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Take a breath: the Amazon does not produce 20% of the world’s oxygen

August 30, 2019 GMT

CLAIM: The Amazon rainforest _ “the lungs of the Earth” _ produces 20% of the planet’s oxygen.

AP’S ASSESSMENT: False. Scientists say while the Amazon is important to the world’s ecosystem, it does not produce 20% of the world’s oxygen. In fact, the region absorbs about the same amount of oxygen it produces.

THE FACTS: The 20% figure circulated widely this month as concerns grew around fires burning in the Amazon. It was passed on social media platforms, cited by politicians and quoted by the media, including The Associated Press. The reality, according to experts, is that the Amazon produces and consumes oxygen in nearly perfect balance. That’s because while it produces oxygen through photosynthesis, it also absorbs it to grow, as do animals and microbes. 

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“Even if all plants in the Amazon stopped doing photosynthesis, we would not notice,” Jonathan Foley, executive director of Project Drawdown, a global climate solutions initiative, told the AP. “It would take millions of years for the atmosphere to run out of oxygen.”

Still, that doesn’t mean the fires aren’t an issue for the planet. The Amazon plays a key role in draining heat-trapping carbon dioxide, CO2, from the atmosphere. It’s estimated the Amazon takes in almost 2 billion tons of CO2 a year, making it key to preventing climate change.

Scott Denning, an atmospheric scientist at Colorado State University, told the AP that much of the world’s oxygen comes from the ocean. Plants, such as phytoplankton, have contributed to breathable oxygen through photosynthesis for millions of years. 

Denning said he has a theory about how the 20 percent figure might have originated, citing a study published in Science Magazine in 2010, which found the Amazon accounts for 20 percent of land photosynthesis.  

Among those who used the false figure was French President Emmanuel Macron, who took to Twitter on Aug. 22 to demand that world leaders at the G-7 summit in Biarritz, France, discuss what he called an emergency. 

“Our house is burning,” he tweeted. “Literally. The Amazon rainforest - the lungs which produces 20% of our planet’s oxygen - is on fire. It is an international crisis. Members of the G7 Summit, let’s discuss this emergency first order in two days!” 

Ultimately, the Group of Seven nations pledged $20 million from the group, as well as a donations of $12 million from Britain and $11 million from Canada. Ottawa has also offered to send firefighting planes to Brazil.

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This is part of The Associated Press’ ongoing effort to fact-check misinformation that is shared widely online, including work with Facebook to identify and reduce the circulation of false stories on the platform.

Here’s more information on Facebook’s fact-checking program: https://www.facebook.com/help/19523071581315