Of all the natural resources we use every day, paper is one that hardly provokes a second thought. The thin films of tree fibres touch nearly every facet of our lives. From the napkins around paper coffee cups to our morning newspaper, the junk mail and the bedtime book, paper is everywhere. We use more and more of it, and its impact on the environment is huge.
Paper manufacture consumes vast quantities of water. Chemicals are used to boost fast-growing monoculture plantations, and pulp mills discharge huge quantities of chemicals. In terms of energy consumption in its production, paper equals steel.
Combine this with deforestation and emissions from landfill and we find that the pulp and paper industry contributes around 10% of global carbon emissions – that's about three times global aviation emissions.
Some argue that paper consumption must grow in proportion to the size of the economy, but this is a highly simplistic view. Much of the paper we consume provides little or no economic or social value.
For example, research by Xerox revealed that office workers bin 45% of everything they print each day. And it's not just in offices that we waste huge quantities of paper. In the USA, ForestEthics calculated that the annual carbon emissions from junk mail alone were equivalent to those from more than 9m cars. This finding led top Nasa climate scientist James Hansen to back the call for a national Do Not Mail registry.
While we are increasingly aware of the emissions from our cars, how many people are cutting down on paper? How many companies correctly account for their paper footprint in their CRS reports?
ClimateforIdeas.org discovered that carbon audits carried out by the paper industry fails to take into account the true carbon emissions from deforestation associated with paper production.
The more global paper demand grows, the more land is needed to grow it. This sits alongside other demands for land, for urbanisation, agriculture and nature protection.
The more paper we use, the more these other pressures will be exacerbated. Indeed, for developing nations to follow patterns of paper consumption now prevailing in western countries, more than double the land that is already covered in monoculture plantations for paper production would be needed.
Many paper plantations are already highly contentious, especially in developing nations. This is because they have limited ecological value, use toxic chemicals and fertilisers and have devastating consequences on local livelihoods.
In common with other resources, it seems that the case for increased consumption in developing countries is very clear, and thus the case for reductions in the high-consuming countries is logically the other side of the equation. One way to characterise the choices that emerge is to weigh the necessity of there being enough school books in Uganda compared to our need for more and more junk mail to go straight in our bulging bins in the west. Stop Junk Mail is useful site help you reduce the amount of junk mail you receive, if you'd like to reduce your own paper footprint.
If there is to any chance for the sustainable management of natural resources, at the same time as providing all the world's people with their needs, then the developed world needs to lead by example in ensuring that more equitable patterns of consumption emerge.
One campaign that is dealing head-on with the issue is Shrink. This coalition is asking individuals to consume less paper and is inviting pledges from British industry to set targets to reduce their paper use by 50%. The French government is also now active on this subject. This month it will hold a workshop in conjunction with my former colleagues atAmis de la Terre to discuss how to achieve that reduction.
If Sarkozy has identified this as a problem for France, then he must see it as a problem for Europe. It would therefore be a very positive step if he were to use the tail end of his EU presidency to press for a reduced consumption target across all member states.
Reducing consumption to sustainable levels is the key and this is a challenge we all have to embrace.
Start by not printing this post, or indeed anything else, unless it's absolutely necessary. And fill your printer with recycled paper.
Originally published by The Guardian.