Carbon is the basis of all life on Earth, past and present, says the writer. Picture: marcinjozwiak/Pixabay
Carbon is the basis of all life on Earth, past and present, says the writer. Picture: marcinjozwiak/Pixabay

WATCH: Ever wondered what exactly carbon is?

By Dominic Naidoo Time of article published Jan 13, 2022

Share this article:

Of all the wonderful buzz terms flying around the climate change activist community, it all revolves around “carbon”.

In a nutshell, climate change is largely the result of solar radiation being trapped in Earth's atmosphere by gases such as carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and methane.

Although these gases were always naturally present in the atmosphere, the unchecked burning of fossil fuels during the industrial revolution coupled with mass deforestation for much of the 19th and 20th centuries have led to a dramatic increase of these Earth warming gases.

What does burning fossil fuels have to do with carbon, you ask? According to the Swinburne Center for Astrophysics and Supercomputing, carbon forms at the centre of stars in a reaction called the triple-alpha process. Carbon gets its name from the Latin word carbo, which means "coal".

​Read the latest Simply Green digital magazine below

According to LiveScience, “diamonds and graphite are among the hardest and softest natural materials known, respectively. The only difference between the two is their crystal structure.”

Carbon is an abundant element. It exists in pure or nearly pure forms such as diamonds and graphite but can also combine with other elements to form molecules. These carbon-based molecules are the basic building blocks of humans, animals, plants, trees and soils. Some greenhouse gases, such as CO2 and methane, also consist of carbon-based molecules, as do fossil fuels, which are largely made up of hydrocarbons (molecules consisting of hydrogen and carbon).

Carbon is the basis of all life on Earth, past and present. That brings us to fossil fuels. National Geographic explains that fossil fuels are made from decomposing plants and animals.

“These fuels are found in the Earth’s crust and contain carbon and hydrogen, which can be burned for energy. Coal, oil, and natural gas are examples of fossil fuels.”

Coal is usually found in sedimentary rock deposits where rock and dead plant and animal matter are piled up in layers. Oil is originally found as a solid material between layers of sedimentary rock, like shale. This material is heated in order to produce the thick oil that can be used to make gasoline.

Natural gas is usually found in pockets above oil deposits. It can also be found in sedimentary rock layers that don’t contain oil. Natural gas is primarily made up of methane.

When we burn fossil fuels, carbon molecules combine with oxygen to form carbon dioxide gas which is adept at retaining heat, thus warming the planet. Fossil fuels are non-renewable energy sources as they take millions of years to form.

Share this article: