Most carbon "transactions" in the usual carbon cycle cancel out. The CO2 that photosynthesis takes out of the air is eventually returned to it, whether the farmer’s green products are burned immediately (say, corn ethanol as fuel) or eaten. We exhale CO2 and excrete the stuff that sewage treatment plants bubble air through, so as to quickly make CO2. (This shortcuts the usual rotting process, which tends to generate unwelcome odors before releasing CO2 or methane.)
The timber industry would have you believe that one-cancels-the-other reasoning applies to trees as well. But there is a big difference between farming and forestry. For crops, it only takes a year until that released carbon is recaptured by another round of photo¬synthesis. For forestry, this loop may take fifty years.
Furthermore, forests rot as well as grow. In a bad year, even a rain forest such as the Amazon releases more carbon into the air than it takes out of the air via photosynthesis and plant growth.
Given our new ten-year time frame, we must draw an uncomfortable conclusion. Essentially, if you cannot count on quickly recapturing the carbon, killing trees does the same thing as burning fossil fuels: it adds carbon to the air that will further warm up the world over the next few decades.
With our shrunken window of opportunity, it really doesn’t matter whether the added CO2 comes from 50-million-year-old fossil fuels, from thousand-year-old topsoil, or from fifty-year-old trees. Anything that can’t quickly complete the carbon cycle shouldn’t be considered renewable.
This means that even toilet paper is adding to global warming. The same thing can be said of the traditional physical form of the newspaper, even with recycling to reduce the number of trees cut down. (Books are more like quality lumber, which holds on to carbon for many decades in the form of buildings and furniture protected from rotting.)
Long-term thinking can be counterproductive when time is short. And backing out of the danger zone for abrupt climate change needs to be done as quickly as possible.