Saturday’s Independent splashed with a story based on a study by the Carbon Trust which found that the average Briton’s annual carbon footprint is 10.92 tons of CO2.

All very worthy, but isn’t it time the newspapers ask some serious questions about their own role in this?

After all, newspaper publishing must be a pretty carbon-intensive industry. It can’t be great for the environment to slaughter CO2-gulping forests to produce the newsprint needed for an industrial process that produces hundreds of thousands of copies of a product which is distributed by fuel-belching planes, trains and lorries before before consumers send them on, after brief and partial perusal, to the landfill.

And that doesn’t even include the cost of reporters jetting around the world on assignment.

All we know from the Carbon Trust study is that each consumers’ “education” — including the production of books and newspapers — accounts for about 0.49 tons of carbon per year.

But we may soon find out more details about the environmental impact of newspaper publishing. The Indy also reports that UK newspaper group Trinity Mirror is working with Carbon Trust to produce a carbon audit of their supply chain.

What about the Internet?

Lest anyone reads this as the smug environmentalism of a new media guy who likes to joke about dead trees, it would be nice to add an online publisher to the list of companies undertaking a carbon audit.

There seems to be growing awareness about the environmental impact of Internet use, including both consumers’ PCs and the industrial-scale electricity-consumption of the enormous data warehouses where most web servers are stored.

The issue was summed up nicely in a few paragraphs of a recent Wired magazine article about the major search engines’ vast data centres: operations VP Dayne Sampson estimates that the five leading search companies together have some 2 million servers, each shedding 300 watts of heat annually, a total of 600 megawatts. These are linked to hard drives that dissipate perhaps another gigawatt. Fifty percent again as much power is required to cool this searing heat, for a total of 2.4 gigawatts. With a third of the incoming power already lost to the grid’s inefficiencies, and half of what’s left lost to power supplies, transformers, and converters, the total of electricity consumed by major search engines in 2006 approaches 5 gigawatts.

That’s an impressive quantity of electricity. Five gigawatts is almost enough to power the Las Vegas metropolitan area – with all its hotels, casinos, restaurants, and convention centers – on the hottest day of the year. So the annual operation of the world’s petascale search machines constitutes a Vegas-sized power sump. In the next year or so, it could add a dog-day Atlantic City. Air-conditioning will be the prime cost and conundrum of the petascale era. As energy analysts Peter Huber and Mark Mills projected in 1999, the planetary machine is on track to be consuming half of all the world’s output of electricity by the end of this decade.

Another calculation, by Russell Seitz, estimates that the internet may have 75 to 100 million servers consuming 350 to 550 watts each. This works out at 40GW of energy consumption.

Putting this starkly into perspective, Nicholas Carr this week suggested that because Linden Lab needs 4,000 servers that host its fast-growing online metaverse Second Life, *virtual *avatars consume nearly as much electricity per capita as the average real-life Brazillian. A commenter on his blog estimated that the 1,752 kWH annual power consumption per avatar is the equivalent of about 1.17 tons of CO2.

Carr began with the question “Is Second Life ecologically sustainable“. But there’s nothing particularly noxious about Linden Lab’s 4,000 servers, which could also be hosting, say, newspaper web sites. A more serious question might be whether the growth of the Internet per se is ecologically sustainable.

(Hat tip: Smart Mobs via Robin Hamman)