In February, an episode of House of Games by Richard Osman featured the following question: How many plastic bottles in the UK does the average person use per year? The show’s guests were puzzled. “Some people might get three a day,” Josie Long said. “But then I thought: children and nans, almost none.” In the end, the answer was 150, 20 more than Long’s best estimate. “Looks like that number is going to go down over the years,” Osman intoned.
It was a very short moment, and the show quickly continued. But it stuck with me. Every time I’ve hovered near a store’s refrigerated cabinet since then, Osman’s voice popped into my head. And, chastised for my addiction to single-use plastic, I walked away without water.
This was exactly the intended consequence. Because, in a very small way, the House of Games question was designed to help save the world. In January 2021, BBC Director General Tim Davie announced a plan to force all of society to drastically reduce the amount of carbon it produces, to the point where it would be zero by 2030. .
It seemed like a huge task, because television has always been a wasteful industry. Carrying out programs often involves travel (often by plane or car), huge consumption of energy (in the form of lamps, generators and satellite trucks, among others) and piles of waste. Last year, a Royal Television Society panel revealed that every hour of television produced creates a carbon footprint of 9.2 tonnes, equivalent to the total annual consumption of two households. And it’s in all genres. If you’re doing drama, quadruple that number.
Fortunately, work is underway to change that. If you’ve watched many UK TV shows until the end of the credits, you’ll often see a footstep logo saying ‘Albert Sustainable Production Certification’ in the corner of the screen. This is a sign that production has taken steps to implement sustainable techniques to reduce emissions.
Albert started life as a BBC initiative in 2011, his name being an EastEnders reference, but was quickly transferred to Bafta for the good of the wider industry. To qualify for Albert certification, productions must use a carbon calculator to predict their footprint (all UK-made BBC, ITV, Channel 4, UKTV, Sky and Netflix shows must register their footprints on the calculator), before making a plan to cut as much as possible.
Albert’s communications manager, Genevieve Margrett, was involved from the start and remembers the resistance she encountered at the time from production teams. “In 2011, there was a lot of goodwill, a lot of interest,” she says. “But, also, a lot of the production managers just looked at me, horrified. They were kind of like, ‘What? Sharing our footprint when we have so much to do? We’re already shooting at full speed! He didn’t was particularly well received.”
The following years saw a change in behavior. The Albert Toolkit has become a normal part of the television production process, and these same production managers are showing more initiative in their approach to reducing emissions. “When we started,” Margrett recalls, “it was like, ‘Oh, we reduced our footprint because we give everyone a reusable water bottle.’ It was really basic stuff. But the productions are really quite sophisticated now, with the way they try to tackle the carbon footprint.
Last year, Springwatch fueled its entire list of outdoor emissions with a hydrogen generator, whose clean energy emits only water and heat as byproducts. DIY SOS is another show that also does an impressive job of producing eco-friendly TV. “On one of their builds, they negotiated with the local water utility to put an extra pipe out of the main facility, so water from the mains could come straight to where they were shooting” , explains Sally Mills, head of sustainable development at the BBC. Studios. As a result, they were able to drastically reduce the amount of plastic they used for catering and drinking water, even if it meant cumbersome administrative negotiations with utility companies. “That sort of thing takes time and effort, but productions are pretty committed and incentivized to try to innovate.”
To bring Richard Osman back into the equation, many of Albert’s initiatives go beyond the off-screen logistics of television production. It’s also about what happens on the screen. Last month Albert released a tool for editorial teams to ensure that reducing carbon emissions remains at the center of what people see in their homes. Slipping a question about single-use plastics into a whimsical BBC Two game show during the day is just one example. The same goes for The One Show doing Earth Day segments, or including scenes where EastEnders characters discuss energy suppliers. When Blue Peter launches a green badge to reward eco-friendly behavior or Casualty introduces a fleet of electric ambulances, it all helps remind viewers of the impact they have on the world.
Even the Love Island sponsorship is expected to drive more sustainable behavior, having replaced its fast fashion sponsor with eBay. “There’s research to show that searches for particular dresses worn on screen increased massively after each episode,” Margrett says. “But now they’ve turned to eBay, it could have a really positive impact on people looking and thinking about second-hand clothes.”
The biggest and most explicit example of change on screen is the BBC’s natural history unit, which now regularly includes unvarnished portrayals of humanity’s impact on the environment in its contents. A 2018 study showed that following Blue Planet II’s devastating call to action on plastic choking the seas, 88% of viewers attempted to change their behavior. What makes this bittersweet, however, is that the BBC’s wildlife shows seem to be particularly carbon-heavy to make. Producers and crew have to travel around the world to film their subjects and often have to zoom around in helicopters to take aerial photos.
“There is a lot of travel,” concedes Danielle Mulder, director of sustainability at the BBC. “But we apply thoughtful green travel where possible. Obviously, flying is a challenge. But the teams use local contractors in other countries as much as possible. Covid has also helped the organization embrace remote working, she adds, with companies like Zoom reducing the number of trips needed.
“Over the past few years, they’ve pioneered a few smart ways to use drones that save on carbon emissions,” says Mills. “We have a database where we share knowledge of the local team, so wherever possible we share people working on different productions in the same place at the same time.”
My big concern about this move to net zero – and stick with me on this – has always been succession. The drama of power and wealth is a big, expensive series that effectively acts like a traveling circus, traveling the world as lavishly as possible. It’s also the best thing on TV. If broadcasters aim to reduce portrayals of people with high-emission lifestyles, does that mean a writer who came to a UK media company with the next Succession would be rejected?
Not so fast, Margrett said. “Yes, Succession portrays a very carbon-rich lifestyle, but the characters depicted in it are obviously not really the people you aspire to be,” she says. “Also, a really interesting thing that came out of Succession is the character of James Cromwell [Ewan Roy], Logan’s brother. He is a great environmentalist. The show had a plot where he takes all the inheritance that was going to go to Greg, and he gives it to Greenpeace instead. And in real life, it’s caused an upsurge of people trying to figure out how they can leave money to Greenpeace too.
There are seven and a half years left before the target date of 2030, and the progress made so far is remarkable. But net zero is a big order. Can it be done? “I’m confident we’re making progress,” Mulder said. “But it’s not easy, and it’s going to get harder, to be honest with you. We’ve had some quick wins, and switching our fleet to electric vehicles will be another big win that we can chase after. this, you enter into the specificities of particular buildings, the gas consumption of this building and its energy optimization.
The closer we get to 2030, the more granular the work will become. But time is running out and the industry is more determined than ever to make net zero a reality. “It’s not just a to-do list,” says Mills. “It’s part of our DNA. It is the core of who we are.