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Green 'step change' needed in TV production

Blog
03 August 2015

Some shows have taken steps to reduce their carbon footprint, but the production sector needs to do far more.

Solar was used to power the entire shoot of Operation Grand Canyon with Dan Snow, while Springwatch ran its unit base and remote camera set ups with energy from renewable generators.

Meanwhile, Wonders of the Monsoon employed international cameramen to save over 100 tonnes of CO2 by reducing travel across six shoots, and Casualty recycles its sets and props.

These are just a handful examples of how TV productions have used innovative ways to cut their environmental footprint.

Other TV shows and films to boast impressive green credentials include Coronation Street and Film London-backed short film Terminally Happy – both shortlisted for the finals of this month’s Observer Ethical Awards.

Coronation Street, for example, was cited for being a ‘television drama of the highest quality with the lowest possible environmental impact’ after implementing a series of measures following its move to MediaCityUK.

A poor green record
Despite these success stories, the UK production sector has a poor track record when it comes to the environment. A ‘step change in behaviour’ is needed, according to BAFTA’s albert consortium, made up of leading broadcasters and indies working to reduce the impact of the TV industry.

The albert carbon calculator – based on input from over 1000 productions – has concluded that the average carbon footprint of an hour’s worth of TV is 9.4 tonnes – about the same as eight return flights to the US (see infographic above).

The consortium concludes that the TV and film industry must take a proactive approach to support the UK emission reduction target of 80% by 2050.

Even though employees in the production sector tend to be young, liberal, university educated and therefore, presumably environmentally aware, this has not translated into effective industry-wide action to reduce its carbon footprint.

Says one series producer with twenty years experience in the industry: “At no point has anyone ever brought up the subject of reducing our carbon footprint during a production.”

Another executive producer adds: “I would say this doesn’t play at all as an issue in the industry.”

“The UK production industry is lagging compared to other industries,” confirms Aaron Matthews, industry sustainability manager at albert.

Matthews says one of the reasons is that TV production is largely staffed by freelancers who hop from one project to another. “Industry leaders in sustainability, like Unilever or Kingfisher, have a staff who they can effect change upon. Often, if you work for a production company, you might not find out much about the environmental policies of the company – you get the programme made and then you are off.”

Senior support required
Matthews adds that an on-going problem is the “delegation of sustainability down to more junior levels of a production.” Sustainability, he says, really needs senior support and has to be addressed in pre-production if it is to have any impact. “Not everyone has the ability to make the big decisions which can really affect the carbon footprint of a production, like what studio or lighting to use.”

There’s also a sense that the industry is tackling issues like diversity as well as health and safety, but it hasn’t yet given the attention to sustainability that it might.

That could change in 2015, a year when the issue will come into greater focus in the lead up to November’s UN Climate Change Conference in Paris.  The conference aims to achieve a universal, legally binding agreement on climate change, with a key goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to limit global temperature increases to two degrees above industrial levels.

Meanwhile, the consortium has just started rolling out a new training course for independent production sector members, including All3Media, Endemol, Shed Media, Twofour, Kudos and IMG. 150 people will go through the course this year. This is on top of launching website mediagreenhouse.co.uk which provides advice on how to green a production and case studies of shows which have done so.

It is also launching a major industry survey of the sector to assess the level of understanding of sustainability and climate change and the challenges they raise for those working in the TV industry.

According to albert research, the single most significant contributor to carbon emissions in production is from electricity use to power production offices, studios, lighting, edit suites and crew accommodation. The environmental impact of travel is also significant, as are set builds, waste, diesel and catering.

Chosing to shoot in the UK or abroad can make a major difference, for example, to carbon emissions. An international factual documentary is, on average, the greatest emitter of CO2 by genre, responsible for over 40 tonnes per hour produced thanks to the air travel involved. 

The increasingly global nature of UK production, which is focused on international markets such as the US and Asia, means this problem is only getting worse. Location based dramas also have a heavy carbon footprint, thanks to transport and on location energy use.

Production, of course, is only part of the challenge facing the TV industry. Distribution now accounts for increasing amount of emissions as audience viewing habits change. Modern distribution techniques to distribute multiplatform content are highly energy intensive, requiring vast numbers of 
air-conditioned servers.

“The most carbon efficient way to get a programme out there is to broadcast it from an antenna on a hill,” notes Matthews.

Matthews also believes the TV industry could be doing more to explain to the public the pressing need for everyone to change their behaviour so the UK can meet its climate obligations. Precious few programmes on television actually address the biggest issue facing humankind today, he says.

Of course, the industry has got to get its own house in order too. “If we are going to unleash the media’s power to sell us a sustainable world, then we need to make sure their operations are squeaky clean before that happens.”

Green case studies

Alaska: Earth’s Frozen Kingdom
Alaska was able to save money and carbon emissions by sourcing all their polar bear footage from Alaskan based cameraman Arthur Smith. He’s lived in the Inupiat village of Kaktovik in Alaska’s far north for more than ten years. The BBC used six minutes – 10% of the overall programme – of Arthur’s polar bear footage in the Winter programme, episode 3.

Acquiring this footage in the usual way by flying a UK-based cameraman to Alaska with 500kg of kit (25 x 20kg peli cases of kit is standard for wildlife films) would create carbon emissions of around 9.5 tonnes. So the Alaska production team saved roughly the same amount of carbon emitted by two UK homes in a year.

Trollied (series 4)
Trollied cut its stage power usage by 50% by removing a third of ceiling light fluorescents and reducing floor lamp lighting. The Roughcut series also reduced paper use by 80% by using an opt-in policy for call sheets and scripts, and sourced second hand props and dressings for the set and as, as far as possible, tried to source these locally. Left over perishable food on set was also donated to feed the local pigs!

Transport was one of the greatest challenges, representing over 50% of the footprint for series 4. Roughcut tackled it by largely crewing locally and accommodating the majority of the cast in the same hotel and transporting them to set together. It also made public transport the default.

More green production examples can be found on the Media Greenhouse website

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