Richard Muller:

No. In fact, under normal conditions (prior to human-caused fires) the Amazon [rain]forest is in a steady state. Oxygen is produced by photosynthesis and consumed by decay. If these were out of balance, then the mass of wood in the Amazon must change.

That means if the Amazon were to disappear today, instantly (e.g. we harvested all the wood and used it to build houses) then the oxygen and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would continue on at the same level. Until, that is, the wood rots. Then the carbon dioxide levels would increase.

Except for the biomass decrease from human-caused fires, the biomass of the Amazon has not been changing. That means that no net carbon dioxide is being removed from the atmosphere, so no net oxygen is being released from carbon dioxide.

Recently the Amazon biomass has been changing due to fires. When that happens, the wood and other carbohydrates in the trees combine with oxygen and produce CO2 and H2O. Thus the burning of the rainforests contributes to global warming.

But under normal situations, when the biomass of the Amazon is not changing, there is no net production of oxygen or carbon dioxide.

Incidentally, many writers who don’t understand this—and mistakenly think that the Amazon produces net oxygen—double their error by using a backward metaphor. They refer to the Amazon basin the "lungs of the world," but lungs are the organ that remove oxygen from the air and replace it with carbon dioxide, not the other way around.

Where did the 20 percent figure come from? The best guess is that ecologists have calculated that 20 percent of the photosynthesis of the world takes place in the Amazon basin. But so does 20 percent of the consumption.

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