Home > Environment > From the ‘paperless office’ to renewable energy, change leaves its critics behind

From the ‘paperless office’ to renewable energy, change leaves its critics behind

September 12th, 2014

That’s the headline for my piece in The Guardian. Unsurprisingly, given experience here, the comments section is a mountain of derp. Amusingly, it turns out that there are still paperless office sceptics about, despite ample evidence of that demand for office paper has been declining for years, and now seems set to plummet. The sceptics seem immune to the irony of posting comments in a digital-only newspaper asserting that paper will never die.

Given the extreme tightness of priors regarding energy issues, I expect our renewables sceptics to be even more diehard.

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  1. Newtownian
    September 12th, 2014 at 17:14 | #1

    Is there a link to the Guardian article????

  2. John Quiggin
    September 12th, 2014 at 17:30 | #2

    D’oh! Fixed now.

  3. Fran Barlow
    September 12th, 2014 at 18:01 | #3

    Where I am teaching, we have just introduced web-based period-by-period roll marking. This has cut out a veritable mountain of daily printing and paper storage, and improved the integrity of our rolls.

  4. Donald Oats
    September 12th, 2014 at 21:41 | #4

    While the single monitor per desktop/laptop mode of operation existed, I used paper as my primary mode for reading. The two main reasons were the fact that in a MS windows environment, to read help and reference manuals on screen, you had to toggle focus from one window to another, the display being too small for side-by-side windows to be effective; and, paper could free the human body from the rigidity of sitting at the computer.

    With the advent of cheap flat screen monitors and the wide spread use of dual monitor set ups, the need for paper has reduced substantially. Chuck in the tablets and e-readers, and the rise of other convenient electronic means of doodling something in the margin, so to speak, and many of the benefits of paper recede. I’d rather my Oxford English Language dictionary was a paid for download than the two kilo beast sitting on the desk, but what’s done is done.

    Perhaps the paper industry should step up and ask for a review of their industry’s space. Dick Warburton has some time on his hands now…

  5. Ikonoclast
    September 12th, 2014 at 21:54 | #5

    My perception (not a quantitative study) of what happened in the Federal PS is this. Initially, the technology of faxes and printers increased internal paper use markedly. Mainframe printers in particular spewed out long reports on continuous paper. Each report was probably a foot thick (on average). Walls of shelves held many dozens of these outputs. These were the days before large databases. Eventually, all these control datasets came to be held in databases not on printouts. But then at about that time there was a manyfold increase in the number of letters being sent to welfare clients in particular. The number (of letters) was staggering. At a guess, paper use increased further at this point.

    Maybe in the last several years, after I left the PS, paper has come down considerably as emails rather than letters are finally being sent to recipients.

    When we say paper use is coming down, which base are we comparing to? I guess that’s my question. If the base is the vast mainframe prints and client letter spewing days then we have no doubt come down from that. Have we come down below pre-computer days on a per capita basis? That is an interesting question. I am making no statement, doing no derping just offering an anecdote and asking a few questions. In theory, we can now certainly use less paper per head than we did in 1970. But are we yet I wonder?

  6. Ikonoclast
    September 12th, 2014 at 21:58 | #6

    Beg pardon, I skimmed the article too fast. I see the line “The latest data, for 2011, shows that paper consumption per person has fallen to the lowest level on record, going back to 1965.”

    I am surprised by that. What is the source of that data and is the data for the world? I guess paper use by newspaper conglomorates used to dwarf government use. That might be an explanation.

  7. Ikonoclast
    September 12th, 2014 at 22:29 | #7

    Hold the phone! A few sites I visited are claiming that worldwide paper use has increased 400% in 40 years. They too are not listing sources. That does not square with;

    “The latest data, for 2011, shows that paper consumption per person has fallen to the lowest level on record, going back to 1965.”

    The world population could barely have doubled in that time.

    And are we talking about office paper, all paper, paper and cardboard or all wood-pulp and all its uses (Total Pulp/Paper/Paperboard Production)? There are statistics and statistics after all.

