The environmental cost of landscape photgraphy


How often do you read that a landscape photographer hopes his or her pictures will help protect the environment – arguing that, if shown beauty or rarity, decision makers and the public will be encouraged to preserve it. This laudable aim has just two problems – it is rarely (if ever) backed up by evidence that it works; and the getting of the photographs itself inevitably contributes to environmental degradation. Don’t misunderstand – this is not preaching, I too want to take photos in pristine places. But let’s aim for honesty, and to minimise that degradation.

I’ll consider three types of cost (I mean cost to the environment, not your wallet). The first is the cost of making the hardware; the second getting to the location; the third the impact on the location. I’ll focus on emissions of carbon dioxide, the major driver of climate change, but will mention some other significant impacts.

The kit. I’ll restrict myself to camera body, lenses and computers. The key concept is lifecycle costing – that is, the costs of first making and then using each piece of kit, totalled over its lifetime. Sadly, it seems impossible to get complete information, but The United Nations University has calculated that to make a PC plus monitor takes 240 kg of fossil fuels (http://update.unu.edu/archive/issue31_5.htm). Whilst laptops are smaller, they typically have a shorter life, so the lifecycle cost of using them will be less favourable than you might hope. The cost of running a computer can be considerable. The energy use of a PC is 60 - 250 W per h and a laptop 15-45 (sleep mode is less than 5 W); running a PC all year without switching it off at night emits about 0.5 tonnes of CO2.
What does it cost to make a DSLR? I have no idea, and nor did Nikon UK when I asked them. However, as a digital camera is basically a computer with a lens on the front, let’s guess it is the same, weight for weight, as a PC, and totals 2 kg. It would then be 20 kg of fossil fuels – about 60 kg of CO2 emitted. The plastics are produced from petroleum. Glass for the lenses is manufactured from sand, limestone and soda ash at high temperatures, and in addition to the 200 kg CO2 emitted per tonne of glass product by heating to bring about melting, the limestone and soda ash are carbonates and emit CO2 during melting, releasing 185 kg of CO2 per tonne of glass product. (http://www.glass-ts.com/News/PressArchive/PressReleases6.html). Then the glass has to be shaped into lenses and set in a metal and plastic body; these costs are probably similar to any other light industry. Running the camera needs batteries, many containing lithium. Mining and processing 1 kg of lithium uses 700 MJ of energy (http://www.esu-services.ch/index.php?id=106). Thankfully, charging batteries is low-cost – especially if using solar power.

Making a PC and monitor uses 22 kg of chemicals (such as aluminium, antimony, arsenic, barium, beryllium, bromine, cadmium, chromium, cobalt, copper, gallium, gold, indium, iron, lead, manganese, mercury, palladium, platinum, selenium, silver, tungsten and zinc; some are toxic, all have to be mined, extracted, used and disposed of or recycled ) and 1,500 kg of water (http://update.unu.edu/archive/issue31_5.htm ). A DSLR will contain similar metals. The glass of lenses often contains lanthanum, and the coatings may include metal oxides and fluorides. The toxicity of metals in camera and computer is a major problem after disposal, as stripping them down for components is often done by unprotected workers in poor countries.

So photography is totally dependent on the extraction and mining of petroleum and a wide range of metals, some toxic. If we change our computer and camera body every 3 years, that’s about 100 kg CO2 per year we’re each emitting, and even careful computer use will add about another 100 kg per year: total, 0.2 tonnes of CO2 per year.

Travel costs. I’ll ignore, with reluctance, the embodied energy (that used to make the vehicle) in a car or a 747, and stay with journey costs. These are figures from DEFRA ( http://www.defra.gov.uk/statistics/files/Release_carbon_footprint_08Mar12.pdf) in kg CO2e (CO2-equivalent, allowing for other greenhouse gases emitted too, such as oxides of nitrogen) per passenger km:

  • • rail 0.060
    • long haul flight 0.106
    • bus 0.107
    • small diesel car 0.151
    • domestic flight 0.158
    • large petrol car or 4X4 0.296

Thus you can fly to New York and back (11,200 km) for 1.18 tonnes of CO2e, or for the same emissions you could drive a small diesel car 7,860 km (about 5,000 miles) – or half that distance for a large vehicle. Clearly these figures are much larger than the costs of replacing camera and computer, which are together equivalent to driving a small diesel car just 700 km – travel is where our impact on climate change is greatest.

