Deforestation and Carbon: General Overview

Environment   Nov 6, 2017 by Amy Tomlinson - Pimlico

What is carbon?

Carbon is the fourth most abundant element in our solar system. It is a major component of all living organisms, including trees. This non-metal exists in multiple states and can assume the solid forms of charcoal, coal and diamonds.

The amount of carbon on Earth is fixed, however, carbon is dynamic and is constantly changing states. Carbon is released into the atmosphere from “carbon sources” and is stored in “carbon sinks” such as animals, rocks, water and plants.

Carbon and oxygen have a tendency to form carbon dioxide (CO2), carbon monoxide (CO) and other gaseous compounds in Earth’s atmosphere which can, in high concentrations be considered air pollutants, contributing to the greenhouse effect and playing a role in climate change.

The Carbon Cycle

The Greenhouse Effect

Earth’s atmosphere is composed of various gasses including methane, carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and many others which we call greenhouse gasses. Energy from the run radiates as short-wave solar radiation which the greenhouse gasses let through to be absorbed and re-radiated by Earth. When the short waves are re-radiated, they are re-radiated as long-wave solar radiation which the greenhouse gasses do not let back through the atmosphere, trapping heat energy. An increase in greenhouse gasses will in turn increase the amount of heat in the atmosphere. Therefore, in order to decrease the rate of global warming, the amount of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere must be reduced.

How do trees remove carbon from the atmosphere?

Trees can remove carbon dioxide gas from the atmosphere through photosynthesis which involves plant cells converting the carbon dioxide gas to a solid, sugar form such as glucose. These sugars then contribute to the tree’s growth whilst being stored in it’s trunks, branches, roots, stems and leaves. Oxygen is then released back into the atmosphere; thus trees remove carbon dioxide and “produce” oxygen as shown in the chemical formula for photosynthesis shown below:

What is Deforestation?

The growth of the human population has created a greater demand for food, energy sources, natural resources and land. New land is increasingly being found by cutting down rainforests, allowing agriculture to expand. This accelerated, large scale clearing of forests is known as deforestation.

Effects of Deforestation of Climate Change

The world’s forests, especially rainforests, act as a ‘carbon sink’, trapping carbon in their biomass. One of the most obvious effects of deforestation on climate change is the carbon it releases into the atmosphere. Fewer forests mean less carbon storage through trees and in soil, increasing the amount of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere. Tree’s roots hold soil in place, making them effective storage for the carbon in the soil but they also block the sun’s rays, trapping moisture in soil. Water vapour in the atmosphere can also trap long-wave solar radiation and so the removal of trees and the evaporation of moisture in soil into the atmosphere is another way that deforestation contributes to global warming. Fires lit for deforestation also contribute to carbon emissions. 

It is also important to note that deforestation not only effects the carbon cycle but is also severely detrimental to biodiversity.

Solutions to Deforestation

By holding their suppliers accountable for producing commodities like timber, beef, soy, palm oil and paper in a way that does not fuel deforestation companies can remove deforestation from their supply chains. The use of recycled materials in companies’ products should be also maximised to reduce deforestation and its effects.

Often, corporations and governments overlook the land rights of Indigenous peoples, destroying forests regardless of their claim to the land. Introducing stricter consequences for ignoring Indigenous peoples’ traditional land rights will reduce deforestation on land under Indigenous peoples’ ownership.

Governments also play a role in deforestation and are responsible for enforcing conservation laws to limit deforestation.

Each of us can play a role in eliminating deforestation by living sustainably. This could include eating sustainably sourced food, and choosing recycled or certified sustainable wood products.


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