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Carbon is a common element of all known life. Our bodies, for example, are 18.5% carbon, second only to oxygen. It is incredibly flexible in how it can bond to itself and other elements and it thus highly diverse in its range of compounds, polymers, and allotropes (e.g., graphite, diamond).

There’s all this talk of doing things with carbon, like sequestering it, reducing its emission, and capturing it. I’ve heard footprints sometimes have carbon in them?

But carbon is just an element, a building block. It was here, in many forms, before we evolved and it will be here (though perhaps in diferent forms) after we are gone. The conservation of mass and all that.

We’ve been using carbon since at least 3750 BC, both as for fuel and for other needs (coal, oil, graphite, etc.). A great deal of it is derived from “fossil fuels” that, when vurned, produce carbon dioxide.

There is nothing inherently “wrong” with carbon dioxide. But beginning with the Industrial Revolution and especially since 1950, its emission resulting from burning “fossil fuels” like coal and oil, along with a number of other greenhouse gases, increased significantly, leading to significant climate change.

These concepts can be confusing! Let’s define them.

“capturing” carbon

Carbon capture is technology that aims to capture carbon dioxide generated by burning fossil fuels before it is released into the atmosphere. It is usually injected deep underground.

In rare instances, the captured carbon dioxide is utilized in some manner - for example, in the process of flushing out hard-to-extract oil. No, the irony is not lost on me.

The scale and efficiency of carbon capture have yet to come anywhere close to what would need to make a meaningful dent in global warming.

carbon “emissions”

Carbon emissions are carbon dioxide discharged (emitted) into the air.

carbon “footprint”

Carbon footprint is the concept that every individual and organization has a “footprint” they leave on the Earth made up of carbon dioxide emissions they are responsible for producing.

Carbon footprints are a harmful fiction in many cases because they place the emphasis and responsibility on the individual to “fix” global warming when in fact, systemic change is the only solution.

carbon “offsets”

Carbon offsets are certificates meant to represent activity that fights climate change. By purchasing a carbon offset, at a certain cost, you can “offset” your carbon “footprint” (from an international flight, for instance) by ostensibly funding these activities. Examples of these activities can include carbon capture or sequestration, along with certain agricultural activities, waste management, and renewable energy.

Through offsets, one can engage in carbon-emitting activities and still potentially achieve “net-zero” carbon emissions.

carbon “tax”

A carbon tax is a tax levied on businesses based on their carbon emissions, meant to incentivize them to decrease their emissions.

climate change ### global “warming”

Climate is the usual (think “average”) weather found in a place. Climate change is when it changes. Going back decades, among other things, the Earth’s climate has been getting hotter. Thus, the current climate change phenomenon is also sometimes referred to as global warming.

The current elevated climate change is driven by human activity, most prominently the burning of fossil fuels the emit greenhouse gases.

Note to folks in the US: scientists often discuss this change in degrees Celcius. A change of 1.5 °C can then sound not very threatening. But measured in Fahrenheit, it is nearly twice as large an increase. For example, 32 °F would become 34.7 °F and 86 °F changes to 88.7 °F, both an increase of 2.7 degrees.1

“fossil” fuels

Fossil fuels are hydrocarbon-based fuels (made up of carbon and hydrogen), such as petroleum, coal, or natural gas, derived from living matter of a previous geologic time, often found underground.

“greenhouse” gases

Greenhouse gases are gases, including carbon dioxide, that allow sunlight through but retain resulting radiated heat from the Earth in the atmosphere, known as the “greenhouse effect.”

“net-zero” emissions

Net zero refers to a state in which the greenhouse gases going into the atmosphere are balanced by their removal from it. Achieving “net zero” requires carbon offsets. True “zero” requires a complete change in global economies.

“sequestering” carbon

Carbon sequestration is the process of capturing and storing atmospheric carbon dioxide. There are two types: geologic, where carbon dioxide is liquified and injected into underground porous rock, and biologic, which includes natural processes that remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere (i.e., trees).

Planting more trees is fine, but it won’t be enough on its own. Cool as it is, neither will “whale carbon” or other marine biologic sequestration.

  1. °F = (°C x 1.8) + 32.00 ↩︎