This March, movies like Oppenheimer, Barbie, and Killers of the Flower Moon will battle it out at the Oscars, competing for the film industry’s highest academy awards. While the main focus is on the movies that will bring home the most awards for artistic and technical merit, behind the curtains a growing movement within the film industry is vying for a different kind of impact: reducing filmmaking’s carbon and waste footprint.

Every year, the global entertainment industry generates millions of metric tons of CO2. Depending on the size of the production, movies can emit on average between 391 metric tons for a small film and up to 3,370 metric tons of CO2 equivalents for large, tentpole productions such as Oppenheimer or Barbie—that’s the equivalent of powering 656 homes for a year.

And for people working in the industry, the climate effects are concerning. In 2021, the Producers Guild of America issued an industry-wide call for a transition to clean energy. “Climate change is impacting our productions. Our health and safety, and filming locations are being irreparably damaged by increased pollution, wildfires, floods, storms, and droughts,” they wrote. “The sustainability measures currently being taken in our industry are sporadic and wholly inadequate to meet the current level of threat.”

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For over a decade, a growing movement of producers, streamers, and private companies have been trying to reduce that impact. In 2010, the Producers Guild of America Green committee and the Sustainable Production Alliance (SPA), an industry-led organization working to reduce the environmental impact of the film and TV industry, created the Green Production Guide, a toolkit for sustainable productions. In the U.K., Albert, the environmental organization that has been working since 2011 to green the TV and film industry created an “in your role” guide in 2021 with ideas of what each department can do to reduce emissions and increase the sustainability of their projects. The Environmental Media Association, a U.S.-based organization that gives awards for environmental content as well as sustainability practices, developed the Green Seal program in 2004 as a way to honor productions that achieve a certain level of environmental sustainability.

In the last several years, as businesses commit to more stringent climate targets, interest in the field has grown.

“There has been an increased interest in how to make productions more sustainable,” said Sam Read, executive director of SPA. “There is an increased focus on measuring and reducing emissions from a corporate and industry perspective, and as more companies are committing to that, we are providing the tools.”

Examples of small changes abound. The Peasants, an animated film from the Oscar-nominated team behind 2017’s Loving Vincent, used cardboard to create on-site sets rather than wood— cardboard is a more climate-friendly option because it requires less materials to create, is lighter, and easier to recycle. And the Amazing Spider-Man 2, whose production was lauded for its sustainability practices in 2014, saved 193,000 disposable plastic water bottles and avoided 52% of its waste going to landfills by focusing on reusing and recycling materials. Alongside less waste, Doug Belgrad, president of Columbia Pictures, which produced the film, also estimated that the team’s sustainability practices saved more $400,000 in costs.

“We build these little worlds that are not meant to last and then we tear them down,” says Emellie O’Brien, CEO and founder of Earth Angel, the sustainable production services company that helped make the Amazing Spider-Man 2 the most eco-friendly tentpole movie at that time. “Can we use different materials? Can we recycle those materials better? Looking at supply chains is a big piece of that work,” she says.

But swapping out materials and recycling only go so far, and materials only represent a small part of a movie’s carbon footprint. The biggest cause of greenhouse gas emissions on sets is fuel used for transport and electricity, says O’Brien. “Most sets have a bunch of idling trucks and generators because we are basically a traveling circus. Around 30% of fuel goes just to power massive generators, and a big chunk of the rest to transportation.” Reducing that impact means better calculating the size of generators needed, using electric vehicles for transport, and using electric generators where possible.

Read more: Imagine if Hollywood Actually Made Realistic Climate Stories

Part of the challenge, though, is getting accurate numbers on emission in the first place. In 2004, the action drama The Day After Tomorrow made movie history by putting climate change at the forefront of its storyline. Beyond its cinematic impact, the film also pioneered environmental responsibility by becoming the first to calculate and offset the 10,000 metric tons of carbon it emitted during the film’s production. Since then, emissions calculations have gotten more accurate, but emissions are largely self-reported and voluntary, and rigorous data on the industry’s emissions is still lacking. The best overview of the industry’s emissions remains a 2006 University of California Los Angeles study that estimated that the industry produced on average around 15 million metric tons of CO2 a year.

Groups like SPA are attempting to change that. “What we have been focused on to date is emissions from productions themselves,” says Read. The organization has started releasing reports on the carbon emissions from the industry. The studies show that carbon emissions differ quite drastically depending on location. According to a 2022 regional analysis, a 1-hour scripted drama episode emits 41 metric tons of CO2 when filmed in L.A. versus 68 metric tons in New York, and 136 metric tons in Atlanta (much of that difference depends on how much fossil fuels make up a grid’s energy source.) That’s the equivalent of going from the emissions released by nine gas-powered cars driving for a year to 30 cars.

While the industry is still figuring out the true extent of its climate impact, that hasn’t slowed down efforts to go green. “There is an increased focus on this from a corporate and industry perspective,” says Read. “There is a lot of innovation ground on.” For example, Disney, Netflix, and RMI are working together to develop clean mobile power solutions to replace diesel generators. In New York, a group of stakeholders has helped to make renewable diesel—made from used cooking oils, fats, and soybean oil—available for diesel trucks for film production and delivery services. “On the screen, everyone is competing for eyeballs,” says Read, “but when it comes to sustainability, people are working together to overcome some of the biggest challenges.”

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