The contribution of the paper cycle to global warming

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Abstract

Worldwide, paper production is a major industry that contributes about 3 percent of Gross World Product. The paper cycle involves a broad range of natural resource and environmental impacts because fiber supply relies on trees, paper manufacturing requires fuel inputs, and paper waste disposal can contribute to emissions of the potent greenhouse gas (GHG), methane (CH4). In some countries, the paper cycle may be seen as a net sink for GHG because of reliance on renewable wood by-products and the maintenance of forest plantations. On a worldwide basis, however, this study demonstrates that the paper cycle is a significant contributor to GHG emissions, adding emissions at least comparable in magnitude to that of Australia each year. The estimated global warming contribution of paper in landfills is estimated to be similar to that of paper manufacturing processes, on a heating-equivalent basis. In some temperate regions, original old-growth forests are still harvested to supply pulpwood, resulting in a significant loss of carbon (C) storage. In theory, the paper cycle holds the promise of achieving zero net emissions if pulpwood production, consumption and disposal are carefully managed. In practice, even stabilization of emissions at current levels would be challenging and entail changes comparable to a 20 percent reduction in CH4 generation from landfilled paper, and a 2.5 percent annual increase in plantation establishment would be needed to offset the projected increase in emissions from paper manufacturing.