When you hear the word “carbon” these days, it’s understandable if the first thought that comes to mind is a little apprehensive. But global warming and climate change aside, it’s actually an essential natural element that supports all life on earth.
Carbon helps to regulate atmospheric temperatures, promotes the growth of vegetation and food, forms the air we breathe, and, since the dawn of the industrial age – provides fuel for the global economy. It’s an element that can take the form of either a solid or a gas, and its natural movement between the earth’s surface and atmosphere is known as the “global carbon cycle”.
But as we’ve come to realize, the last 150 years of human activity have caused both a dramatic and rapid change to this natural balance. And as more research comes to hand, we’re realizing just how critical it is to restore the carbon cycle to its original state – similar to how it was long before human beings ever walked the earth.
And if you’re concerned about global warming and want to take effective action, it’s vital to understand exactly how the global carbon cycle works – and what you can do to help turn things around.
What Is the Global Carbon Cycle, and Why Is It So Important?
In simple terms, the global carbon cycle is the continual movement of carbon between the earth’s atmosphere, oceans, and land. Some forms of carbon move between these areas in seconds, such as plants absorbing CO2 during growth, while others gradually circulate over thousands of years, such as the formation of fossil fuels like coal, oil, and gas.
Historically, our land and oceans have acted as major “sinks” of the global carbon cycle, absorbing around half of all carbon emissions while the remainder is stored in the atmosphere. And while the three areas are all critical to the global cycle, they each capture and utilize carbon in a different way:
- Atmosphere: Today, around half of all new greenhouse gas emissions are absorbed by the atmosphere – which has a direct impact on global temperatures. Among other factors, carbon contributes to capturing and releasing heat which leads to warmer temperatures, and the concentration of water vapor and moisture in the air which produces more humidity.
- Oceans: Around 30% of the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere dissolves back into the oceans via a chemical reaction, becoming carbonic acid and increasing the seawater’s acidity. The ocean can actually hold even more carbon than the atmosphere, and has been absorbing higher percentages of global carbon emissions in recent decades. This change is resulting in warmer sea temperatures, higher acidification, and rising water levels – all factors that put marine plant and animal life at risk.
- Land: Most carbon on land is locked up in forests, soil, peatlands, and permafrost, while minerals such as coal and oil are simply natural storage reserves made up of the carbon from plants and animals that died millions of years ago. Plants absorb CO2 from the atmosphere as part of their natural growth cycle, while animals and humans breathe in carbon dioxide during our respiratory process. Natural events such as erosion, wildfires, and volcanic activity release carbon back into the atmosphere, while human activity also creates significant greenhouse gas emissions through the extraction and burning of fossil fuels.
Because carbon is one of the most critical gases for controlling temperatures, it’s vital for us to keep atmospheric CO2 levels within a healthy and sustainable range. If there were no carbon in the air, the earth would be a frozen wasteland – but if carbon levels continue to increase at the current rate, we risk global warming irreversibly changing the world as we know it.
How Is Human Activity Changing the Natural Balance?
A common misconception is that our activities create “new” carbon that warms the atmosphere. But when we burn coal to make electricity or gasoline to power an engine, we’re actually just moving carbon from one place to another; from a solid form stored in the earth’s surface – to a gas that traps heat in the atmosphere.
And the critical issue here is not just that we’re releasing CO2 into the atmosphere – but that we’re doing it at such a dramatic scale and over such a short period of time.
As we covered in a recent article, human activity produces carbon emissions in many different ways, ranging from burning fossil fuels to create electricity – to clearing forest areas for manufacturing and agriculture. These actions contribute to global changes such as artificially extended growing seasons, rising sea levels, increasing humidity, and volatile weather and rainfall patterns. In some areas, these changes have actually led to increased vegetation growth, but higher temperatures also lead to water shortages, drier soils, and significant stress on plants – while also increasing the risk of wildfires.
Over the last few decades, it’s become crystal clear that if we want to slow down (and ultimately reverse) the effects of global warming, we need to restore the carbon cycle’s natural equilibrium. And to do that, we require immediate action in two areas: reducing the amount of CO2 entering the atmosphere – and sequestering more of the carbon dioxide that’s already there.
What Can We Do To Turn Things Around?
Thankfully, we’re in the midst of a global effort to decarbonize our world and prevent the damaging impacts of climate change – although we need to remember that we still have a lot of work ahead of us.
On a personal level, there are many ways you can reduce your carbon footprint and live a far more sustainable lifestyle. And on a broader scale, there are significant changes we can make in our societies to lower CO2 levels:
Perhaps the most encouraging change in America is the rapid shift from fossil fuel electricity to renewable energy – particularly solar, wind, and hydro. These sources are meeting more of our energy needs each year and produce no carbon emissions in the process, making them the logical pathway to a carbon-free future.
If you want to power your home or business with clean electricity, you can make changes such as installing a solar energy system, switching to green energy from your utility, or purchasing renewable energy credits to offset your current electricity use.
In addition to the growing popularity of electric cars – which we can power with renewable energy – there are also major efforts to decarbonize road transport, aviation, and even the shipping industry. Many companies are currently experimenting with biofuels and green or blue hydrogen, which can significantly reduce transport emissions without disrupting the global movement of goods and people.
If you drive a gas or diesel vehicle in your daily life and want to balance your environmental impact, you can use our online carbon footprint calculator to measure your road emissions and then purchase carbon offsets to mitigate your environmental impact.
And of course, the most effective way to reduce your transport emissions is to avoid unnecessary car travel whenever you can, and walk, cycle, or use public transport instead.
Much of the global industrial sector is currently going through a dramatic transition to cleaner forms of fuel, heating, and electricity. More and more companies are embracing new sustainability measures such as recycling, water conservation, carbon capture and reuse, and balancing out emissions with carbon offsets and renewable energy credits.
As an individual, you also have the power to influence corporate behavior with the decisions you make every day. You can support companies that are committed to environmental sustainability, and purchase carbon-neutral products from brands that invest time, money, and effort into counteracting their CO2 emissions.
The agricultural sector creates almost a quarter of America’s CO2 emissions, much of which is due to land clearing for cattle and crop production. If you want to reduce the carbon emissions associated with your food, you can support sustainable and free-range farms, eat more local and seasonal foods, grow your own fruits and vegetables at home, and even reduce the amount of meat in your weekly diet.
At terrapass, we also work with farms around America to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by making better use of animal waste, which otherwise releases methane, and converting it into clean electricity.
You Have the Power To Make an Important Difference
Despite the challenges ahead of us, it’s important to remember that we already have the knowledge and technology we need to reverse global warming – what we need now is action.
At terrapass, we’re committed to inspire and help everyone – from individuals to large companies – to reduce their carbon emissions and help to build a cleaner, more sustainable world.
If you’re interested in discovering more about our recent initiatives, you can read through our list of sustainable living projects – or browse through the terrapass Footprint Blog for the latest advice on living a more sustainable lifestyle.
And if you’re seeking extra ways to take direct climate action, we offer a selection of verified carbon offsets to reduce your CO2 emissions while helping to create and expand environmental projects around the country.
Perhaps more than any other natural system, the global carbon cycle perfectly represents the environment’s ability to find and sustain a healthy balance. And being as our health and wellbeing are tied directly to the world around us – we believe it’s vital for each of us to do what we can, when we can, to support the incredible planet that supports us.
INFOGRAPHIC BY THE UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF ENERGY.