    Note this:

    “Paper and paperboard production has been expanding rapidly for over half a century and paper is now one of the most globalized commodities in the world, with high volumes of production exported and high volumes imported. Globally, from 1965 to 1990, production grew 3.7 percent annually. More recently growth has slowed to approximately 2.8 percent annually. (1) – Source is FAO. State of the World’s Forests 2009. Rep. no. ISBN 978-92-5-106057-5. FAO, 2009.

    Has paper and paperboard use plummeted since about 2005? I don’t know. So far I have more questions than answers and cannot find reliable, already collated figures. In particular, I don’t feel like collating and extracting data from this. Take a look and you wil know what I mean.


  8. ZM
    September 12th, 2014 at 23:42 | #8

    There are lots of other uses for paper as well as office and personal stationary, newspapers, journals and books – such as packaging and wrapping, jigsaw puzzles, the board part of board games, cards, paper hand towel, baking paper, cup cake things, doilies, paper plates, tissues, toilet paper, etc It would be interesting to see a breakdown of uses. Office stationary use might have declined – but the forestry and paper and cardboard industries would likely seek other uses so they wouldn’t lose profits.

    This report says US use of paper dropped from 2007 but says this was because of cost cutting efficiency endeavours post gfc. Also China’s total use has risen to just above the total US use (I don’t know if the figures are for production or consumption end point though). I am not sure what proportion is recycled paper rather than from forests.

    “Consumption of paper and paperboard products has experienced significant decline in North America since 2007. This is attributable primarily to the aftermath of the financial crisis in the United States at the end of the decade. The poor economy motivated many companies to perform a close analysis of their paper use and inspired the adoption of innovative and more efficient systems. These new systems will remain in place into the economic recovery and likely have a lasting impact on printing and writing paper consumption. In addition, the shift in the patterns of consumption of news and other media from print to digital formats is also apparently having an irreversible effect in some paper sectors such as newsprint.
    Total global consumption of paper is still rising, reaching 371 million tonnes in 2009. However, total paper consumption in North America has declined 24% between 2006 and 2009. Per capita consumption of paper in North America dropped from more than 652 lbs/year in 2005 to 504 lbs/year in 2009.1
    North Americans still, however, consume almost 30 times more paper per capita than the average person in Africa and 6 times more than the average person in Asia. In 2009, total paper consumption in China eclipsed total North American consumption for the first time.

    The United States paper recovery rate rose from 46% in 2000 to a record high 63.4% in 2009.2 In Canada the reported paper recovery rate in 2009 was 66%.3
    Paper is the most commonly recycled product, and yet is still one of the largest single components of landfills in the United States, comprising over 16% of landfill deposits equaling 26 million tons annually.4 This is down from 42 million tons in 2005 which represented 25% of the waste stream after recycling that year.”


  9. September 13th, 2014 at 00:15 | #9

    Paper use in Japan, a massive consumer, is down over 20% from its peak in 2007. Manga* reading is down in Japan, or at least on paper it is, and there is no reason why paper use can not continue to decline as manga goes almost entirely electronic. But I do wonder what this means for the toilet paper industry as that’s what they get recycled into. Actually I was once paid 40 cents a word to write about astoundingly advanced Japanese bidets. They might just use more of them.

    * I was going to mention that Manga are adult comic books, but I realized that might give the wrong impression. Rather, I’ll explain that comic books are widely read by both children and adults in Japan. The content is probably a little different from comic books here. I saw an English translation of a children’s manga in a public library today and I had a quick look through it. The pornography had been removed.

  10. Ikonoclast
    September 13th, 2014 at 07:53 | #10

    This is quite interesting. It mentions paper and many other issues.


    With respect to resource use and material production, it’s worth reflecting on a basic principle and then a few things related to paper since that is the topic.

    1. What affects the biosphere is total use not per capita use. So we should be cautious about drawing false hope from per capita use reductions.

    2. What really counts (probably) is total wood pulp use or total paper and paperboard production less the recycled amount.

    3. The real historical figures on paper pulp use right back to the 1960s are difficult to find. But it seems from 1965 to 1990, global production grew 3.7 percent annually. More recently up to about 2006 growth slowed to approximately 2.8 percent annually. It seems production has been flat (no growth) since about 2006.

