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The carbon cycle: a quick recap

Emissions disrupt the carbon cycle. We explain the difference between the long and short cycle and tell you how a carbon footprint can help you.

In the complex world of climate science, understanding the carbon cycle is crucial for grasping how our planet manages and balances its carbon dioxide (CO2) levels—a key factor influencing global climate. The carbon cycle comprises several processes that circulate carbon through the environment, and it can be divided into two main components: the short and the long carbon cycles. Each plays a vital role in Earth's climate system but operates over vastly different timescales and involves distinct processes.

The short carbon cycle

The short carbon cycle involves the movement of carbon (C) atoms over a relatively short period of time. This is the movement of CO2 taken up from the air by living organisms such as plants or bacteria. These organisms convert the CO2 into glucose through photosynthesis. 

When the plant or bacterium is eaten, or consumed in some other way, it becomes food for the 'consumer'. Who converts it into, for example, body weight and combustion. The combustion has as a residual product which is CO2, so the cycle is complete again.

If plants or trees fall, die and/or burn, the stored carbon is released back into the atmosphere. Hence, when we plant a tree, which falls over due to a wind gust 15 years later, no carbon is captured and stored at the point that the tree is perished.

So summarising, the short carbon cycle primarily involves the rapid exchange of carbon between the atmosphere, plants, animals, and the ocean's upper layers. It is marked by processes that occur within a few years to decades, such as photosynthesis, respiration, and the decay of organic matter.

The long carbon cycle

As the name suggests, the long carbon cycle takes a long time compared to human life. The long carbon cycle extends over millions of years and involves the geological processes that transform carbon-containing minerals and rocks. This cycle includes the weathering of rocks, the deposition of carbon as sediment, and its eventual subduction and re-emission into the atmosphere through volcanic activity.

The long cycle plays a pivotal role in controlling the Earth's longer-term climate and carbon dioxide levels, providing a slow but steady regulation of the climate by sequestering carbon over geological timescales. This long-term storage of all this carbon created the climate as we know it today. 

Some dead plants or animals end up under layers of earth. This way, they do not rot (consumed by fungi and bacteria), but form almost permanent storage of C-atoms. This storage took place over millions of years and transformed into what we now know as coal, oil and gas.

By removing these layers of coal, oil and gas to satisfy our energy needs, we tap into these long-term carbon sinks. This, at least for human terms, should not take place. It results in the re-entering of the carbon into the atmosphere. This in returns leads to hot and dry temperatures like our planet has seen long before mankind existed.

The carbon cycle

Carbon footprint

To further prevent the consequences of this carbon cycle disruption, countries have aggreed on global agreements on CO2 reduction. One way of gaining insight into emissions is by calculating your carbon footprint. A carbon footprint shows exactly what are the greenhouse gas emission sources in your organisation.

Do you want to know more about CO2 and your carbon footprint? Read our article: What's it all about with CO2?

Find our free carbon calculator and dashboard at our carbon footprint page
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