Deep Decarbonization and the Pulp and Paper Industry

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Martin Fairbank
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In his book published in early 2021, “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster”, Bill Gates points out that the world is currently adding 51 billion tons per year of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, and needs to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 in order to meet the Paris Agreement target of limiting the increase in global temperature by only 1.5 °C.

The largest global contributor by class is industrial production, responsible for 31% of these emissions, compared to 27% from electricity production, 19% from agriculture, forestry and land use, 16% from transportation and 7% from heating and cooling. 

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The path to zero emissions for industry, according to Gates is: (1) use material more efficiently, (2) decarbonize the power grid, (3) electrify every process possible, and (4) capture and store carbon.

The pulp and paper industry is a very minor contributor to industrial sector GHG emissions and some facilities are already net zero or even carbon-negative. The forest products sector can be a big contributor to net zero through forestry management activities and carbon sequestration in wood products. In a 2019 blog article, I discussed how pulp and paper facilities can reduce their carbon footprint, mostly by improving energy efficiency and substituting more renewable energy for fossil energy.  

I’m writing this on Earth Day, in a year when both the Canadian and American governments have made major commitments towards reducing GHG emissions. Last week, an international virtual conference organized by university and government researchers in Montreal, Canada and Gothenburg, Sweden discussed international strategies for deep decarbonization. Inspired by these events and Gates’ book, let’s imagine what this industry sector could look like in 2050.

Pulp and paper mills in Canada have always been large users of renewable hydroelectricity and biomass, and have reduced GHG emissions by nearly 70% since the early 1990s, mostly by continuously reducing their fossil fuel use. More radical opportunities could include ideas such as waterless papermaking (already used for products such as napkins), electrical dryers (using renewable electricity, of course) and using biological processes to carry out pulping with less energy.

The nice thing about hydro and biomass power is that they can be operated continuously, as opposed to solar and wind power, which are intermittent and thus less suitable for supplying power to continuous processes. New ways of storing electrical energy, including rechargeable batteries and supercapacitors, may provide a way to use intermittent sources of renewable electricity.

Some transportation processes in the industry can lower their carbon footprint, including shipping more product by rail rather than by truck and using electric trucks (if charged up with renewable electricity, of course).    

What about carbon capture and storage? A lot of pilot projects have been carried out, and the costs have come down considerably over the years. One decarbonizing technology that sounds promising is direct air capture (DAC) of CO2 to lower the greenhouse effect. The US National Academy of Science published a report in 2019 on “Negative Emissions Technologies and Reliable Sequestration”, and, among other things, discussed the feasibility of using DAC to capture billions of tons of CO2, but it would be a very ambitious and expensive operation. Considering that the concentration of CO2 in the air is only about 400 ppm, the effort should first be focused on capturing CO2 from cement kilns and natural gas power plants, where the CO2 concentration is 100 to 1000 times higher. And if the cost comes down enough, carbon capture from biomass and recovery boilers may be next in line.

Another popular topic for lowering emissions is cooperation between industry groups. Chemical plants are often built adjacent to each other or close to oil refineries to use each other’s water, energy and chemical streams, finding opportunities for synergy and a collective lowering of their carbon footprint. The forest products industry does some of this too, getting involved in district heating, greenhouse operations, and municipal water treatment, or sending bark, sawdust and sawmill chips to where they have the most value. Some cement manufacturers are looking towards using bioenergy to help them decarbonize, which could be interesting in certain locations, but their CO2 emissions from limestone likely dwarfs their emissions from fossil fuel.    

What about biofuels from wood? Burning wood pellets on a large scale is happening in Europe and the UK, but this is only economically feasible due to their carbon pricing policies, and has non-negligible Scope 3 emissions from pellet production and transportation. The path forward for liquid biofuels is uncertain as long as there is a plentiful supply of cheap oil, even with carbon taxes. Electrification of transportation appears to be happening faster than switching to biofuels, which will reduce the demand for oil and keep its price low for longer. Eventually, when oil and gas run out (which they will, because fossil fuels are finite and non-sustainable), this may be an option, but don’t count on it being a major contribution to net zero in the next 30 years.   

The Covid-19 pandemic we are currently going through has taught us a couple of lessons. First, it had an enormous impact on global supply chains and on the world economy. One result was that global GHG emissions were reduced by about 5% in 2020, much of it due to less commuting by employees from home to office. However, it was only a 5% reduction, which would have to be multiplied by 20 to get to net zero by 2050! Much of the public debate on GHG reduction has focused on transportation because it’s within the power of individuals to do something about it, but as stated at the beginning of this article, transportation accounts for only 16% of global emissions. It’s time to work on the other 84%!

The other lesson Covid taught us was that unprecedented cooperation between research organizations around the world to tackle a global health issue and fast-tracking of government approval processes were able to deliver Covid vaccines to the world in months instead of years. Imagine if the world could do the same for net-zero emissions!

Martin Fairbank, Ph.D. Martin Fairbank has worked in the forest products industry for 31 years,
including many years for a pulp and paper producer and two years with
Natural Resources Canada. With a Ph.D. in chemistry and experience in
process improvement, product development, energy management and lean
manufacturing, Martin currently works as an independent consultant,
based in Montreal. He is also an author, having recently published
Resolute Roots, a history of Resolute Forest Products and its
predecessors over the last 200 years.

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Martin Fairbank Consulting

Industry Experience

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