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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.

Originally posted to William H. Calvin on Sun Nov 09, 2008 at 08:41 PM PST.

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Comment Preferences

  •  I waited a while. (0+ / 0-)

    Some interesting thoughts.  Hit my profile for a very recent post on a topic that is similar.

    Warmest regards,


    What did you do with my TARDIS?

    by Translator on Sun Nov 09, 2008 at 09:05:03 PM PST

  •  trivial, and wrong (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Gooserock, krnewman

    Forests are not carbon sinks . . . they are in stable rotation whether they are "harvested" or not.  Rotted after natural death or whatever after harvest the cycle is closed.  It might help in the short term to plant more trees (make the forests bigger), which would bind some carbon for a while, but compared to the amount mined the capture would hardly make a dent.

    And a tree farm with a 50 year rotation is only harvested 2% per year, so net net net the retention is the same as an annual rotation crop, short term and long.  Toilet paper does not add to global warming because the forest stock used to produce it has been "farmed" for more than one complete rotation, so net carbon is stable.

    The problem is mined carbon, not historically biotic carbon.

    •  Long-term thinking is an error (0+ / 0-)

      You are of course correct if things were in a stable equilibrum. But they aren't: 18% of the GHGeq pie is deforestation. Furthermore, drought means that replacement trees could be lost before harvest.

      That forces one to treat a harvest today (one that cannot be reliably recouped by next year) as an addition to the climate problem.

      --author, Global Fever: How to Treat Climate Change (University of Chicago Press, April 2008).

      by wcalvin on Tue Nov 11, 2008 at 04:08:39 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

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