What is Carbon? Let’s Break it Down for you

Joe Ronan

Joe Ronan

Close up of leaves full of dew
photo credit: kelly / pexels

So, what is carbon? You’ll have heard of carbon dioxide. You might have heard of carbon zero, carbon sequestration, or carbon neutral. In the fight against climate change, carbon is at the core. 

We’re here to explain what exactly carbon is, why it is important, and what we can do to stop it’s impact on the climate. It’s not as complicated as you might think. 

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What is carbon? Back to basics

Let’s start at the start: oxygen, or hydrogen, carbon is an element. If you remember the periodic table from school, an element is one of those. Carbon has the symbol ‘C’ and the word Carbon comes from the word ‘carbo,’ which is Latin for coal.  

Carbon is a very abundant element – it’s pretty much everywhere, and it forms the basis of life on earth. It exists in pure or nearly pure forms – such as diamonds – but it can also combine with other elements to form molecules. These carbon-based molecules are the basic building blocks of life: humans, animals, plants, trees and soils. Everything that lives has got some carbon in its cells. 

So far, so good. Let’s get one thing straight: carbon is not a bad thing. When we’re talking about CO2 (carbon dioxide, carbon plus two oxygen atoms) let’s not confuse it with carbon.  

What is carbon? The carbon cycle

Now, this you might also remember from school: the carbon cycle. If you don’t, let me lay it out for you real quick. 

  1. Carbon enters the atmosphere as carbon dioxide from respiration and combustion.
  2. Carbon dioxide is absorbed by producers to make glucose in photosynthesis.
  3. Animals feed on the plant passing the carbon compounds along the food chain. Most of the carbon they consume is exhaled as carbon dioxide that was formed during aerobic respiration. The animals and plants eventually die.
  4. Decomposers break down the dead organisms and return the carbon in their bodies to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide by respiration. In some conditions, decomposition is blocked. The plant and animal material may then be available as fossil fuel in the future for combustion.
Lion lying on the savannah with the air stirring his mane
photo credit: Ahmed Galal /pexels

What is carbon – The circle of life

If we were talking in the terms of the Lion King, we might call this ‘the circle of life.’

Things move through different living beings, and carbon moves in a cycle that we all probably recognise faintly from some science lessons way back when. 

The problems, however, arise from when we pesky humans start to interfere. Human activity disrupts the carbon cycle.

Burning fossil fuels, massive deforestation, and using limestone to make concrete all transfer carbon into the atmosphere. As a result, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is now greater than at any time in the last 3.6 million years

What is carbon – Carbon dioxide and global warming

This is where things start to get sticky. There is more carbon (dioxide) in the atmosphere now than we can cope with. Carbon dioxide is greenhouse gas. ‘Greenhouse gas’ – this is another buzzword you might have heard. We can explain the problem with greenhouse gases pretty simply. 

A greenhouse exists to replicate temperate climates so that plants can grow in a warmer environment than that outside the greenhouse. Hence you can grow tomatoes in Hartlepool. 

Well, the principle is the same. Sunlight shines on us by passing through the atmosphere. Clouds, ice caps and other such surfaces reflect some light back into space, but most of the incoming energy reaches the planet’s surface. From here, the Earth radiates heat back toward space.

But, problem: greenhouse gases in the atmosphere absorb that heat, bouncing some back to the Earth’s surface and releasing some into the atmosphere. The more greenhouses gases we have, the hotter the planet is, the more the ice-caps melt, the more carbon dioxide is released, the less sunlight the earth can reflect, the hotter we get, and so on…

arctic ice melt
photo credit: Frederik Sørensen

What is carbon? Some important concepts explained

So far, I would think, so familiar. But the array of carbon phrases that have proliferated in the last decade or so is extensive. Let’s break them down.

Carbon neutral

Carbon neutral means net-zero carbon dioxide emissions. A car, for example, that is carbon neutral emits net-zero carbon emissions into the atmosphere. A carbon-neutral car may still generate CO2 emissions, but these emissions are matched by carbon offsets. So, the car reduces as much atmospheric carbon as it produces.

Globally, we are committed to meeting a target of carbon neutrality by 2050. 

Zero carbon

Now this is slightly different. Whereas carbon neutrality is about ‘net’ zero (what is emitted minus what is offset equals zero) zero carbon is different, and better. Zero carbon means that no carbon is emitted at all. 

To achieve zero carbon means that every step in the production process — energy, travel, supply chains etc. — is 100% carbon-free.

green buildings
photo credit: Lily Banse / Unsplash

Carbon sequestration is all about slowing and mitigating the impacts of climate change. It happens naturally: trees sequester and store carbon. And so carbon sequestration is all about capturing and storing atmospheric carbon dioxide.

As mentioned, carbon sequestration is a process that takes place naturally through the storage of carbon in vegetation, oceans, and soil. Forests sequester twice as much carbon as they emit every year – a crucial natural resource.

More technologically advanced methods involve capturing carbon and using it as a resource to create building materials, fuels, and carbon materials.

Whilst carbon sequestering stores carbon, carbon offsetting is about compensating for emissions of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. A prominent example of this is investing in projects that aim to reduce CO2 emissions, such as new renewable energy infrastructure or carbon sequestration projects. 

However, it has its downsides. We don’t want to simply focus on ‘offsetting’ our existing ways of living, we want to try and live, buy and work more sustainably.  That is where the future lies. That is where the solutions are to be found. 

For a solution today, have a look at how and why we protect rainforests.

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