Now an average individual in Wales, where I live, is associated with about 12.7 tonnes of CO2e emissions annually, which includes emissions made on our behalf – for example by industry making the things we buy or the buildings we use. Each individual’s direct domestic emissions are about 2.7, and transport emissions 2.1, tonnes of CO2. So either a single long-haul flight (1.88 tonnes to Los Angeles and back), or driving a typical mileage (19,000 km per year in the UK, emitting 3.88 tonnes from an average size car), would be a very significant contribution to your total.

Sadly it can be impractical to reach good locations by public transport at the right time of day and carrying enough kit. This means that we probably we need to drive, but we must be very honest about the consequences of what we are doing.

The location. You have a direct effect on your location; you trample, erode, disturb wildlife, even if you don’t ‘garden’ your close ups, approach animals with young, or put out bait. And there is a simple dilemma: if you are following in the footsteps of others (now exactly where did X take that picture of Ben Nevis?) you add to previous impact; if you go off trail your impact is on previously little spoilt terrain. Perhaps a beach between the tide limits, refreshed at each tide, is as near as we can get to zero impact. Then there is the indirect effect. If your pictures are seen and admired, how many others, photographers or not, will seek out your location? Perhaps groups will visit. Perhaps those with less knowledge of or care for the animals and habitat will be more intrusive. Perhaps a path will begin to appear… Is there evidence for any of this? There are certainly honeypots for both landscape and wildlife photographers. It may well be that the best photographers are actively seeking fresh views and locations, which may start to popularise them. Moreover, the best photographers are probably those who first reconnoitre and then return, perhaps several times, for the shot – increasing impact.

There is some, but very little, objective study of our impact. In the USA there is a history of comparing the impacts of consumptive (hunters, fishers) and non-consumptive (also called appreciative – the rest of us including photographers) groups of ‘recreational wilderness users’. Although mostly anecdote, often the experience of reserve managers, these studies show that undoubtedly we do affect the places we visit.

Improving. Let’s forget the evasions – offsetting carbon costs (eg by tree planting) and greenwash (typically, trumpeting an environmentally friendly feature that is insignificant compared with the whole impact). Let’s be real and responsible. Let’s cast a cold eye on the magazines that claim environmental concern while advertising photo safaris in distant lands. How do we, individually, improve? Think of your total emissions, and how to reduce them. Change your gear less often, perhaps by buying the best you can rather than as much as you can. A really, really good lens may last you 20 years, a good tripod longer. Don’t just dump old kit, resell it or give it someone who can use it with all its embodied energy and metals. The fate of the latter is a serious concern.

Where you photograph affects climate change more, much more, than what you photograph with. So does your computer use. All this puts the decisions about impact firmly with each of us. Think of your CO2 emissions as if they are a bank account – you have just so much you can spend, and no more. If you want to fly, then drive less, drive a small car, turn your PC off when it’s not in use, turn down the central heating, buy less, and eat less meat – or any other action that reduces your emissions enough to allow you to fly. If you want to drive huge mileages, don’t fly, and also reduce other sources of emissions. There are carbon calculators on the web that help you take informed decisions.

Of course, all of us in rich countries are responsible for emitting amounts of CO2 that are both unsustainable (they’re driving climate change) and unfair (they’re far higher than most of the world’s population). We need to work to reduce our individual emissions to an amount that would not drive more climate change if everyone emitted that much; this is called ‘contract and converge’ (http://www.gci.org.uk/index.html ).

On location, we should tread softly, literally and metaphorically. No photo is worth a disturbed animal or trampled rare plant; leave no trace.

Photographically speaking, there is a real positive in all this, or rather, two positives. First, being aware and respectful of the place we are in not only helps preserve it but also increases our sensitivity to it and thus the quality of the pictures we take. Second, many people acknowledge that they take their best photos near home – places they know well, and can access when the light is just right. So environmental responsibility and better photos may, happily, go together.

Am I good at this? Not as good as I should be, although I’m convinced that the UK has quite enough visual interest to make journeys overseas unnecessary. And lastly: if you want to see how the world of photography sees its priorities, just try googling ‘photography carbon footprint’. What you get is how to photograph the idea of a carbon footprint – but not how to reduce it. Surely we can do better?