Carbon Explained: All You Need To Know About Carbon Dioxide

Science & Tech
April 23, 2021
Avely Pütsep

We live on a carbon planet and we are carbon life.

Carbon is all around us. It’s in diamonds, fruits, people, plants, and graphite. It’s in the coffee you drink and the candles you burn. It’s easier to list things that lack carbon, like gold fillings in teeth and silicon microchips in phones.

Welcome to Carbon 101. In this lesson you’ll learn:

  • What is carbon, anyway?
  • Why does carbon matter?
  • How does carbon enter the atmosphere?
  • What’s a carbon sink?

First, are carbon and carbon dioxide the same thing?

Well, no.

In the context of climate change, “carbon” is commonly used as a shorthand for carbon dioxide which in actuality is not the same thing.

What is carbon?

Carbon is a chemical element like oxygen, lead, or any other in the periodic table. Carbon is the 6th element.

There are a few types of atoms that can

  • be a part of a plant one day, a part of an animal the next, and then travel in air or downstream as a part of a river,
  • recycle the same atoms over and over again.

Carbon fiber is a long chain of bonded carbon atoms. The fibers are extremely stiff, strong, and light, and are used in many processes to create excellent building materials.

What is carbon dioxide?

Carbon dioxide, or CO2, is the most commonly produced greenhouse gas, which traps heat in the atmosphere. A simple definition of carbon dioxide is when each atom of carbon joins with two atoms of oxygen. Hence the name CO2.

However, in the context of atmospheric CO2, carbon and carbon dioxide are often used interchangeably. They are both correct but keep in mind that one tonne of pure carbon equals 3.67 tonnes of CO2.

Is carbon dioxide good or bad? That’s too simplistic a question. Yes, it causes climate change but the importance of carbon can’t be overlooked.

one tonne of pure carbon equals 3.67 tonnes of CO2

Why is carbon important?

This question concerns the role of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Carbon is the central element in compounds necessary for life: organic compounds. These little fellas make up everything from cells to structures of organisms. They also carry out life processes.

Carbon is the most important element to living things because it forms many different kinds of bonds and forms essential compounds.

Without carbon, life as we know it literally wouldn’t exist. 🤷🏼

A few more reasons why carbon is necessary and, let’s face it, awesome:

  • Carbon regulates the Earth’s temperature
  • Carbon provides a major source of energy to fuel our global economy
  • Carbon is required to form complex molecules like proteins and DNA
  • Your skin, hair, blood, bone, muscle, and sinews all depend on carbon

How does carbon get into the atmosphere?

There are two main sources of CO2: natural and human activities.

Human activities play a massive role, having increased atmospheric CO2 concentration by 47% since the Industrial Revolution began.

Examples of human sources of carbon:

  • CO2 emissions from fossil fuels, burned to generate 85% of electricity globally
  • transportation, which is the second biggest source of CO2 emissions in the US
  • land-use change like clearing of land for agriculture to raise livestock
  • extensive deforestation: trees are potent organisms for absorbing and removing CO2 emissions from the air, helping to provide a carbon neutral planet. Cutting them down stops that process.

The planet’s carbon footprint is rapidly rising. It’s considerably higher than at any point in the last 800 000 years.

Natural activities include everything that happens in – you guessed it – nature.

Examples of natural sources of CO2:

  • organisms dying
  • volcanoes erupting
  • fires blazing
  • fossil fuels burning

In oceans, carbon continually moves through surface water and the atmosphere, or it’s stored for a long time in the depths of oceans.

Marine organisms from marsh plants to fish, seaweed to birds, also produce carbon through living and dying. Like people.

Most animals exhale carbon dioxide as a waste product. Including people.

Examples of sources of co2 are volcanoes erupting and burning of fossil fuels

Where is carbon dioxide found?

Carbon can be found everywhere, really. Most is stored in rocks and sediments. 80% of it is locked in rocks as inorganic carbon in the earth’s crust and mantle or lithosphere. Carbon is also in the ocean, atmosphere, and living organisms. And these are reservoirs of carbon, AKA carbon sinks!

What is a carbon sink?

A carbon sink is a place that absorbs more carbon than it releases.

One of the biggest carbon sinks are forests, which continually take carbon out of the atmosphere through the process of photosynthesis. That’s why it’s so important to protect the forests we have left. The older the tree, the greater its potential to store and offset carbon, and slow climate change.

Oceans are also carbon sinks. They store a large amount of carbon dioxide by absorbing it from the atmosphere.

It is crucial to save forests and wetlands we still have left to keep healthy ecosystems intact.

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