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FEATURE: CDKN – Reducing the environmental footprint of our publications

Mairi Dupar shares lessons from CDKN’s seven years of feedback from developing country audiences about how they use our publications. She charts CDKN’s constant search for the most environmentally sustainable choices.

CDKN is frequently challenged by its donors and by partners in the global North to abandon hard copy publications altogether and only publish digitally. The UNFCCC has adopted ‘papersmart’ conferences for the past few years, whereby all conference documentation is available online but is not printed en masse. On the face of it, the reasons for going digital are obvious: conventional printing is a dirty industry.

Printing demands significant amounts of energy as well as materials (paper, ink and so on) and generates substantial chemical pollution in its use of volatile organic compounds (VOCs). When you print large volumes in a conventional ‘offset lithograph’ process, vast amounts of water are required (for smaller runs, a less water-hungry process is involved.) The printing industry’s environmental impact is so great, in fact, that Det Norsk Veritas, a business assurance organisation, ranks it in the same environmental risk category as mining, nuclear and oil. CDKN is a programme committed to a low carbon future and to greater environmental sustainability – and so surely ‘going digital’ is the only natural choice?

If only it were that straightforward. Over seven years, CDKN has gathered a lot of experience about how our target audiences consume different kinds of content. This has helped us to refine our strategies and avoid printing whenever possible. But it also led us to the decision to find the most eco-friendly printer possible and to print hard copies of our 200 page book: Mainstreaming climate compatible development (also available as a digibook here). Here are some of our key lessons from experience, and why we decided to print some copies of this book:

  • Printing short ‘factsheet’ and ‘announcement’ type publications is typically a waste of resources and should be avoided. Reader, I’m sure you have attended conferences that have been littered with one-page flyers and handouts, which announce events the next day, or the objectives of a project or programme, and are found trampled on the floor or in rubbish bins. We occasionally suffered from this syndrome in the past and have seen others suffer from it. We quickly learned that business card or postcard-sized pieces with concentrated, vital contact information have a role to play. But any other information of a short length and/or with a short shelf life is best presented digitally. For example, promote your event or day’s news story via a social media campaign. Posters have also worked well (rather than handouts) for promoting online content in the offline world – there’s generally been poor uptake of ‘QR codes’ when we’ve printed those on posters, but when we display short urls like ‘’,  conference-goers are more than happy to snap a photo with their smartphone.
  • The majority of audiences are calling for long-lived, reference-type material in hard copy, eventually. We have tried offering long technical and reference volumes only as digibooks but our readers consistently say they want to print them, anyway. We have trialled digibooks several times: for the CDKN book Mainstreaming climate compatible development, the Planning for NDC Implementation: Quick Start Guide and Reference Manual and the Future Climate for Africa flagship report Africa’s climate: Helping decision-makers make sense of climate information. We invited readers to email us their comments and the constant refrain was: “Please offer a pdf version so I can print your book and re-read it easily.” It’s not that the digital versions are unpopular. On the contrary, the digital guide to NDC implementation has been visited some 10,000 times since its launch last year. However, in all of these cases, we were overwhelmed with requests for a pdf version that readers could print themselves.
  • Our target audience is so diverse that it is exceptionally hard to make assumptions about our readers’ energy and materials use and associated greenhouse gas emissions.  The above experiences indicate that CDKN’s readers are printing a lot of our reference material in their homes and offices, to read later offline and/or to pass to colleagues and students. There are tried and trusted methodologies we could use to calculate the environmental footprint of our readers’ printing our materials, but they’d be riddled with assumptions and it’s difficult to come up with general assumptions about our readers’ energy, chemical and paper use. What is the source of the energy they are using for printing – is it renewable or from a high emission source? How energy efficient are their computers and printers? What kind of paper and inks are they using in their homes and offices and what are the environmental credentials? All of these factors have a large influence on the environmental footprint of readers’ printing behaviours and vary between people and organisations, even within the same country or region.

In the absence of imperfect information about our readers’ environmental footprints, but armed with general evidence that our readers want hard copies of our reference materials, CDKN decided to take a ‘digital first’ approach with our most recent edition of the book Mainstreaming climate compatible development, but to make hard copies available to those who said they really needed them. Then, we tried to make those hard copies as eco-friendly as we possibly could.

More sustainable printing

We have teamed up with a multiple award-winning printer Seacourt Ltd in Oxfordshire, UK for a limited print run. Seacourt Ltd has reduced energy, water and materials use throughout its entire print cycle, uses only recycled paper and vegetable based inks, etc, has zero chemical pollution and waste to landfill, and offsets any remaining greenhouse gas emissions for ‘zero carbon’ impact. By commissioning hard copies this way, we have tried to optimise our environmental sustainability while offering the greatest use value for our readers.

What is more, CDKN is not shipping any of these books internationally, but we are hand-carrying them to meetings and conferences where we are targeting very carefully the people we want to give them to, thus eradicating unneeded distribution-related emissions.

“By cutting water and toxic chemicals out of our printing process, we have been able to reduce VOC emissions by 98.5% and saved over eight million litres of fresh water over the past 16 years,” said Seacourt Director Gareth Dinnage. These innovations, along with Seacourt’s very early adoption of carbon neutrality and closed loop production, have earned it three Queen’s Sustainability Awards over the past 20 years.

CDKN’s financial cost was slightly more for using this extremely eco-friendly process, which internalises all environmental costs, compared to conventional alternatives. But given the environmental harm caused by conventional methods, and the renewed commitment to sustainability that we all carry after the Paris Summit, we believe this is absolutely the right thing to do – you can’t think about it in conventional accounting terms at all.

In the future, we aim to adopt this eco-friendly print method on an ‘only when needed’ basis. We strongly recommend that other programmes similar to CDKN’s follow our rules of thumb. Reach out to us if you want more information!


For more information on CDKN publications, please contact: Mairi Dupar, CDKN Global Public Affairs Coordinator:

Image: Daphne Amevenu of CDKN shares a reference copy of ‘Africa’s climate’ with a governmental visitor to CDKN’s exhibition stand at UNFCCC COP22 in Marrakech. Photo: Mairi Dupar




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