Albert Einstein stated that “everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.” The human brain cannot handle complex entities without first breaking them down into smaller ones. This is also how science progresses: by setting system boundaries and excluding some factors.
However, taking practical action through excessive simplification can be problematic. Let’s take an example. It is often stated unequivocally that the forest industry should abandon the production of short-lived products and switch to long-lasting products. This would keep the carbon dioxide stored in them for as long as possible. This may be a good general recommendation, but problematic to follow slavishly.
Many short-lived products can be made from pulp or its by-products. However, pulp seems to be an unwanted product for many – due to its short durability and low value added. Therefore, it is often suggested that forests would rather be used more e.g. for wood construction.
Yet, the world will also need short-lived products, such as packaging products, chemicals, clothing and energy. They should also be made as low-carbon as possible. Short-lived products can also help to reduce CO2 emissions. For example, packaging keeps our food fresh and thus helps to reduce food waste, and therefore also food production related CO2 emissions. Short-lived products may also be made from a different wood raw material than long-lasting ones: pulpwood, wood chips and production by-products are used in their production. Logs are usually more suitable for producing long-lasting products, such as wooden buildings.
Assessing the climate change impact of pulp requires a laborious calculation. It should, among other things, consider the CO2 emissions impacts of pulp at those countries in which it is exported. For example, the EU27 exported 63% of its production of dissolving pulp in 2019, mainly to China and India. In these countries dissolving pulp replaces e.g. synthetic (oil-based) fibers in the textile industry. I have not yet seen a comprehensive CO2 assessment of the EU forest products that would take also into account such export market impacts. That would be necessary to do.
Also, socio-economic reasons can support pulp production. For example, at present, in Finland processing of pulpwood into softwood pulp ups the pulpwood stumpage price by three times. Correspondingly, processing logs into sawn timber adds about four times the value of log price. In other words, there is currently no large difference in value added between pulp and sawn timber.
With the communication paper industry inevitably declining, it would be good if the rest of the forest sector could increase their employment. Pulp production has the possibility to do so. It is to be hoped that the further processing of pulp to new bioeconomy products will increase.
The climate benefits of pulp can be further enhanced by improving efficiency and eliminating the use of fossil fuels in production and logistics. In the future, there is also hope that more climate benefits can be achieved by capturing carbon from pulp production and converting it to hydrogen. Recommendations to use wood only for long-lasting products can be an oversimplification for climate as well as socio-economic reasons.
Photo: 2020 Evelien Doosje/AdobeStock