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Country-specific net-zero strategies of the pulp and paper industry

Abstract

The pulp and paper industry is an important contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions1,2. Country-specific strategies are essential for the industry to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, given its vast heterogeneities across countries3,4. Here we develop a comprehensive bottom-up assessment of net greenhouse gas emissions of the domestic paper-related sectors for 30 major countries from 1961 to 2019—about 3.2% of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions from the same period5—and explore mitigation strategies through 2,160 scenarios covering key factors. Our results show substantial differences across countries in terms of historical emissions evolution trends and structure. All countries can achieve net-zero emissions for their pulp and paper industry by 2050, with a single measure for most developed countries and several measures for most developing countries. Except for energy-efficiency improvement and energy-system decarbonization, tropical developing countries with abundant forest resources should give priority to sustainable forest management, whereas other developing countries should pay more attention to enhancing methane capture rate and reducing recycling. These insights are crucial for developing net-zero strategies tailored to each country and achieving net-zero emissions by 2050 for the pulp and paper industry.

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Fig. 1: Global GHG emissions of paper-related sectors during 1961–2019.
Fig. 2: Total net GHG emissions of paper-related sectors in regions and countries.
Fig. 3: GHG emissions of paper-related sectors in 30 countries from 1961 to 2019.
Fig. 4: Effects of single measures and all scenarios in 30 countries.
Fig. 5: The analysis of strategies towards net-zero emissions in 2050.

Data availability

The detailed data of this study are available at https://zenodo.org/record/8369154. The main data that support the findings of this study are as follows: (1) production and trade data on wood, pulp and paper products in 1961–2019 can be obtained from the FAOSTAT database (https://www.fao.org/faostat/en/#data/FO); (2) data on the energy mix of the pulp and paper industry is from IEA Data and Statistics (https://www.iea.org/data-and-statistics/data-sets/?filter=all); (3) the municipal WDM can be obtained from the OECD Stat database (https://stats.oecd.org/viewhtml.aspx?datasetcode=MUNW&lang=en); (4) the estimated population in 2050 is available from World Population Prospects 2019 conducted by the Department of Economics and Social Affairs, United Nations (https://population.un.org/wpp/Download/Standard/Population/); and (5) the energy intensity of multiprocesses is from the literature and the main sources are listed in the Supplementary information.

Code availability

The data-processing code that generates the results in this study can be found at https://zenodo.org/record/8369012.

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Acknowledgements

This research was supported by the National Key R&D Program of China (grant no. 2020YFE0201400) and the National Natural Science Foundation of China (grant nos. 52022023, 52100210 and 72061147003).

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Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Contributions

Y.W. and M.D. designed the study. M.D. collected and compiled data, performed the analyses and prepared graphs, with support from Z.L. and P.Z. on data collection, from M.S. and B.C. on analytical approaches and from M.S., B.C., L.S., M.J., Y.M., C.M.V.B.d.A., J.L., A.S.F.C., M.X., H.Y., J.M. and Y.W. on discussions. M.D. led the writing of the first draft, with input from M.S., B.C. and Y.W., and subsequent drafts were revised and approved by all co-authors to finalize the manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Yutao Wang.

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Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Fig. 1 System definition and GHG emissions inventory.

a, System boundary for inventory building and GHG emissions estimation. The processes in four stages from ‘cradle’ to ‘grave’ are described here. The critical factors for net-zero emissions along paper-related sectors are annotated by light-blue tags (). b, Schematic diagram of the carbon flows within the boundary of this study.

Extended Data Fig. 2 Diagram of global energy consumption of pulping, papermaking and printing accumulated in 1961–2019.

The full names of the abbreviations are as follows: CWP, chemical wood pulp; MP, mechanical pulp; NWP, non-wood pulp; RP, recycled pulp; PP, packaging paper; PW, printing and writing paper; PR, printing; NP, newsprint; HS, household and sanitary paper; OP, other paper. The top part denotes biomass-based energy, such as by-products (black liquid) or wood scraps.

Extended Data Fig. 3 Global GHG emissions of all processes accumulated in 1961–2019.

During S2 and S3, biomass energy use effectively helps this industry avoid considerable fossil-fuel emissions (represented by the dashed-bordered light-grey rectangle). In S4, the potential avoided emissions brought by energy recovery of waste paper and captured methane are not counted in the total net GHG emissions. The full names of the carbon sources and stocks in the bottom four panels are as follows: (1) forest carbon emissions during unsustainable pulpwood harvest and carbon dioxide emissions caused by chemical production and fibre collection activities; (2) carbon dioxide emissions caused by chemical wood pulping, mechanical pulping, recycled pulping and non-wood pulping; (3) carbon dioxide emissions caused by packaging paper production, printing and writing paper production, printing, newsprint production, household and sanitary paper production, and other paper production; (4) methane from landfill, methane from pulping wastewater treatment, methane from papermaking wastewater treatment, carbon stocks from landfill, carbon stocks from non-energy recovery, carbon stocks from in-use products, avoided emissions from energy recovery, avoided emissions from captured methane, carbon dioxide emissions during energy recovery, carbon dioxide emissions caused by landfill, carbon dioxide emissions caused by incineration disposal method, carbon dioxide emissions caused by the combustion of captured methane and carbon dioxide emissions caused by the escaped landfill methane oxidized near the surface.

Extended Data Fig. 4 Detailed information about forest carbon emissions in the first ten countries in Fig. 3.

a, Breakdown of results of forest carbon emissions. b, Sensitivity analysis on the impact of sustainable certification rate on forest carbon emissions.

Extended Data Fig. 5 Net GHG emissions under three recycling measures in 30 countries when no other measures are taken.

a, Net GHG emissions for each country in 2050 under three scenarios: absolute recycling rate, the same recycling rate as 2019 and zero recycling rate. The colours of the ellipsoids in the top-left corner of the small charts indicate the different effects of recycling on net emissions. b, Map categorizing countries based on the effect of recycling rate scenarios on net GHG emissions. The colour of the ellipsoid in each small chart in a matches the colour scheme of the map in b).

Extended Data Fig. 6 Net GHG emissions of 30 countries in 2019 and 2050 under the BAU scenario and 16 single-measure scenarios.

The order of countries is the same as that in Fig. 4a.

Extended Data Fig. 7 Statistics of factor scenario settings of net-zero scenarios.

The order of countries is the same as that in Fig. 5. This figure, to some extent, embodies the measures of preference and the level of difficulty in achieving net-zero emissions for each country.

Extended Data Fig. 8 Distribution of net-zero scenarios by the number of best or medium measures.

a, Distribution of net-zero scenarios without best measures by the number of medium measures. b, Distribution of net-zero scenarios containing best measures by the number of best measures. The order of countries is consistent with Fig. 5.

Extended Data Fig. 9 Carbon intensity of energy consumption in S2 and S3 across 30 countries from 1961 to 2019.

The dashed line represents the carbon intensity of total energy consumption, which includes biomass energy, whereas the solid line considers emissions from biomass energy as carbon neutral, focusing solely on emissions from fossil fuels.

Extended Data Fig. 10 Analytical framework of forest carbon emissions estimation.

The estimation method is constructed by means of a three-step process. Step 2 involves several important references: Persson et al.64, Henders et al.65, IPCC (2006)88 and Pearson et al.60,63.

Extended Data Table 1 The grouping principles by difficulty of net-zero achievement for 30 countries
Extended Data Table 2 The setting of factors in scenario analysis

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

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Dai, M., Sun, M., Chen, B. et al. Country-specific net-zero strategies of the pulp and paper industry. Nature 626, 327–334 (2024). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-023-06962-0

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