Skip to main content

Carbon: the back story

Carbon is an essential resource and one of the major building blocks for life. The climate problem arises when there is too much ‒ as a gas ‒ in the atmosphere.

Carbon is a shapeshifter and exists in:

Fungi growing on tree

1. Organic compounds

Carbon comes in various combinations with oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen and other elements. These compounds build plants, fungi, microbes and animals – including us and the ‘once living’: such as wood, soil organic matter, peat and limestone (from seashells).

Diamond ring

2. Pure solid forms

Carbon is what graphite and diamonds are made from (yep, diamonds!)

Bubbles in water

3. A gas

Carbon combines with oxygen to make carbon dioxide (CO2) and with hydrogen to make methane (CH4). Plants combine the gas carbon dioxide (CO2), with water and sunshine to make energy food (carbs) and life’s building blocks.

The carbon-based gases are also Earth warmers:

CO2 is the main culprit as there is more of it in the air (over 400 parts per million). Methane has a greater warming effect but there is much less of it (1.7 ppm).



No atmospheric CO2 results in average global temperatures of around minus 18˚C (brrr).

Beach and sea with seagulls flying across a sunset

Pre-industrial Revolution

Pre-industrial Revolution CO2 levels were around 280 parts per million (ppm). The average global temperature was about 13.6˚C (just right).

Forest on fire


Today CO2 levels are 417 ppm and rising. The average global temperature is 15˚C which is getting too hot!


Carbon is a resource not a toxin. Currently we just need more in a solid, rather than a gaseous, form. 

Climate Evolution 

Climate Evolution 

During the last three billion years or so, Earth’s climate has changed many times. Temperature changes are linked to CO2 levels. Major changes brought major extinctions. Today atmospheric CO2 levels are the highest they’ve been for over three million years and temperatures are rising ‒ fast.  

Climate Emergency 

  • Without action we're on track for a 4°C rise by the end of the century which is totally catastrophic
  • We must limit the rise to 1.5°C to prevent dangerous, irreversible change
  • It's not too late to act but we must ACT NOW  

Climate Revolution

Illustration showing how carbon needs re-balancing

Climate Revolution 

Carbon cycles between land, air, and life – shapeshifting from solid carbon compounds to carbon dioxide gas (CO2) in a dynamic cycle. The more that exists as CO2 in the atmosphere, the hotter it gets. What do we need to do? Reduce CO2!

  • STOP man-made emissions
  • REMOVE CO2 from the atmosphere
  • STORE it as solid carbon compounds



Image credits: Sabrinna Ringquist, J KHenry PicotFrank McKennaKarsten Winegeart and Nick Nice.