Lights! Camera! Take action against the film and TV industry’s carbon footprint

Hannah Morgan

Trash cans pile up with recyclable water bottles; studio lights sap electricity; a stream of trucks and vans shuttling props and actors spew carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Behind the polished Hollywood projects presented to consumers from the silver screen – it’s apparent that there is a true need for improvement of studios’ sustainability. Instead of mindlessly consuming TV shows, movies and other media, it is important to recognize and respond to the film industry’s massive carbon footprint by supporting productions that follow sustainability plans and have aligned themselves with green initiatives.

The British Film Institute (BFI) is one of the leading bodies for the promotion of film both in the United Kingdom and globally, and lists sustainability as one of their primary policies alongside harassment prevention and diversity inclusion to push for progressive policies in media production to reduce environmental harm.

Climate science shows that we need to not just reduce our impact but exchange it for positive impact,” BFI’s website states.  “For its size, the film production industry produces significant emissions and requires systemic change to reach net-zero carbon emissions and to be environmentally sustainable.” 

According to BFI’s 2020 “Screen New Deal” plan, which lays out the groundwork for limiting the carbon footprint of the film industry, an average day of filming on a general high-budget movie set is roughly the same as one person’s annual carbon footprint. The report adds that the energy consumption on such a set could power Times Square for five days and the fuel consumption could fill an average car tank roughly 11,478 times. Such levels of energy and resource consumption highlight the necessity of finding ways to reduce this industry’s impact on the environment. 

Other organizations have taken it upon themselves to advocate for the reduction of this impact — like the Environmental Media Association (EMA), which has been a powerful component of the film and television industry for the past 30 years. The third-party organization uses a system of Green Seals to award TV and other film projects that are up to par with its sustainability checklist and criteria.

The checklist to qualify for these awards is made up of a 200 point system. Items on the checklist include using renewable energy sources to power sets, using recycled or carbon neutral set materials and using leased transportation that has electric components. The EMA awards programs and movies that meet 75 of the 200 criteria checkpoints with a regular Green Seal. However, it also gives programs and movies with 125 points or more the additional recognition of a Gold Seal. Among those qualifying, programs from major studios such as Walt Disney Studios, Paramount and the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) have productions that pertain to both tiers. Though large studios are beginning to recognize and hold themselves to the standards of the EMA, the ideal result is that increasingly more programs aim to hit the EMA’s Gold Seal tier and beyond. They should be doing their part in reducing the film industry’s carbon footprint rather than solely focusing on the outcome of their film at all environmental costs. 

However, some may argue that focusing too much on being sustainable will take away creative freedoms intended for the screen. Others also may believe that the film industry is the least of the world’s worries compared to industrial corporations. In the BFI’s “Screen New Deal” plan, they predict that the film industry is going to continue to grow at a fast pace due to an increase in box office revenue — the money generated from movie ticket sales — from 38 billion US dollars in 2016 to 43 billion in 2019. This shows that regardless of the environmental impact on programming content, growth exhibited by film production creates a necessity to find solutions to their ever-increasing carbon footprint. In my own experience, when I have shot narrative videos relying on different locations, sources, or tools – I’ve driven just myself as far as Point Reyes Station and Novato and back just for a few shots – using up gas and emitting carbon dioxide on these 47 and 30-mile trips. Compared to the scale of Hollywood productions, my transportation’s impact is minimal, but with the number of people involved in a large Hollywood production, it shows how much one person’s impact and carbon footprint can be magnified into a substantial problem.

According to an October Bark survey, 58 percent of Redwood students say that they never consider the environmental impacts of watching television and movies. The first step in moving towards sustainability in an industry that permeates local, national and global communities is addressing how small actions can help in the fight against climate change and the deterioration of the Earth’s natural resources. 

“Larger productions with typically higher budgets, higher profits and most importantly, greater environmental impact, should take greater ownership and lead by example. By doing this, they create the demand and markets that allow smaller productions to feasibly follow in their footsteps,” BFI says. “[The film industry] has a responsibility to engage the world with sustainability by demonstrating the art of the possible.”