Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to produce figures showing the carbon footprint of the knowledge industry – from creation to distribution and use of knowledge, and to provide comparative figures for digital distribution and access. Design/methodology/approach – An extensive literature search and environmental scan was conducted to produce data relating to the CO2 emissions from various industries and activities such as book and journal production, photocopying activities, information technology and the internet. Other sources such as the International Energy Agency (IEA), Carbon Monitoring for Action (CARMA ), Copyright Licensing Agency, UK (CLA), Copyright Agency Limited, Australia (CAL), etc., have been used to generate emission figures for production and distribution of print knowledge products versus digital distribution and access. Findings – The current practices for production and distribution of printed knowledge products generate an enormous amount of CO2. It is estimated that the book industry in the UK and USA alone produces about 1.8 million tonnes and about 11.27 million tonnes of CO2 respectively. CO2 emission for the worldwide journal publishing industry is estimated to be about 12 million tonnes. It is shown that the production and distribution costs of digital knowledge products are negligible compared to the environmental costs of production and distribution of printed knowledge products. Practical implications – Given the astounding emission figures for production and distribution of printed knowledge products, and the associated activities for access and distribution of these products, for example, emissions from photocopying activities permitted within the provisions of statutory licenses provided by agencies like CLA, CAL, etc., it is proposed that a digital distribution and access model is the way forward, and that such a system will be environmentally sustainable. Originality/value – It is expected that the findings of this study will pave the way for further research and this paper will be extremely helpful for design and development of the future knowledge distribution and access systems.