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Pulp and Paper

Subsector
Not on track
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About this report

The pulp and paper sector was responsible for about 190 Mt of CO2 emissions in 2021, about 2% of all emissions from industry and a historic high. As paper production is projected to increase to 2030, significant efforts must be made to reduce the emissions intensity of production. This can be accomplished primarily by moving away from fossil fuels as an energy source and encouraging innovation on technologies that reduce the amount of heat needed for pulp and paper drying. 

CO2 emissions

Following several years of decline, mainly attributable to declining production, carbon emissions in 2021 reached a new peak as a result of renewed industry activity. As production is projected to continue increasing, the emissions intensity of paper production must decline significantly to get on track with the Net Zero Emissions by 2050 Scenario, which sees emissions intensity fall by about 4% annually between 2021 and 2030. This will require considerable effort, as emissions intensity has been roughly flat since 2018. More action is needed in funding innovative technologies and implementing emission reduction policies to ensure that best available technologies and low-emission fuels are widely deployed. 

Pulp and paper emissions intensity in the Net Zero Scenario, 2018-2030

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Energy

Since 2018 the energy efficiency of pulp and paper production has been roughly flat, while in the Net Zero Scenario energy intensity falls by about 1.5% per year to 2030. Considerable improvements in energy efficiency are needed to get on track. This can be accomplished by increasing the proportion of paper produced from recycled resources and by implementing best available production technologies.  

Another important part of getting on track will be moving away from fossil fuels and towards the use of near zero-emission alternatives. Little recent progress has been made in this area, as the share of energy provided by fossil fuels has remained at about 30% since 2018. Bioenergy – already a major source of energy for the sector, owing to the use of pulp by-products such as black liquor – will be a particularly important fossil fuel replacement, with its proportion of the energy mix increasing from 43% in 2021 to almost 50% in 2030 in the Net Zero Scenario.

Final energy demand in pulp and paper in the Net Zero Scenario, 2018-2030

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Activity

Following several years of modest decline from 2018 to 2020, global paper production reached a record peak in 2021 of 415 Mt, a 4% increase compared with 2020. The downturn during 2018-2020 was not just due to the global pandemic, but also to an ongoing trend of declining newsprint, writing and printing paper production due to digitalisation. These paper grades collectively saw annual declines of 2.4% on average during 2010-2017, accelerating to 8.6% per year from 2018-2020. However, production of other paper grades such as wrapping, packaging, household and sanitary paper increased over 2010-2019, recording average annual increases of 2% as a result of economic and population growth.  

Looking ahead, paper production is expected to modestly increase, as the decline in printing-related paper production is outweighed by growth in packaging and sanitary paper products, especially in developing economies. In the Net Zero Scenario, paper and paperboard demand continues growing by about 1% annually to 2030. Material efficiency measures can help limit growth in production.

Global paper production in the Net Zero Scenario, 2010-2030

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Technology deployment

Paper production is heat-intensive, mainly due to the large amounts of water to be evaporated in drying pulp and paper. Innovations leading to less water to be evaporated, as well as higher on-site waste heat recovery and co-generation, can increase energy efficiency and reduce emissions. Innovative uses of heat pumps in paper production are being explored to reuse the latent heat from paper drying to produce steam for drying.  

Expanding the proportion of pulp produced from recycled sources can reduce the sector’s energy intensity and has a number of resource efficiency benefits, including a reduction in primary wood inputs, lower water use, and less waste generation. The share of recovered fibre in total fibre furnish (the mix of fibres used in paper production) is currently at about half, and increases to about 60% by 2030 in the Net Zero Scenario.  

However, increased recycled pulp production will not necessarily lead to reduced emissions even though it requires less energy. This is because primary pulp production relies largely on bioenergy that is available as a by-product from the wood used, while recycled production does not have by-product bioenergy readily available and so currently relies mostly on fossil fuels. Thus, switching to low emission fuels such as bioenergy and electricity for recycled pulp production will be important in parallel to increasing the total amount of recycled production. 