    4. Paper use has to be put into context. Substitution can have negative as well as positive ramifications. Use of paper and paperboard in packaging might have fallen (I don’t know) but at the same time I think it would be very likely that use of plastic in packaging has increased and that total packaging has increased.

    Over all this hovers a difficult issue. On the one hand, we need to careful of promulgating false hopes about dematerialisation of the economy and thus by accident legitimise the endless-growth and business-as-usual approaches. On the other hand, we don’t want to be Luddites decrying the very advances (e.g. solar power, wind power and some genuine dematerialisation of the economy) which might help us greatly.

  11. rog
    September 13th, 2014 at 13:44 | #11

    You can go to this Swedish forest industry site and use the sidebar for data on global production of pulp and paper. Over the short term it would appear that production of pulp is slightly down and paper up, indicating an increase in recycling.


  12. Ben
    September 13th, 2014 at 15:27 | #12

    Now, let’s discuss trends in office air travel (given the availability of modern videoconferencing) ..

  13. Donald Oats
    September 13th, 2014 at 18:49 | #13

    I tried e-paper in the bathroom. I don’t recommend it.

  14. September 13th, 2014 at 22:26 | #14

    @Donald Oats
    The OED have said they will probably never print the third edition in preparation. It will be online or CD only.

  15. Ikonoclast
    September 14th, 2014 at 07:36 | #15

    Nobody, including John Quiggin, has answered the question of where his dubious claim came from and whether is it is correct. Maybe it’s just a factoid. The data I have uncovered don’t support it. Or maybe he is concentrating on one category of paper pulp use when the overall statistic is what counts. Per capita use is a phurphy also. It’s total use of a resource that affects the biosphere.

    Yes, total pulp production appears to have gone flat from about 2006 to the present but it was growing before that from circa 1960 to 2006. It might be interesting to really investigate why so many things have gone flat from at, just before or just after the GFC. Is the financial aspect of the crisis only one aspect? Or has much of the world and its production ceased growing because of limits to growth?

    Concrete production does not support my LTG thesis (at least not yet).

    Annual growth rates, which reached 16% in 2010, appear to have softened, slowing to 5–6% over 2011 and 2012, as China’s economy targets a more sustainable growth rate.

    Outside of China, worldwide consumption climbed by 4.4% to 1462 Mt in 2010, 5% to 1535 Mt in 2011, and finally 2.7% to 1576 Mt in 2012.” – Wikipedia.

    World steel production is also rising again after the GFC to new heights. These gross material production numbers are not yet supporting the thesis that LTG is imminent. But let’s wait and see what the state of the game is in 2020.

  16. J-D
    September 14th, 2014 at 09:19 | #16


    You write that the world’s population could barely have doubled between 1965 and 2011. What are you basing that on?

  17. Ken Fabian
    September 14th, 2014 at 11:13 | #17

    Looking for parallels between paper and renewable energy – they seem to be primarily in the holding to outdated information, even in the face of changes that have been happening right in front of them; the decreasing costs and increasing ubiquity of PV is inconsistent with prohibitively expensive PV production methods.

    The printable solar sheets idea doesn’t look likely to me to parallel the home or office printer as too many issues of competence and safety arise from home production and installation of power supply. I see it more like evidence of the potential for innovative kinds of PV to be manufactured by familiar printing style methods at very low cost – such that peel and stick solar that’s cheap as chip wrapper may not be that far away. To the point where the addition of solar cells to roofing materials is little more than a sweetener to make one product a bit more attractive than their competitors.

    Whether energy storage can go the same way is yet to be shown, but there are some interesting new innovations, like organic flow batteries – announcements early this year of better than 100 cycles without degrading becoming more than 5000 less than 6 months later. And claiming to be low cost (a tenth of Li-Ion) to manufacture as well.

    Ultimately I think power companies will face a transformation of their primary business away from continuous generation into intermittent backup generation and ultimately into energy storage – where they will probably find their niche as something they can do better due to economies of scale and servicing of 24/7 industrial and commercial customers.

