Paper vs. Digital

One of the most promising approaches to paper efficiency involves shifting online, replacing paper applications with electronic, digital and virtual alternatives. There is huge scope for paper reductions, whether by replacing a catalogue with an online shop, using email instead of paper billing, advertising on the internet rather than in magazines or direct mail, and delivering all kinds of information, from news to literature to photographs, in electronic form. It is estimated by the Climate Group that digital applications could replace up to 25% of paper consumption (1).

Comparison of the impacts of paper v digital can be done either globally for the paper and information technology (IT) sectors as a whole, or by looking at the marginal impacts of particular products. Many studies look only at the climate change impacts of products, but life cycle assessment (2) should also consider other impacts, including volumes of material inputs, toxicity, energy use, water use, air emissions, water emissions, solid waste and recyclability. There are also social issues, not readily quantifiable, such as the impacts on the land rights and health of affected communities.

Looking globally, total annual sector CO2e emissions from paper are estimated by Climate for Ideas (3) as 2500 MTonnes (8% of global emissions) and from IT as 860MTonnes (2.7% of global emissions).

There have been several narrow studies of particular products, such as comparisons of paper books vs ebooks (e.g. (4)), which conclude that reading digitally is environmentally preferable to reading on paper.

Some studies give a threshold of the number of pages that need to be used on an electronic device beyond which it has less environmental impact than the equivalent number of pages of paper. For example, one study (5) sets this threshold at 5000 pages of uncoated woodfree paper. One source of guidance on accounting for the full climate change impacts of products is the World Resources Institute’s Greenhouse Gas Protocol (6).

Full life cycle assessment comparisons are difficult because in most cases it is hard to compare like with like, as most IT equipment has many different functions with no obvious paper equivalent (e.g. tablet functions include clocks, music, videos, cameras, personal organisers and email as well as reading documents).

The climate change impacts of paper are dominated by the impacts during manufacture and disposal, with use having relatively low impacts. By contrast the impacts of IT are dominated by the electricity consumed during use (e.g the internet uses a vast amount of electricity). So industry comparisons of just the energy needed to use paper v IT give a distorted picture.

More research is needed to understand the significant environmental impacts and social justice issues from IT, including the use of rare metals and toxic chemicals in manufacturing and the handling of e-waste.

(1) The Climate Group (2008). ‘SMART 2020: Enabling the low carbon economy in the information age.’

(2) European Platform on Life Cycle Assessment:


(4) Kozak, G, 2003. ‘Printed Scholarly Books and E‐book Reading Devices: A Comparative Life Cycle Assessment of Two Book Options.’ See also the SYMPACT project, from Bristol University:

(5) Deetman, S. & Odegard, I., 2009. Scanning Life Cycle Assessment of Printed and Epaper Documents the iRex Digital Reader.

(6) Greenhouse Gas Prototcol.