Emission impossible: Why Hollywood is one of the worst polluters

Hollywood is very good at sanctimonious environmental-disaster movies like The Day After Tomorrow. But, says Kaleem Aftab, it is one of the worst polluters

Friday 16 November 2007 01:00 GMT

Whenever I visit a movie set it, always amazes me how much environmental damage is wrought in the name of entertainment. From the generators to the caterers delivering food onto set, making a film eats up energy like no other art form.

The activities of Leonardo DiCaprio, Cate Blanchett, George Clooney and Harrison Ford, to name a few, in promoting green issues and supporting bodies such as Greenpeace have, on the surface at least, made film-making seem environmentally conscious. But their time would be better spent helping to clean up the movie industry itself.

A study into the environmental impact of film-making in Hollywood, conducted by the University of California, showed that, in the Los Angeles region, it made a larger contribution, in relation to its size, to air pollution than most major industries, including aerospace manufacturing, clothing, and the hotel industry. Only fuel refining belched more emissions.

Researchers considered the emissions that were created directly and indirectly by the film and television industry. Factored into the equation were emissions created power plants providing electricity to a studio lot and the air miles run up by actors and directors.

Film-makers rarely take the environment into consideration. Yet to put in measures that would reduce pollutantswould probably save money.

There is an attitude, especially in medium- to big-budget films, that it is better to have things on hand just in case, rather than simply order in advance what is actually needed. An example of this arose when I recently spoke to the Danish director Suzanne Bier, whose first Hollywood film Things We Lost in the Fire had its UK premiere at the London Film Festival. She told me: "It was so nice to have all the lenses in a truck outside, so that when I needed a lens I could just ask for it, rather than the night before having to make plans and check that the specific lens was ordered and delivered." So Bier would have an enormous truck that would follow her from location to location or sit idling at a studio.

There has in recent years started to be an attempt by film-makers to address the problem. It has been nearly all the time in cases of films concerning environmental subjects. The Day After Tomorrow is a natural-disaster movie in which abrupt climate and weather change causes environmental disasters around the globe. It was directed by Roland Emmerich, who sought to ensure that production would not contribute to global warming by offsetting the carbon footprint of the film and by taking measures to reduce its environmental impact. Emmerich paid for this himself and also encouraged his agents, UTA, to become carbon neutral.

Other films have begun to follow suit – Syriana, An Inconvenient Truth and The Nativity Story – but measures are usually only taken when a significant component of the film, such as a director, star actor, or producer demands action.

The emissions of a film do not stop once the cameras stop rolling, especially for big-budget productions where journalists, stars and publicists will often fly around the world as part of promotion; though Sony, for one event during the last Spider-Man 3 tour, took measures to ensure that the production of all print material for the event was carbon neutral.

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The Matrix sequels went further than just considering the environmental impact of carbon emissions. The ReUse People, a non-profit organisation, was employed to recycle material used for the construction of the sets. As a result, 97.5 per cent was recycled. One thousand five hundred tons of lumber was reused in housing for low-income families in Mexico and all the steel was reused.

The film was shot in Alameda and the Alameda Waste Management Authority worked out that 11,000 tons were diverted from the landfill, which would have represented 10 per cent of the total solid waste for the city of Alameda that year.

In the UK the situation is far worse. I recently produced a short film that was commissioned by Film4 and the Film Council, and was surprised to learn that there was no provision made for any potential environmental impact of making the piece. The same is true for the BBC. Indeed, the reaction when you ask anyone in the industry about reducing environmental damage is generally a blank stare. There is a culture of denial about the damage being caused by film-making in the UK.

I asked the Film Council if they'd ever commissioned any research into the subject and, having first been told no, a statement contained in a report conducted by Oxford Economics in a paper on "The Economic Impact of the UK Film Industry" was provided as the only assessment done in the UK on the environmental impact of film-making. One of its key points was that: "The film industry is one of the UK's most carbon-friendly sectors."

Amazed at this finding, I rushed to the section dealing with the carbon footprint. The first line was: "There are no direct carbon estimates of the carbon footprint of the UK film industry." The information was initially based on the results of the study that, in the United States, led to a recognition that film-making had a worse polluting impact than most other industries. The one graph in the report shows film-making at the bottom of the list.

However, and more worryingly, the figure that praises the lack of a carbon footprint in the UK film industry is extrapolated from findings for The Day After Tomorrow – a film made in the US and praised for the environmental consciousness of the film-makers. It's little wonder that the section ends with the statement: "clearly there are a significant number of assumptions".

The technology to make films that have very little environmental impact is available. These include not using cine-film, using lights that run from usual outputs rather than generators, recycling at every opportunity, using local restaurants to eat at rather than ordering catering, and reducing the size of a crew.

For the short film, and a feature called This is What It Is, which I produced, we've refused to get a print made because there are other, less environmentally damaging, ways of projecting it.

The film industry is in a remarkable position where making environmentally conscious decisions is likely to make production cheaper rather than more expensive.

There is a slow awareness growing of the damage that film-making, especially movies shot on celluloid, is doing to the environment in the UK. Film London is taking a lead in getting the issue addressed in the capital. Annabelle Chalker of the organisation says: "Film London's approach to helping support film-makers address the challenges that climate change brings has been to commission research to assess the scale of the challenge facing production in London and looking at good practice.

"Using this research, one of the first things we will do [in spring next year] is to produce an online guide giving tips to productions on how to reduce energy and recycle. Other activity may include networking events (building on work we already do), and as part of our locations-advice service we are examining what additional support we may need to offer."

Despite this, for now, it is individual film-makers who will have to take the lead in stopping the damage that films make off-screen being more destructive than the action depicted on it.

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