  18. September 14th, 2014 at 12:26 | #18

    According to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) world population was about 3.33 billion in 1965. Population growth was close to the highest it’s ever been at over 2% a year at that time. Currently world population is 7.24 billion and population growth is at just a little over half its peak at 1.1%. Note these figures are estimates. The US census department estimates world population in 1965 slightly higher at 3.35 billion and estimates current population a little lower at 7.18 billion. Prediction of future population is more difficult. The middle of the road estimate by DESA is in 2050 world population will be 9.55 billion and the US cenus bureau says 9.38 billion. Since the entire world will be (definitely should be) developed at this point and by observing what has happened in developed nations we can expect world population growth to level off soon after 2050 and then start to decline, but only slowly at first. However, predictions tend to get screwy after 2050. Firstly it is hard to predict anything 40+ years ahead and secondly assumptions start to play a massive roll in the results. If we just go by what has been observed in developed countries world population will be considerably lower than its peak in 2100. If we assume that starting in 2051 we will be able to 3D print babies and everyone will want at least half a dozen then the population ends up considerably higher.

  19. September 14th, 2014 at 13:08 | #19

    Personally, I think improving AI and robotics will more or less eliminate the economic pressure for pro-natalist policies. If human labour becomes more or less superfluous to production, there won’t be a push to have more babies for the sake of the economy and that’s one of the reasons why I think birth rates will be lower than the middle of the road predictions. However, improved longetivity is something that would act to push world population higher. Stopping aging is something that appears to be extremely difficult. Doctors only pretend to know what’s wrong with you most of the time, you know. To a large extent we still don’t know just what’s going on inside our meatsacks. But once aging is stopped or at least slowed, it could cause death rates to plumment.

  20. Ikonoclast
    September 14th, 2014 at 14:20 | #20


    I think my nuance was that it WOULD barely have doubled. I was pretty close as you can see from UN rounded estimates.

    1965 – 3,300,000,000 people.
    2011 – 7,000,000,000 people.

    Now, from 1965 to 1990, global pulp production grew 3.7 percent annually and then by 2.8% to about 2006. Since the GFC, it has been flat.* Now, at 3.7% annual growth, pulp production would double every 19 years. So clearly pulp production rose faster than world propulation. Therefore is it obvious that global per capita pulp use also rose up to 1990 and indeed up to about 2006. After that production has been flat ao per capita use has clearly declined a little. I would simply like to know;

    (1) Where J.Q. got the office paper stat?
    (2) Is the office paper stat. significant in the face of such a fast general rise in pulp production?
    (3) What impact does recycling have? It reduces new wood inputs for pulp but would still carry an energy cost.

    * Source is FAO. State of the World’s Forests 2009. Rep. no. ISBN 978-92-5-106057-5. FAO, 2009.

  21. iain
    September 14th, 2014 at 21:04 | #21

    Ikono, I’m reminded of the “per capita oil use in residential/commerical/agriculture” graph. http://johnquiggin.com/2013/03/30/another-encouraging-graph/comment-page-1/ Data in the graph was incorrect (out by some orders of magnitude), and misleading (no direct source for what “residential/commercial/agriculture” actually meant etc). Regardless, the data was insignificant compared to total energy and even total oil (all liquids) use, so just meaningless all around.

    Claiming paper use is down in the office, in the face of total pulp, or (even better) total world material flow numbers, is just as meaningless as well.

    Like a mildly intelligent locust plague, we’ll just continue until we hit the limits, and there will be little, to no, prior preparation. It is a sociology problem, rooted in thermodynamics, rather than an economic one.

  22. Ikonoclast
    September 14th, 2014 at 21:57 | #22


    J.Q. is looking for hopeful signs and that is fair enough. Total despair actually empowers business as usual (BAU). BAU is attempting endless growth in a finite system; an impossibility of course. We do need to look at total consumption in any category however (like paper pulp) and not just office paper. I suspect packaging is a big consumer of paper pulp and plastics. So if we are winning the paper war in the office and with newsprint (reducing pulp use) then maybe we need to look at the packaging industry next to further reduce pulp and plastics use.

