Carbon has been getting a bum rap these days.
It’s little wonder because in the context of a changing climate, carbon is the culprit, combining with oxygen to form carbon dioxide — the most persistently villainous of all the greenhouse gases. Hence, you get the science world telling you to look after your carbon footprint. No doubt, you should. We here at NEMO certainly do.
But a deeper look at carbon itself indicates the status and interaction of the fourth most abundant element in the universe is more complex than its negative effect on the atmosphere.
Steal Your Carbon
“Someday you will die and somehow something’s gonna steal your carbon.”
So sings the rock band Modest Mouse. Apart from a not so gentle reminder to stay after adventure in the face of your own mortality this great lyric also hints at the central role of carbon as the root of all organic life. Life is impossible without it. Discounting water, human beings are roughly half carbon. All that lives contains carbon at its base. No less than astrophysicist Stephen Hawking described the element as having the “richest chemistry” of all the elements, saying its simplicity and capacity to combine with other elements is what makes it act as the building block of life. Science fiction authors theorize that carbon is so essential to organic material that alien life is impossible without the presence of carbon, an assertion that some detractors label “carbon chauvinism.”
So maybe not so bad after all?
Back to Earth
Even carbon’s inorganic manifestations are not uniformly evil. Carbon appears in nature in two main forms — graphite and diamonds. Diamonds are good right? Not only do they shine and adorn sophisticated and beautiful jewelry sets, but diamonds have critical industrial applications. They are used to cut, drill, polish, refine and grind, sometimes on enormous scales, largely due to their hardness, durability, transparency and resistance to heat. Graphite is also useful. It isn’t lead in your pencils, folks. Nope, that is pure unmitigated carbon in the form of graphite, helping us write sentences and compose beautiful sketches since the invention of paper.
Elemental VersatilityIn fact, carbon’s presences in the universe as graphite is so abundant and recognizable, it is one of the few elements known since antiquity. Also, in a fact that embodies how cool carbon is, our element manifests as both the hardest substance on earth and one of the softest. Graphite conducts electricity extremely well; diamonds are poor conductors. Try saying something firm about carbon and it will show you a version of itself that is not that.
Speaking of which, amid all this mighty praise of the “king of elements,” we must admit that carbon dioxide is really, really bad right now. Dating back to the late 1800's, 16 of the 17 warmest years on record have come between the years 2000 to 2016. The warming is due to an increased presence of a slew of greenhouse gases, sure, but carbon dioxide is the worst of them all. The arch nemesis.
It just lasts longer in the atmosphere than methane and nitrous oxide or other atmospheric factors like aerosols or water vapor. We are talking hundreds if not thousands of years. That’s a lot of time to sit around and absorb incoming sunlight, trap heat coming of the planet’s surface, and make the atmosphere hotter.
It’s a familiar refrain, but the increased presence of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is due to the burning of fossil fuels to create energy — to power cars, trucks, generate electricity for homes or power factories for manufacturing. Fossil fuels, whether its oil, natural gas or coal, are created when organic material, life plants or animals, decompose under layers of earth where they are starved of oxygen. All these fuels contain carbon, but the higher carbon-to-oxygen ratio, the more carbon dioxide it generates, and the worse it is for the atmosphere. Coal has the highest carbon density of all fossil fuels.
Listen, the presence of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is natural. It’s part of the carbon cycle, whereby our versatile little element travels from the planet into the air and sometimes through ice and glaciers and generally gets around. The problem as scientists currently see it revolves around proportion. The global average of carbon dioxide has risen approximately 40 percent since the advent of the Industrial Era.
The measurement of parts per million has increased from 278 parts per million in 1750 to 390 ppm in 2011, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The U.S. federal government said it exceeded 400 parts per million in 2016. Scientists say this increase in carbon dioxide directly corresponds with spikes in global temperatures.
Carbon SinksForests use carbon dioxide to breathe. It’s why certain parts of the plant formerly incapable of hosting certain kinds of plant life are witnessing the growth of forests, which can be construed as a positive byproduct of a changing climate. But it also means deforestation, especially in tropical zones, for agricultural production is particularly harmful as our trees act as a buffer. Oceans, too, act as vast repositories for carbon dioxide. Scientists continue to attempt to track and predict the changes visited upon those vital indicators of the health of planet Earth. Some studies indicate that the ocean’s vast sponge-like abilities are beginning to wane.
Strange that the element that is the core and foundation of all organic life is also conspiring with oxygen to endanger it. But here we are. The constraint of carbon dioxide emissions is identified as the single most important action in combatting a warming planet and the dangers that entails.
As individuals at NEMO, we are committed to doing our part. As a company, we are redoubling our efforts, and this commitment is driven by each and every employee. While we continue to convey our carbon around in our adventures, we’ll do our best to restrain the kind of carbon that continues to build danger in the air.
Want to know what you can do to lessen your carbon footprint? Check out 11 tips here.