Understanding Carbon Emissions

Causes, Consequences and Solutions

The Carbon Cycle

The Earth has a natural carbon cycle that regulates the flow of carbon throughout our planet. It consists of sources that emit carbon into the atmosphere and sinks that absorb and retain it. The biological side of this cycle works near-perfectly. For example, animals breathe out carbon dioxide during respiration, which is then absorbed by plants, bacteria, and algae during photosynthesis, their energy-generating process. Oceans also play a role by absorbing and releasing carbon maintaining a delicate balance.

Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are a critical component of Earth’s atmosphere, and play a significant role in regulating the planet’s temperature. Greenhouse gases act like a natural blanket, allowing sunlight to enter and warm the Earth but trapping some of the heat, often referred to as the greenhouse effect. This natural greenhouse effect is essential for maintaining a temperature suitable for life on our planet. However, the enhanced greenhouse effect, driven by human activities, is causing a rapid and concerning increase in global temperatures, leading to climate change and its associated impacts.

The Disruptor: Fossil Fuels

When organisms die, some of the carbon stored within them is buried underground, effectively preventing its re-entry into the atmosphere. For hundreds of millions of years, this fossil carbon remained largely undisturbed, until humans impacted this balance by extracting and burning it as fuel. 

Today, fossil fuels, such as coal, oil, and gas, add billions of tonnes of carbon to the atmosphere annually. This extra carbon is responsible for trapping heat, contributing to climate change, and disrupting the world’s climate systems.

The Imbalance and its Consequences

The imbalance caused by extracting and burning fossil fuels affects the climate in various ways. The rise in carbon dioxide levels amplifies global warming, resulting in extreme weather events, rising temperatures and sea level rise. It also impacts the environment’s capacity to absorb and store carbon.

Sources of Additional Emissions

Carbon emissions come from various sources, and it’s essential to differentiate between “additional” emissions and those within the normal cycles of the environment. There are generally three ways “additional” emissions might happen:

Burning fossil fuels: Fossil fuels like diesel, gas, and coal were stored underground before use, making their emissions essentially ‘new’ carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Land use changes: While trees naturally grow and die, large-scale deforestation significantly alters the amount of carbon stored by plants, releasing it into the atmosphere.

Greenhouse Multipliers: Certain gases, like methane, create stronger greenhouse effects than carbon dioxide, with a warming effect up to 80 times more powerful. Activities that release these gases can have significant impacts on climate change, even if they don’t involve fossil fuels or deforestation.

Turning the Tide

The damage to Earth’s carbon cycle is not irreversible, and humans can take corrective actions. Restoring the balance requires an urgent shift in our behaviours. We can reduce carbon emissions by transitioning to clean energy sources, conserving energy, protecting forests and addressing activities that produce potent greenhouse gases. By understanding carbon emissions and making sustainable choices, we can play a significant role in mitigating climate change and restoring Earth’s carbon cycle.

The Path Forward: Working Together for a Sustainable Future

As we seek to understand and address the impact of human actions on the carbon cycle, it’s crucial to acknowledge the importance of collective efforts. From reducing emissions to protecting ecosystems, our actions today will shape a more sustainable and balanced future for generations to come.

Additional resources

There are many additional resources to explore from the local to the global level.

Climate Interactive has developed user-friendly simulation models that help people see connections and drive effective and equitable climate action.

Climate Action Simulation Game – The Climate Action Simulation is an engaging game that uses the En-ROADS simulator to help participants explore climate change solutions by simulating a UN-organised emergency climate summit, leading to enhanced understanding, engagement, and empowerment in the fight against climate change and models cross-sector policies for transportation, land use, and new technologies to limit climate change.

Explore C-ROADS Simulator – simulate national and regional greenhouse gas reduction for counties to meet Paris Agreement targets.

    IMF: Climate Change Dashboard – Global climate change data including crucial indicators like carbon dioxide levels, rising temperatures, sea-level increases, and natural disaster frequency, providing insights into the impacts of climate change on global communities.

    Climate Action Tracker – Get insights into how Australia is tracking against the rest of the world.

    OECD Climate Action Dashboard – Key indicators to track progress towards climate objectives and a snapshot of country climate action.

    Climate Change Quiz Night Q and A – Challenge your climate knowledge with our Climate Change Quiz Night! Explore your knowledge in five exciting rounds, perfect for event organisers, educators, and sustainability enthusiasts. Join the fun and learn about climate change, renewable energy and more!

    Climate Podcasts

    100 Climate Conversations is Australia’s leading climate-focused cultural project, featuring 100 inspiring Australians taking effective action against climate change, from soil carbon sequestering farmers to renewable energy entrepreneurs. These conversations, conducted by respected journalists, are recorded live at the Powerhouse, with videos and transcripts available on the project’s website and a weekly podcast in partnership with Spotify, ultimately becoming part of the museum’s collection for future generations.

    Think Sustainability focuses on the impact of climate change in Australia, our consumption and the technologies that can help us have a more sustainable future. The program explores practical actions and technologies to foster a more sustainable future in Australia, examining our consumption patterns and environmental impact.

    The Elephant Podcast offers an optimistic perspective on climate change by emphasizing the reasons behind it and presenting innovative solutions, such as turning carbon dioxide into rock in Iceland and exploring the 100% solution. It covers intriguing arguments in the realm of politics and emerging technologies.

    No Place Like Home features personal stories that humanise climate change and offers inspiration for individual actions. It explores existential questions, including kids’ involvement in the fight against climate change, reducing flying for a smaller carbon footprint, and the adoption of electric cars.


    The Big Melt – Sarah tackles the global climate crisis head-on in her podcast, fearlessly asking tough questions and providing well-researched answers. Whether she’s engaging with young change-makers, visionary thinkers, or eco-entrepreneurs, Sarah is committed to understanding and addressing the challenges of global warming and taking a DIY approach to make a positive impact.