste and how you use energy and transport.

And consider your needs carefully when looking to hire specialist equipment.