We don’t tend to think about TV and film production in relation to its impact on the planet, yet, as English TV director Steve Smith points out, these are “very carbon hungry industries”, where one hour’s worth of content creates something in the region of 13 tonnes of carbon emissions.
Steve Smith is an ‘albert Ambassador’, part of the BAFTA albert Consortium, which was set up in 2011 to raise awareness into environmental issues in the industry, and which now provides training programmes and develops tools and resources to encourage best practices.
These include the albert Carbon Calculator, now mandatory in the UK TV industry, which requires major broadcasters and production companies to keep track of their carbon footprint during production. If they fail to do so, they don’t get paid.
“What it allows the industry to do is take stock and analyse how we’re doing over a period of time,” says Smith, “and whether or not we are managing to reduce our carbon footprint.” The albert Consortium also offers a certification, like a Kitemark, for productions that want to go one step further and actively reduce their energy consumption.
Steve Smith sees the task of his industry as two-fold: “Firstly, we have a duty to make our programmes as sustainable as possible. Like any business or company, we need to ensure we comply with the Paris Climate Agreement and any other climate legislation. But our industry also has a second task, and that’s to communicate stories about climate change to the audiences we serve.”
The truth is out there
You only need to look at the credits at the end of a TV programme or film to understand why the industry is so carbon hungry. It employs large numbers of cast, crew and equipment, all of which need to be transported, housed, powered and fed. Then, once the production is over, there’s the question of what to do with sets and props that are no longer required.
When Twentieth Century Fox announced in 2015 that it was creating a new series of the X-Files, it took the opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to responsible production practices.
Actions taken included using recyclable materials for set production, like wood from sustainable forests and recycled aluminium and steel, using reusable jugs for water, thus avoiding the waste of an estimated 45,000 plastic bottles, and using compostable plates and cups when it came to the catering. They also utilised leftover costumes from previous productions and, when production wrapped, donated anything useful to charities, or else ensured it was recycled. In the process, they managed to divert more than 81% of their total waste from landfill.
The greatest consumption on a film set or TV studio is electricity. “In film and TV production electricity accounts for about 60% of your carbon footprint,” says Smith. “One of the things BAFTA did at the beginning of the year was negotiate a special green-energy buying scheme called the ‘Creative Energy Project’ in conjunction with Good Energy, which allows anyone who works in the industry to buy 100% renewable energy at a competitive price.”
For the X-Files production team, this was the reason they chose to film in and around Vancouver – hydro-electric dams are responsible for almost all British Columbia’s electricity, so when they plugged into the grid they were using green electricity.
Related to this is the importance of lighting in film and TV productions. “Lighting is a big part of what we do,” says Smith, “and there are huge advancements now in LED lighting, which is 90% more efficient. What’s more, it doesn’t generate as much heat, which means less air-conditioning is required on set or in the studio.”
A change of scene
Set and costume design are an area of huge potential waste in film and TV, with some estimates suggesting that a blockbuster can generate up to 1,000 tonnes of waste from set construction alone.
In response to this there have been a growing number of innovative companies springing up, dedicated to making sure this aspect of filmmaking is as environmentally-friendly as possible. Suppliers like Scenery Salvage and DRESD aim to re-purpose and reuse sets and costumes whenever possible, and where this isn’t possible, to ensure they are recycled or sold on.
Smith feels that perhaps the most decisive factor in ensuring this shift towards sustainability continues is what it means to the bottom line for any production – the budget. “Even if you’re the most ardent climate sceptic, the fact is that saving carbon saves you money,” he says. The production team on the X-Files reboot calculated that they’d saved themselves $41,000 through their greening efforts, so you can imagine what kind of savings are to be made on a major Hollywood blockbuster.
But what about that second task Steve Smith mentioned, to communicate stories about the environment? “One thing I’ve come to realise from teaching about climate change is how ignorant people are of the facts, and that remains a worry. The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is now over 400 parts per million for the first time ever in the planet’s history and it will not drop below that in my lifetime. Getting this information across effectively is where the industry is failing at the moment.”
While Smith and others like him work to change this, they can at least reflect that sustainability behind the scenes is moving towards a happier ending.