What the Carbon? Carbon, Climate Change, and You
Carbon dioxide, carbon cycle, carbon footprint. We know it’s all related to climate change, but how? We explain what this ubiquitous element is all about.
Ann Pizer |
What do they all mean?
Carbon comes up a lot when we’re talking about climate, but if it’s been a while since your last chemistry class, the details of how (and why) it’s moving around the planet might be a little fuzzy. We’re going back to school for a refresher on what carbon is, how it affects climate change, and what we can do about it.
When you think about carbon (something you probably don’t do very often!), you may picture a black mass that looks something like coal. Pure carbon (number six on the Periodic Table of Elements) is relatively benign. Its solid forms, which vary depending on atomic structure, include substances as diverse as graphite and diamonds.
Carbon is often called the building block of life because it bonds so readily with other elements to make so many important things. Air, earth, plants, animals, and humans are all made up in large part of carbon in combination with other elements.
The Conservation of Matter
If we’re going to get to the root of carbon’s role in climate change, we have to understand the conservation of matter. This scientific principle states that in a closed system matter is neither created nor destroyed. The Earth, including its atmosphere, is a closed system. Carbon is matter. That means that all the carbon on our planet has always been here and will always be here. While the planet’s existing carbon is not being created or destroyed, it is constantly changing form by combining with different elements and being redistributed within the system.
The Carbon Cycle
In prehistoric times, a portion of Earth’s carbon was housed in large animals (like dinosaurs) and the marine life and algae that filled its vast oceans. That carbon hasn’t gone away, it’s just changed form. Fossil fuels are quite literally the remains of ancient life in which the carbon has combined with hydrogen over time under heat and pressure in anaerobic conditions (meaning in the absence of oxygen, i.e. deep underground) to form petroleum, coal, and natural gas. A lot of the carbon that was once stored in abundant nature has now been used by humans to meet our energy needs.
When fossil fuels are refined and then burned, the carbon combines with oxygen to release carbon dioxide (CO2) gas. CO2 is what is called a greenhouse gas, meaning that it acts to trap heat inside our atmosphere. Methane (generated by diverse sources including the oil industry and cow burps) is another greenhouse gas that contains carbon. While these gases have always been present, and indeed contribute to Earth’s habitability, in excess they create problems.
Some CO2 is reabsorbed into the carbon cycle through plants through the process known as biological carbon sequestration. During photosynthesis, plants use sunlight and CO2 to form carbohydrates. The trouble is, the carbon cycle can’t keep up. Humans are making too much CO2 at the same time that we are reducing the capacity of plants (through deforestation) to balance the system. Thus CO2 is building up in the atmosphere and contributing significantly to climate change.
Part of any climate solution must include a shift to energy sources that do not create as much CO2 and the preservation and extension of forested areas.
Carbon footprint/Carbon neutral/Carbon offset
These terms are all related to taking individual responsibility for how much carbon (in the form of CO2 emissions) we each contribute to the climate crisis. Driving cars and using electricity are big factors in determining one’s carbon footprint. If you travel a lot by aeroplane, that’s also going to increase your footprint significantly.
To become carbon neutral, you’d have to remove as much CO2 from the environment as you put in. Since personally removing CO2 from the air is pretty impossible, people can purchase carbon offset credits instead.
Carbon offset credits are sold by private companies that first figure out how much CO2 from your flight, for instance, is your personal share. Then you pay them to support projects like reforestation or containment of greenhouse gases generated by landfills.
While the efficacy of this exchange is difficult to gauge, it is one way to contribute. Some airlines and shipping services are beginning to shoulder the responsibility for offsetting their carbon emissions away from individuals, which may lead to greater accountability. Carbon offsetting, however, does not take the place of reducing consumption and finding less polluting alternatives.
The Matter of Conservation - What Can You Do?
Experts agree that while lifestyle adjustments that reduce one’s carbon footprint have a part to play, government and industry must act soon to change the systems that have allowed the current climate crisis to escalate. The most important action individuals can take is to be more politically active.
-March and rally to let governments and businesses know that climate change is a crucial issue for their constituents/customers.
-Support our long-term charity partners such as, the WWF, Friends of the Earth and Tree-nation who are undertaking important initiatives to help find a solution to the problems facing our home Planet.
-Vote for candidates that prioritise the regulation of the most polluting industrial systems and the preservation and expansion of our natural carbon absorbing resources.
We hope that understanding a little more about the role carbon plays in climate change inspires us all to greater action.