"There is a lot of talk about going paperless, but computers use electricity from fossil fuels. Is it actually better to take notes on a laptop than on paper?"
As always my friend, it depends.
This comparison requires a few assumptions and numbers.
First, we have to choose how we are going to measure environmental impact. For the sake of simplicity, let's choose greenhouse gas emissions.
What do we count?
Lets start with the emissions of 1 sheet of paper.
The emissions per sheet of virgin paper are roughly 4.5 grams of CO2e (carbon equivalent). These numbers drop if you are using recycled paper. For 100% recycled paper the emissions drop to 1.7 grams CO2e.
For laptops, lets say we are using the laptop for 1 hour on moderate usage. This means you are running Word, Chrome, excel, etc., (i.e. not running a movie, battlefield 3, and a virus scan at the same time).
It doesn't make sense to add the production of the laptop because you didn't buy the laptop to take notes. Even if you took notes on paper you would have still bought the laptop.
Depending on the hardware a laptop can use 38 - 60 Wh(Watt hours). This translates to 26.9 – 42 grams of CO2e per hour.
So there you go: the production of paper emits 1.7 – 4.5 grams of CO2e per sheet and operating laptops emit 26.9 – 42 grams of CO2e per hour.
The question now is how do these rates compare--how many sheets of paper do you use per hour? So if someone brings paper copies to a meeting -- of meeting agendas, materials, handouts etc..
Depending on the laptop and the recycled content of the paper, you would have to use 6 - 25 sheets of paper to equal the carbon of using a laptop for one hour.
It would be so nice if things could be reduced to one number, but alas...
Furthermore, a significant portion of paper is farmed. Even though chopping down trees may seem negative, the trees wouldn't exist in the first place if it weren't for the paper industry. Trees, unlike the fossil fuels used to make electricity, are completely renewable. In your face Steve Jobs!
Keep in mind: I'm saying "trees" not "forests." Trees can be farmed; once a forest is cut down that ecosystem perishes. Watch a documentary sometime!
The fact that a tree used for paper is essentially made of CO2 from the atmosphere actually helps mitigate the emission of producing paper. Paper can be considered a way of getting CO2 out of the atmosphere.
Things are never what they seem, my friends!
How's that? Nacho average advice right?