  23. September 15th, 2014 at 13:32 | #23

    Iain, are you by any chance saying that oil use hasn’t declined in the OECD? Because, you know, that’s something that’s been kind of hard to miss. The US has dropped from consuming 25.24 million barrels a day in 2005 to 18.89 million a day in 2013. That’s a 25% drop in total and a 30% drop per capita. Japan’s total oil consumption is down about 21% from its peak. Germany is down 18%. France is down 23%. The UK is down 17%. Italy is down a huge 33%. There are some countries that have held pretty steady such as Canada and Mexico, but there has only been one country in the OECD that I’m aware of that has been messed up enough to have clearly increased its oil consumption and that’s a strange place called Australia.

  24. Ikonoclast
    September 15th, 2014 at 13:43 | #24

    @Ronald Brak

    It’s interesting to consider what has driven down oil use in the OECD. It’s a number of contributing factors.

    (1) World manufacturing is shifting from OECD to the BRICs and mainly to China in the BRICs.
    (2) The GFC hit the OECD hard, depressed economic activity and thus oil consumption.
    (3) Oil production has hit its limits and China (mainly) is outcompeting the OECD for oil.
    (4) OECD countries have become more efficient oil users.
    (5) OECD countries have implemented more renewable energy (but then so too has China).

    I think the big factors are 1,2 and 3.

  25. September 15th, 2014 at 14:30 | #25

    Inkonoclast, number (1) would presumably be having the opposite effect that you think it does as in 2012 European chemical production was up 28% over what it was in 2004. And apart from perhaps asphalt for roads, the chemical industry is the only significant user of petroleum outside of transport in Europe.

    Also, if you look at the graphs of consumption for the countries with significant decreases, you’ll see oil use was in decline well before the GFC struck, which makes sense as oil started to get expensive this century and really took off in price in 2004, several years before the GFC. The Depression has of course reduced oil use, but even in 2008 oil prices didn’t drop below what they were in 2003 and currently oil prices are hanging around $100 a barrel or more. It is high oil prices that have resulted in most of the reduction in oil use. If it was just the depression we should be seeing low oil prices.

    So it’s mostly your number (3) oil production has been pretty flat. We’re at the peak. Increase demand pushes prices up, but any further price increase results in more improvements in efficiency, which is your number (4), and substitution. Your (5) has had little effect as currently electricity from wind and solar only substitute for oil use to a small extent. (Not many electric cars using renewable energy on the roads yet, but that’s changing, particularly in Norway.)

    So to sum up, oil use is down in most of the OECD because of high oil prices resulting in improved efficiency and substitution. The depression has reduced oil use, but if it had never occurred oil use would still be down as reductions in use began before the GFC in response to high prices.

  26. Jim Birch
    September 15th, 2014 at 15:54 | #26

    Paper is no longer the primary source for most information. It is now considered unreliable and ephemeral. Thinking back a couple of decades, information stored on computers was considered to have a tenuous foothold on the world. “Get me a hard copy.”

    The decline of paper is a bit chicken and egg but factors include: There is simply too much information to put it all on paper; there is more information elsewhere; there is more up-to-date information elsewhere; there are now many more screens; there are much better screens which are easier to use; there is now a world wide web which is the default mechanism for communicating information; people don’t want to store paper. Etc.

    One really big factor that slowed the adoption of paperlessness is human habituation. Attitudes lag technology.

    Renewable energy will follow a similar curve, won’t it? Renewables have their own set of pluses and minuses that can be combined into narratives. Taking a longer term view, I don’t find any of the arguments against renewables any more convincing than the arguments against on-screen information. Printing out those massive folders of computer paper used to be a standard practice and now seems weird. “You mean you actually produced electricity in a smelly polluting plant and sent it hundreds of km up wires losing half the energy? Why not just get it off your roof?” “Well, it was like this…”

  27. Nick
    September 15th, 2014 at 16:58 | #27

    “in 2012 European chemical production was up 28% over what it was in 2004”

    Ronald, do you have a source for that figure?

