Increasingly, bank statements, airline tickets and coffee-shop receipts are sent digitally in brand image–savvy efforts to ‘go paperless.’ And yet global consumption of paper is still climbing steadily, having exceeded 400 million tons in 2018, according to the Environmental Paper Network (EPN).
“It’s not the industry’s fault that they’re supplying the demands of societies that have gone berserk in their consumption,” says Peg Putt, former parliamentarian and Green Party leader in the Australian state of Tasmania.
“We really do need to work on demand, and this is where using recycled paper rather than virgin paper from virgin pulp and cutting back on paper use become very important.”
Having advocated for forest conservation for more than 30 years, Peg Putt has long been a champion of responsible pulp and paper. She currently continues to watch the industry through the EPN, which promotes fairer distribution of paper use, responsible business practices, and industry commitment to transparency and integrity, both socially and environmentally.
Her work hasn’t always been paper-smooth. In 2005, Gunns Limited, Australia’s largest woodchip exporter in operation between 1875 and 2013, pressed charges against 17 environmental activists and three organizations who expressed opposition to Gunns’ plans to build a USD 2.3 billion pulp mill in the old-growth forests of Tasmania’s Tamar Valley. The company said the collective 20 – including Putt – were conspiring to ruin the company.
Gunns ultimately lost the case, dropped their charges against Putt, and were ordered to pay damages to some defendants – a formative moment in Putt’s career.
“What we learned was that corporate bullies need to be exposed, and that our best chance of defense was exposing what was actually going on rather than hiding in fear,” says Putt. She added that the lawsuit made Tasmanians aware of what was at stake, such as losing their homes and livelihoods if Gunns won the case.
She says the conversion of forests to accommodate pulp and paper production often comes with devastating ramifications – not only to biodiversity but also to dispossessed Indigenous peoples and local communities, particularly in developing countries.
One possible way for companies to improve their practices is “to focus pulp and paper production in the big consuming centers, where you can get a lot of recycling material out of the community straight into mills and back into the community, rather than locating mills in the forests and continuing to destroy them,” Putt proposes.
In her working group at the EPN, Putt also seeks to dispel industry-propagated myths such as those claiming all forest products as “renewable” or biomass energy as a “carbon neutral” climate change solution.
“It seems intuitively obvious that if you cut a tree down, it grows back, and presumably everything’s equal. But not only is that simplistic – it’s wrong. Few cut a natural forest ecosystem to produce anything but short-lived products like forest biomass for energy. Then you’d release big emissions immediately into the atmosphere,” she says.
To exemplify this, Putt points to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) special report released in late 2018 that prescribed a 12-year deadline to reduceemissions in order to prevent the catastrophic consequences of climate change. “But trees take a lot more than 10 to 12 years to grow back. In fact, entire forests could take a minimum of 50 years or even centuries to recover carbon and grow back.”
She believes the emissions accounting of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is flawed, which contributes to policymakers’ blindness to forest biomass emissions. It also allows forestry companies to get away with presenting themselves as more “sustainable” or “environmentally friendly” than they actually are.
“UNFCCC accounts for forest biomass emissions in the land sector, where the biomass is produced, instead of the energy sector, where it is burned. So when you see a zero next to bioenergy in the emissions accounting for the energy sector, and numbers next to coal, oil and gas, it looks like burning biomass or bioenergy is preferable. And the numbers for bioenergy appear in the land sector instead,” Putt explains.
“So there’s almost a complete evasion of accounting for these emissions. And it’s a very tricky situation to explain in simple terms to people and to get policymakers and companies to accept and act upon it,” she elaborates, adding that it is often in the countries’ and companies’ interests to keep the emissions accounting system as it is.
In a world where conflicts often arise between supplying humanity’s demands for natural resources and conserving the ecosystems from which those resources come, Putt believes that the protection and restoration of natural forests are the tried and true way to mitigate climate change.
“In Australia, we have plantations that are already established, which can be used for forest products. It takes the pressure off natural forests. But just because this is a good solution in Australia doesn’t mean it necessarily works in the rest of the world. And this is not to say ‘plant more plantations by destroying natural forests or other natural ecosystems,’ ” she contends.
“Instead, we should be leaving all of the natural forests intact at this point and leaving them in the charge of indigenous peoples and local communities, whom studies show make for the best custodians,” said Putt.