By Jillian Mock
When we make a mess in the kitchen, many of us reach for paper towels without sparing a thought for where those crisp white sheets originated.
If you’re in North America, some of the fiber in your paper towels (and other tissue products like toilet paper) probably started off as a tree in the boreal forest of northern Canada, one of the last big, intact forests in the world.
Boreal forests stretch across Canada, Alaska, Siberia and Northern Europe, and, together, they form a giant reservoir that stores carbon dioxide. That’s important, because that carbon would otherwise be released into the atmosphere and contribute to global warming. Collectively, boreal forests lock away about 703 gigatons of carbon in woody fibers and soil. Tropical forests, by comparison, store about 375 gigatons of carbon.
These are tough times for forests, though. Because of climate change, they’re highly susceptible to wildfires, like the ones in Australia, and pest infestations. So, anything we can do to keep them intact is good.
Trevor Hesselink, director of policy and research at the Wildlands League, a Canadian conservation organization, said it’s important to weigh the value of paper products against the value of intact forests. “If you are thinking through a carbon lens, those single-use products are very short-lived,” he said.
Canada is generally seen as being good at forest management. In logged areas of the boreal forest, trees are replanted and allowed to regenerate, and the country boasts a very low official deforestation rate of just 0.02 percent (though that has been disputed by some environmental groups).
The bad news is, even if actual deforestation is low, planting a young tree to replace a mature one is not the one-for-one carbon scenario many people imagine, Mr. Hesselink said.
For a long time, scientists believed older trees stopped absorbing carbon as they aged. But recently, researchers have that found older trees continue absorbing carbon dioxide for decades or even centuries longer than originally thought, said William Moomaw, a physical chemist and lead author on five Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports.
Leaving existing forests to grow will be more effective at mitigating climate change over the next 80 years than reforestation or planting new forests, Dr. Moomaw and his colleagues have said. A tree planted this year won’t make much of a difference in terms of carbon sequestration over the next decade, a period many scientists say is critical for climate action. “They just don’t absorb enough carbon dioxide,” Dr. Moomaw said. “They aren’t big enough.”
Furthermore, boreal forests support a diverse array of plant and animal species. They’re also central to life for hundreds of indigenous groups.
There is some debate over the degree to which pulp and paper products, like the disposable towels in your kitchen, drive logging activity in the boreal forest.
Tony Lemprière, senior manager of climate change policy in the Canadian Forest Service, pointed out that industry can use waste from timber production to make paper products. But the Natural Resources Defense Council estimates that 44 percent of the pulp produced in Ontario comes from whole trees rather than byproduct.
Regardless, it’s easy to reduce the amount of single-use paper products you buy.
Reusable cloth towels are a great alternative, said Shelley Vinyard, who heads the boreal forest program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. For those moments when you really do need a paper towel, she recommends one made of recycled content. The council’s consumer guide has recommendations for paper towels, toilet paper and facial tissues.
We really need to be thinking about forests in a different way at this “critical junction,” Mr. Hesselink said. Instead of soaking up spilled milk, those trees can help us tackle a much larger mess.