  28. Nick
    September 15th, 2014 at 17:33 | #28

    Sorry, not trying to play gotcha…but it doesn’t sound right to me.

  29. September 15th, 2014 at 17:41 | #29

    I got it from Cefic here:


    You can download a PDF report from there.

    Of course if you believe Jim Ratcliffe who is chairman and majority owner of the Swiss/UK/German/Whatever chemical company Ineos, the chemical industry in Europe will be extinct in 10 years due to the high cost of natural gas and competition from China. He thinks China will outcompete them despite the fact that China pays international prices for natural gas as Europe does. This suggests he’s not a clear thinker. And he continues to invest in new capital equipment in Europe despite the fact that it will all be extinct in ten years time according to him. I think he needs to take a Bex and have a nice lie down until he starts thinking straight. He also apparently thinks that closing down nuclear power is bad for the chemical industry, so it sounds like he and Hermit will get on famously. While I don’t know for sure, I assume he is all for renewable energy on account of how it reduces natural gas used for electricity generation and so helps keep it price down. On the other hand he’s obviously not a clear thinker, so I can’t really be sure what he thinks.

  30. Nick
    September 15th, 2014 at 17:57 | #30

    Ah, ok. Page 12. That’s sales though, not production. In other words, prices have gone up over the last decade.

    The graph on page 44 is more what I was expecting. And page 46 shows petrochemical production in the EU is well down…

  31. Hermit
    September 15th, 2014 at 18:00 | #31

    RB perhaps Aussies have this one sussed out. Our very own Incitec Pivot is building an ammonia plant in the US rather than pay Australian gas prices. The CEO of Dow Chemical is also an Aussie who laments our jump into ‘world pricing’. For room heating outside the frost areas (Canberra etc) we can use reverse cycle air con. They say on TV you can do wok cooking with an induction stovetop. However for food canning, brick and glass making and hospital laundries we need gas heating. It follows the less we burn in power stations for electricity the more is available for these other tasks. I therefore concur with your source.

  32. September 15th, 2014 at 18:58 | #32

    So when they say they have halved energy use over the past 20 years that’s just stuff going up in price then? Well I guess that makes sense. It’s not as if chemical reactions have started requiring less energy anytime in the last 20 years.

  33. Nick
    September 15th, 2014 at 20:45 | #33

    I’m not exactly sure what you’re getting at? It can be hard to tell when you’re joking sometimes, RB 🙂

    I wasn’t disagreeing the chemical industry has become more energy efficient. I guess that might affect profits, but I’m not sure what it has to do with sales…

    There’s just clearly been very little growth in EU chemical production in the last 10 years. As opposed to 28% growth in production.

    It’s a minor point in any case.

  34. September 15th, 2014 at 21:44 | #34

    Maybe not in the PDF but on the Cefic page they had a graphic boasting about how energy efficiency had doubled in the past 20 years in the European chemical industry. On one hand it’s hard to believe as there are generally no radical ways to reduce the energy required for chemical reactions to proceed. On the other hand there are lots of things that can be done with cogeneration and so on which could potentially large increases in energy efficiency. So I’m just wondering how genuine that graph is. I presume there have been real advances. After all, just getting rid of inert fillers from laundry powders and so on as was done to a large extent last decade would have been helpful.

  35. Nick
    September 15th, 2014 at 23:02 | #35

    Yeah, you’re right actually. Apparently 18 products (out of thousands) account for 80% of total energy use by the chemical industry.

    That includes ammonia, naptha, terephthalic acid, polyethylene, methanol, styrene, acrylonitrile….

    Reading up quickly on a few of those processes, I’m not seeing anything like 50% reductions in their energy intensity in the last 20 years. Cogeneration, more modern steam and boiler systems etc appear to account for more like 5-20% improvements tops…

    Hmm. And Japan claims an 85% reduction in the same amount of time as Europe’s 55%.

    I’d like to see the figures if you removed pharmaceuticals from the equation – a sector whose ‘units of production’ I’m sure would have increased dramatically in the last 20 years.

    I reckon they’re using it to skew the heck out of those claims.

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