Sustainability and TV: We can't recycle our way out of this one

Floods in Österreich, Austria in July of 2016
Aaron Matthews
November 1st 2016 at 12:20PM : By

Scientists tells us that climate change is the greatest threat to survival humans have ever faced. What is the TV industry going to do about it?

As my colleagues and friends will attest, I am an upbeat person. I am, however, unable to describe the severity of the issues climate change will create for us without using expletives. So instead, I will describe the challenges we can expect before the end of the century: A global temperature rise between 2-6°C, bringing severe food shortages, extreme weather, mass extinction and global climate refugees estimated to number 200 million by 2050.


This almost certain destiny is unavoidable without the kind of effort so far proven to be beyond our capabilities.

The industry response

Our industry’s response to the above must be twofold. We must immediately reduce our carbon footprint and we must also choose the role we want to play in making sustainability a societal norm. To date, a handful of editorial pioneers have shown us what cultural leadership can look like, but broadly speaking, our output does little to promote a low carbon lifestyle.

“The trick to success here,” suggests Winterwatch exec Tim Scoones, “will not be worthy green programming, but bringing sustainability into the mainstream and making it culturally normal. We’ll make that a reality with open industry-wide discussion.”

On carbon reduction, the industry has broadly sought to identify the footprints of individual productions whilst paying little attention to the overall impact of our buildings and supply chain. For me, this lack of oversight of the broader agenda is the elephant in the room.

We are not going to be able to recycle our way out of this one!

Credit where credit is due, some broadcasters are stepping up to the plate on carbon reduction. Sky smashed their 25% reduction target and I have every confidence they will reach a new ambitious 50% goal. Conversely, other broadcasters and manly film studios have failed to produce environmental action plans that address the root of the issue. Considering what is at stake, it is simply not good enough.

Sky smashed their 25% reduction target


Failure at the senior level

BAFTA's albert seeks to lead the industry to a carbon friendly future. The initiative has been well received by some industry observers: “It is very good indeed to know that there is a project preserving our resources, those which would otherwise have been replaced by yet more depredations on the natural world,” says broadcaster and environmentalist David Attenborough.

Part of albert’s aim is to identify green suppliers, another is to encourage a realistic conversation about the challenges we must address as an industry. Supported by an army of production managers we have done some great stuff on production, our track record of creating a more strategic approach at senior levels, however, has been far from fruitful. Diary cancellations have been frequent and industry players have been hesitant to contribute modest sums of money to support the work.

Paris challenges

Quite remarkably however, it seems we’ve been handed a ‘get out of jail free’ card. The Paris Climate talks concluded with a partially legal binding framework, tasking each national to over-deliver on a reduction strategy to be reviewed every five years. An international agreement of this kind has never been reached before and will path the way to international rescue.

However well executed, the plan doesn’t outline a suggested role of each sector. It is our responsibility to interpret and act on that ourselves.

I believe we must collaborate and take the next steps, which are actually achievable:

  1. As individuals we must state publically that, whatever it takes, we all want a world where warming is kept below 2°C (or less)
  2. We must come together and look at the full value chain of content production, distribution and consumption, assess what is possible and what our priorities should be and move the whole industry to 100% renewable power as an absolute priority
  3. We must improve our carbon literacy rather than refusing to engage for fear of uncovering inconvenient environmental truths in our professional and personal lives
  4. Crucially, we must decide the kind of editorial cultural leadership we would like to show our audiences


Having recently surveyed the industry, gaining responses from CEOs and PMs alike, it is clear that individuals across the industry want action.


97% of our survey respondents want more action, citing access to green energy and a change to editorial portrayal of climate change as priorities. But intention must translate into action.

Talking about this inertia is ‘green dragon’ Deborah Meaden, “People shouldn’t feel tasked with behaving well. They need to be supported in understanding the obstacles we are all facing and then get on and do it. The reality is that those who don’t will risk feeling irrelevant.”

It is clear that individuals across the industry want action


“We are looking for our suppliers to support us in our corporate sustainability objectives,” adds Bal Samra, managing director of BBC Television, “The wheels towards an environmentally responsible BBC are in motion.”

If, however, we continue to solely focus on mapping the carbon footprint of our productions we will literally report ourselves into the grave. If we fail to inspire audiences to laugh, cry, gawk, and at the very least, understand climate change, then we will have let slip what is, in my mind, Europe’s largest hope at mounting an appropriate response. This is not polar bears, it is in fact the only way to do business if we seek to preserve human culture and society.

If you, like me, feel that we could be doing more, then you are not alone. We have collected signatures from our most senior industry peers who recognise the need for change. They’ve pledged their support, but action must follow. I believe that climate injustice is the greatest wrong of our time, we must think of it as we do slavery and suffrage. These historic atrocities were overcome, not by governments, but by grass roots movements, and this gives me great hope.