De-papering environmental summits

Thousands of trees are still breathing

This week, the United Nations hosted a major conclave in Rio de Janeiro — the 2012 Conference on Sustainable Development. Widely referred to as Rio+20, its timing commemorated the 20th anniversary of the so-called Earth Summit in this Brazilian capital. As one token — but highly visible — gesture toward sustainability, the new event encouraged all attendees to shrink their paper footprints. Apparently, most complied.

NOT SUSTAINABLE Printing out immediate-use docs on paper is no longer the preferred strategy for UN summits. © S. ODonnell/iStockphoto

“Normally, at a big conference like Rio+20, we would have used more than 20 million sheets of paper,” said Magnus Olafsson, who heads a new United Nations’ initiative known as PaperSmart. Make no mistake, he said, paper documents could still be found at the Rio summit. But the final tally came to somewhat fewer than 1 million, he estimated as close of the event on June 22.

Lots of issues play into figuring out how many sheets of paper a tree may provide (especially since only certain smaller trees tend to give their lives for communication as opposed to lumber), according to the Answers website. But a reasonable average, it posits, might be 8,350 sheets. If the conference saved 19 million sheets of standard copy paper (and from attending some past events I can vouch that not all documents are on such inexpensive paper), that might translate into saving the lives of some 2,275 trees.

Major events such as this Rio summit, attended by literally thousands of delegates and even more non-governmental observers and journalists, spawn countless texts: draft statements — at times revised by the hour, press releases, position statements by lobbying groups and more. To allow the amassed congregants to pore over the potential import of each bureaucratic syllable, documents big and small circulate around the clock. At stake: progress toward creating (or influencing) new policies — even, perhaps, a new treaty.

At such events, where the atmosphere often alternates between a carnival and jousting match, paper typically has flowed — well, like Danish beer at the Copenhagen climate summit 30 months ago (and there was a lot of beer, since it cost parched attendees less than a soft drink, glass of juice or bottle of water). We can hope that the Rio Summit’s strategy to issue texts mostly in megabytes, not on dried wood pulp, will set a potent precedent. But two things that should not get lost in the hurrahs, here, is that 1) even digital texts have a carbon footprint, based on the energy needed to find, download and read them, and 2) not everyone yet has ready access to or comfort manipulating the electronic hardware needed to digest digital docs.

Janet Raloff

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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