Innovation

Papermaking is extremely energy-intensive, and innovation to increase energy efficiency will be important. The area with the highest potential for efficiency improvements is the drying process, currently accounting for about 70% of energy used for pulp and papermaking. Three technologies have particularly high efficiency potential:  

  • Superheated steam would enable total recovery of thermal energy, to be used in subsequent processes, resulting in massive energy savings. The challenge is to combine the steam-condensation system with wet paper/water vapour system, requiring advanced steam cleaning technologies and solutions to prevent steam leakage from the system. In Europe, VTT, Valmet, WFBR, RISE and AIT are working together to start a large R&D project in 2023 to pilot a technology towards this by 2026.  
  • Water removal without evaporation would avoid the most energy-intensive part of the drying process, leading to up to 90% energy saved in drying. In 2022, a consortium of technical universities in the Netherlands started an R&D project to develop non-thermal water removal technologies based on electric forces, aiming for theoretical principles to be translated to industrial equipment by 2024.  
  • Papermaking without water offers the potential to remove the use of heat for drying completely. The challenge is to obtain inter-fibre bonding and also dry defibration of pulp or paper for recycling without damaging the fibre. Considerable research is being done on this principle in Germany and Scandinavia. Notably, Swedish PulPac and German BIO-LUTIONS have developed Dry Moulded Fiber, a machine for creating paper products without water. Although ready for market deployment right now, the machine can only create products that make up about 1% of paper demand, leaving much more work to be done to expand to other applications. 

In addition to technologies to improve energy efficiency, innovation is needed to integrate into the pulp and paper industry technologies that can fully decarbonise the remaining energy consumption – such as carbon capture and storage, electric boilers and heat pumps – as well as to reduce their costs to accelerate uptake.

Policy

Several policies addressing emissions from paper production have recently been announced, including the following:  

  • China – the world’s largest paper producer in 2020 – announced as part of its 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-2025) that it will be prioritising the creation of a circular economy, seeking to use 60 million tonnes of waste paper by 2025 relative to today. Meanwhile, China has also launched the Guideline for Energy Efficiency Credit, encouraging commercial banks to expand their energy efficiency lending for energy-intensive activities, including pulp and paper. 
  • Japan released a decarbonization roadmap for its pulp and paper industry in early 2022, including new decarbonisation targets and steps for achieving them. 
  • Indonesia has recently implemented new standards for its paper and corrugated paper industry in order to improve energy and material efficiency in paper production. 


Recommendations for policy makers and the private sector

As with the rest of industry, decarbonisation in the pulp and paper sector will require multiple measures, including:  

  • Adopting mandatory CO2 policies covering the industry and expanding international co-operation – domestically this might include carbon prices, while carbon border adjustments or international sectoral agreements might be considered to limit carbon leakage. 
  • Managing existing assets and near-term investment in order to create a smooth energy transition, such as encouraging refurbishment to near zero-emission technology to avoid stranded assets. 
  • Maximising energy productivity by accelerating progress in energy efficiency, recycling and material efficiency, which policy makers can incentivise. 
  • Increasing investment in R&D and deployment for low-carbon technologies essential to decarbonising high-temperature heat from industry – this will be essential to eliminate some emissions. Both direct support and mechanisms that mobilise private finance are important. 
  • Improving data collection, tracking and classification systems – industry participating and government co‑ordination are both important here.

Improving recycling channels can help increase the collection of paper products for recycling. Additionally, implementing landfill and waste collection fees can encourage greater recycling of household and commercial paper waste.  

Energy efficiency can also be improved through higher on-site waste heat recovery and co‑generation. The speed and scale of deploying these technologies can be raised through collaborative efforts by industry, public sector and research partners to share best practices on state-of-the-art technologies and develop plant-level action plans.  

The paper industry should increasingly recover and use pulp and paper production by-products such as black liquor to displace a proportion of fossil fuel use. Pursuing the use of other renewable energy sources is also important, particularly for recycled production, for which natural gas tends to be employed because biomass by-products are not readily available. Other options include producing heat from heat pumps, solar thermal energy and biogas.  

Increasing the use of alternative fuels can be facilitated by pulp and paper producers sharing best practices and policy makers setting industry-wide targets for alternative fuel use.  

Improving the collection, transparency and accessibility of pulp and paper sector statistics on energy performance and CO2 emissions would facilitate research, regulatory and monitoring efforts (including, for example, multi-country performance benchmarking assessments). 

Better data on paper recycling capacity and inputs are particularly needed, as are separated data for pulp and for paper production. Since the energy intensity of the pulp industry differs considerably from that of paper, it is difficult to evaluate and compare performance without separate energy data for each.  

Additional resources
Acknowledgements
  • Annita Westenbroek, Confederation of European Paper Industries, Reviewer 
  • Malgosia Rybak, Confederation of European Paper Industries, Reviewer