Carbon is one of the most important and abundant elements in the universe. It is the basis of all known life on Earth and is fundamentally linked to the history—and future—of human society.

Carbon is everywhere—in the food we eat, the homes we build, the clothes we wear, the goods we buy, the fuels we use, and even the air we breathe. It moves through nature in cycles and through our economy as food, clothing, lumber, metals, chemicals, plastics, fossil fuels, and waste.

The cycling of carbon matters. It matters because having the right amounts and proportions carbon in the atmosphere, living organisms, soils, rocks and oceans is central to the healthy functioning of ecosystems. Indeed, it’s what makes life even possible on Earth.

Image Credit: NASA

Carbon flows through nature in cycles and through our economy as commodities and waste.

Carbon is truly a master element. It readily binds with other elements in the periodic table to form a broad range of compounds and materials. When paired with oxygen, it becomes carbon dioxide (CO2), an important greenhouse gas.

Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere acts like a blanket to keep heat in. Without it, the Earth would be a dead, frozen planet (like Mars). With too much of it, the Earth would become a pressure-cooker hot enough to melt lead (like Venus).

So maintaining this balance is quite important. Fortunately, the Earth has been doing a pretty good job of it for millions of years through the workings of complex cycles that have kept conditions ideal for life. But things are changing.

As a result of increased emissions from the burning of fossil fuels, CO2 levels in the atmosphere have risen from 280 to 410 part-per-million (ppm) over the past two centuries. Today, levels are higher than they have been in over 800,000 year (a perhaps even 4.5 million years).

Science strongly shows that atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are positively correlated with the Earth’s surface temperature. During periods of “ice ages” CO2 levels have been as low as 180 ppm. During the Cambrian period, when the average temperature was 7ºC higher than today, CO2 levels were as high as 4,500 ppm.

A warming world poses many risks to nature and society, including an intensification of weather and storm systems, changes in precipitation patterns, melting glaciers and ice caps, rising sea levels, and ocean acidification. Ultimately, many parts of the world could experience major climatic shifts, large-scale species extinction, ecosystem collapses, economic failures, and even socio-political breakdown, conflict and war.

Clearly, this is something to pay attention to.

Learn moreClimate Change: How Do We Know? (NASA)

Learn moreClimate Atlas of Canada