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How to stop global warming...with magazines?

Carbon capture and storage, or CCS, is an area of reasearch which attempts to explore the ways of capturing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. 75 pilot projects worldwide are currently mitigating 0.1% of annual anthropogenic carbon emissions. In this post, we will briefly examine the relevance of CCS, and in a thought-experiment, propose our own version of how paper storage could become a viable carbon sequestering method.

Image courtesy of ponsulak /

Researchers from Harvard and Oregon State University have recently created a complete global temperature record for the last 11 000 years and have shown that even though the last couple of thousand years we were heading for a new Ice Age, the steady temperature decline was interrupted by the industrial revolution and its generation of greenhouse gases. The researchers predict we are heading for a 3°C temperature rise by 2100 at current conditions. With polar caps and Greenland melting, this would bring about a sea level rise of several metres, displacing millions of people and rendering millions of hectares of land uninhabitable, depleting food supplies and threatening extinction of millions of species of wildlife. Everyone knows that carbon emissions need to be cut, but this knowledge hasn’t lead to any results. Can we, perhaps, instead just capture all the greenhouse gases from the air?

Personal action is absolutely compulsory if we wish to curb emissions, but it has to be acknowledged that half of a household’s carbon footprint is caused by industrial and commercial operations, including transportation that we have no control over. This can be pictured by saying that no matter how efficiently you eat and dispose of your avocado, it will still have generated transportation emissions from Guatemala to your local market.  Basically, no matter how efficient you are, buying food and other consumer items will generate carbon emissions. Unless you are entirely self-sustainable in terms of all resources, you are going to have a hard time reaching zero emissions by just cutting down on consumption.

Due to this, many experts have suggested that rather than avoiding, it would be more feasible to capture greenhouse gas emissions. This field of research and development has become known as Carbon Capture and Storage, or CCS.

There are many theoretical ways of storing carbon, both physical and chemical, but geological storage stands out as the one with the largest proven potential. In geological carbon storage, carbon dioxide is injected into underground geological formations such as former or untapped oil and gas fields, forming an underground CO2 reservoir. Considering the scale of oil and gas drilling up to date, there is a large potential for sealing the greenhouse gas underground. In fact, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that the economic potential of CCS could be between 10% and 55% of the total carbon mitigation effort until year 2100. The technology has proven reliable in 75 large-scale CCS projects around the world capturing around 36 million tonnes of CO2 per year (0.1% of annual man-made carbon emissions), but has its flaws - it requires a lot of supplemental energy and is prone to leakage. Power plants with CCS technology require about 25-40% more fuel to operate, and this fuel is mostly fossil, making it a double-edged sword.

The ocean is our largest and most efficient natural carbon sink. In fact, oceans are capturing CO2 as we speak. The problem is, carbon dioxide forms a weak acid in water and this causes great damage to marine ecosystems, especially coral reefs, which means that pumping additional carbon dioxide into it would just amplify the negative effects. The other problem is that oceans will start spewing out its stored carbon once global temperatures were to decrease, thus offsetting it’s own work – that’s because warm water has a larger gas absorption capacity than cool water. Therefore, we can’t use oceans to help solve our problems.

There is one, often overlooked solution for capturing and storing carbon – wood. Preserving wood as paper, furniture, houses etc., is effectively carbon capturing, but only if the chopped down trees are replaced by saplings and the wooden products are preserved for as long as possible. Currently, though, global forest areas are declining and the gathered wood mostly ends up in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. However, in our following thought experiment, we tried reversing that by using paper prints as carbon carriers.

Assuming that 18% of annual global anthropogenic emissions arise from deforestation (World Resources Institute), this would convert to about 6.7 billion tonnes of CO2. Out of these forests, 11% is raw material for the paper industry. If all paper manufacturers were as efficient and renewably powered as most in Northern Europe and printed at a sustainable printer, a delivered and finished final product like a magazine or newspaper could have a negative carbon footprint of up to 500 kgCO2 per tonne of product. Considering the annual amount of paper produced – roughly 210 million tonnes – we could achieve a decrease of 100 million tonnes of CO2 each year and the decrease would be larger, the more paper was produced and consumed! This would amount to a decrease of 0.3% of annual global GHG emissions, which is three times more than the current carbon capturing projects. The only catch is that we would have to stop throwing paper away and instead, begin storing all of it in preferably dry conditions. For each 1 million residents worldwide,  a warehouse with the dimensions 10 by 40 by 100 metres would have to be built each year to accommodate for all the paper products. Of course, we could also try filling up abandoned mines with discarded paper.

Paper will eventually degrade and release its contained carbon into the atmosphere due to atmospheric oxidation, but if all used paper was stored for, let’s say, a hundred years, we could buy ourselves some extra time to develop other and more efficient carbon capture and storage technologies.

It remains a fact that afforestation is one of the easiest ways of storing carbon. The problem is, the demand for agricultural land is much greater than demand for new forests. So, patch up that bald spot on your lawn and plant a tree!

Disclaimer: Greenline Print A-grade labelled prints are carbon negative at the publisher’s gate – storing these issues decreases CO2 emissions!


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