Carbon, Explained

By Faran Krentcil, Fact checked by Jessica Ochoa

2 min read

Mushrooms

In a way, carbon is the Taylor Swift of ecology—so important everyone knows about it, and so misunderstood that a handful of grouches turn it into a soap opera villain. But just like T Swift and a Top 40 station, carbon is essential to all life on earth, and knowing what it does can help inform our choices for the planet and ourselves.

WHAT IS CARBON?

Carbon is a tiny organic element that’s plentiful in nature, and it exists in all living things. If atoms are the building blocks of matter, then carbon is the building block of organic life. Carbon plays very well with others, and combines with lots of other elements to form molecules, including carbon + oxygen (that’s carbon dioxide) and carbon + hydrogen (that’s a hydrocarbon). All organic life is made out of carbon.

HOW DOES CARBON GET INTO THE ATMOSPHERE?

When energy is burned by organic matter, carbon dioxide enters the atmosphere. Every breath you take? Great Sting song, but also, how carbon dioxide gets into the air. Every fireplace burning wood creates carbon emissions. Every time gasoline or oil is burned for fuel creates carbon emissions, too.

HOW DOES CARBON GET OUT OF THE ATMOSPHERE NATURALLY?

Plants and fungi “eat” carbon! Their roots and leaves take carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and the ground, then turn it into oxygen. (This process is called “photosynthesis,” which you probably remember from 4th grade science.) Bamboo, ferns, and palm trees are all high on the oxygen production list, as are sea plants like algae and kelp. But every plant in the world needs carbon to survive.

IS CARBON EVIL?

Nope! Carbon is vital. But when there's too much carbon and not enough oxygen in the atmosphere and groundwater—when the natural world is whacked out of balance—then we've got a problem. We can help solve that problem by taking small steps together to achieve a big collective impact. (We're doing it here in case you want to join.) But freaking out about carbon isn't going to solve anything. Learning more about it, like you're doing right now, is the true first step.

So keep going. 😊