“Papering" Over Space and Place: Product Carbon Footprint Modeling in the Global Paper Industry

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We are witnessing an explosion in carbon calculators for estimating the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (i.e., carbon footprint) of households, buildings, cities, and processes. Seeking to capitalize on the emergent “green” consumer, corporations are leading the next iteration in carbon footprinting: consumer products. This potentially lucrative low-carbon frontier, however, faces steep challenges due to complexities of scale, largely a function of the number of actors and geographies involved in globalized commodity and energy networks, and scope, which increasingly demands inclusion of emissions due to land use change (e.g., biofuel production, timber harvest, livestock grazing, mining). Life cycle assessment (LCA)—the principal method behind product level GHG emissions footprint protocols—frequently avoids these challenges by narrowly delineating system boundaries, thereby excluding the “messiness” of space and place. Through a comparative model of energy sources and emissions in the globalized paper industry, this article reveals how complexities associated with geographic variation and land use change create indeterminacy in footprints based on these protocols. Using industry and trade data, the authors develop geographic information system transportation and energy models to map the globally dispersed pulp supply networks and to rescale Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change GHG inventory guidelines to include carbon loss associated with land use change in the carbon footprint of coated paper. Given their integrative abilities to conceptualize and model coupled human–ecological systems, sophisticated understanding of time–space dynamics and critical theoretical insights, geographers have much to contribute to the LCA and product carbon footprinting enterprise, which to date has been largely the intellectual domain of engineers.

carbon labels
land use change
life cycle assessment
paper industry
Publication Type: 
Journal Article
Association of American Geographers
Date Published: 
July 2011
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Full Citation: 
Newell, Joshua P. and Robert O. Vos. (2011) “‘Papering’ Over Space and Place: Product Carbon Footprint Modeling in the Global Paper Industry.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 101(4): 730-741.
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