Carbon Sinks: What Are They & Why Are They Important?
Across the globe, extreme weather events are becoming a regular occurrence. Right now, wildfires are ablaze, devastating Greece 🔥 In the US, 20,000 firefighters are tackling 97 wildfires across 13 states 🔥 Here in Scotland, the rising temperatures haven't resulted in such extremes - instead these past few weeks we have been able to soak up the rays we're not used to ☀️ But on the other end of the spectrum, our weather has become erratic, culminating in flash flooding 🌊 and thunderstorms ⛈️ aplenty across Glasgow in the last few days. This is not normal - but for some reason, it is brushed under the rug by many as if it is. To the untrained eye, I guess why would you question it when someone tells you "the weather goes in natural cycles, just enjoy the sunshine!". Because who doesn't prefer the sunshine? ☀️ But it represents an increasingly erratic trend of extreme weather events caused by the warming of our climate and sheer lack of direction in doing anything about it, as exemplified by this weeks landmark IPCC report noting the climate disaster as 'code red for humanity'.
We knew this months article should reflect the environmental extremes we as a species have witnessed as of late. Because as much as we stand in awe at the roar of a thunderstorm, and bathe in the heat of summer sun, we can also recognise the growing uncertainty and inconsistencies when it comes to our weather. Which brings us to our topic, and our best weapon against the effects of drastic climate change - our carbon sinks.
Wait, what are carbon sinks?
Carbon sinks can be understood as anything that absorbs more carbon from the atmosphere than it releases. Globally, there are three crucial types, which we explore below. Contrastingly, carbon sources are anything that release more carbon than they absorb, like burning fossil fuels or volcanic eruptions.
Our Oceans 🌊
Oceans cover over 70% the surface of the Earth, playing a critical role in capturing an estimated 25% of all CO2 emissions from the atmosphere. But it wasn't always that way. In fact, at one point the ocean was actually a net source of carbon (releasing more carbon than it absorbed). That was, until the industrial revolution meant it had to take on the role of makeshift carbon sink. Nowadays, our oceans absorb CO2 from the atmosphere due to the increased atmospheric concertation of carbon dioxide - meaning more carbon is dissolved in the surface water. "This water may then mix down, or sink as it is cooled, into the deep sea where the absorbed CO2 can stay locked up for hundreds of years as it slowly moves through the deep interior ocean and back to the atmosphere."
So why is this a problem? It's working right? For now, yes. But at a cost. While the oceans carbon capture has helped to slow the pace of global warming, increasing CO2 in the ocean has been altering the chemistry of seawater – an effect known as ocean acidification – which has negative impacts on marine life and is responsible for the bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef and other coral reefs across the world. Moreover, our single-use consumption, and its subsequent pollution of our seas has negatively influenced the carbon capture cycle. As ClientEarth's Tatiana Luján explains much better than we can: "Plastic makes phytoplankton excretion more buoyant, so it floats more and is slower to sink. The slower it sinks, the more time carbon has to escape back into the atmosphere." Whales support the growth of phytoplankton and store as much as 30 tons of CO2 across their lifespans. When they die, they sink to the ocean floor, trapping that carbon for hundreds of years. But with plastic pollution, whales are dying prematurely, capturing less carbon in the process.
Moreover, disturbing biological carbon sinks such as fossils and limestone through trawling and drilling is, and has, fundamentally altered the oceans ability to store carbon. And worse yet, our subsequent use of these resources to fuel our cars and industries simply re-injects the carbon they were holding into the atmosphere. It's a double-edged sword that can only be halted by halting irresponsible fishing practices and oil exploration. A reality which the UK is currently, infuriating ironically, disregarding entirely with their insistence that plans for the Cambo oil fields cannot simply be 'torn up' - totally undermining their declaration for change at Glasgow's COP26 climate event later this year.
Our Soils 🌱
Contributing to around one quarter of our global carbon sink, with a higher rate of exchange with our atmosphere than our atmosphere has with the ocean (despite occupying a much larger surface), soils are probably the most overlooked of the 3 major carbon sinks across the globe.
And their influence is too, under threat. Due to our ever increasing food production demands, pressure is forming on farmers to produce more from less, forcing many to become overly reliant on chemicals such as fertilisers and pesticides to increase or even just maintain their yields. Problem being, as soon as they introduce unnatural chemicals to the soil, the more reliant their soils become on them. Consequently for our planet, this also makes them less efficient as one of natures carbon sinks. A 2018 study highlighted this precise reality, noting that 'any carbon capture benefits are being offset by higher nitrous oxide emissions in the soil from fertilisers'. The solution? Plant based fertilisers!
Our Plants + Forests 🌳
Why are carbon sinks important?
Simply put - carbon sinks are what have allowed our Earth to survive our fossil fuel neglect this long. Yet we are diminishing them. Impairing them. As explained throughout this article, we need our carbon capture army of plants, soils and oceans to be operating at their optimum to have a chance to overturn the alarming, nonsensical path we have been since the start of the industrial revolution. That is, in addition to making positive changes to also drastically reduce the amount of greenhouse gases we are pumping into our atmosphere every year.
How to conclude?
As noted in the IPCC's report on the state of our climate - we have to make change now if we are to limit, and even reverse, ever-worsening impacts. Countries across the world are already experiencing our changing, more erratic climate first hand - in 2020 we witnessed Australia, the Artic and California succumb to devastating wildfires. This year, 12 other US states, Canada, Turkey and, most recently, Greece have been destroyed by raging wildfire, as the regions have become abnormally dry. On the other end of the spectrum, flash flooding has effected Germany, China and the UK. This is merely a foretaste of what's to come should we not take immediate action to protect our forests, oceans and soils, and crucially, reduce our carbon output. We need our carbon sinks more than ever and it is our duty to protect, and reinforce them.
It's not all bleak though. To our benefit - we are living amidst a time that is finally beginning to take this seriously. I would argue, the most conscious period in our history so far. With this article, it was our goal to contribute to that - helping you, our sustainable superheroes, more aware of our biggest weapons in the fight against climate change. Here's hoping we've helped ready you in becoming active and passionate in protecting them.
Make your difference with plastic free reusable swaps on our store 🛒 and don't forget to get planting trees 🌳🌳 with TreeApp (not an affiliate we just love their drive!)
Sometimes I wonder - is our species doing everything in its power to eliminate itself? It's like we have a goal of extinction with some of the mindboggling decision making and corner cutting when it comes to some of our most essential functions as a species. I do hold the belief though that it's going to be awesome years from now when we have the privilege of explaining to the next generation how, decades ago, there were entire industries setup around digging up the fossilised remains of creatures at the sea bed, so our civilisations could burn it as fuel for our vehicles and businesses, horrifically polluting our planet in the process...That is until we helped the world come to its senses. My money is on them responding: "Why wouldn't you just utilise energy the world already gives us - solar and wind?" At which point we will only be able to explain how profits over planet had been the mantra of business leaders for far too long. This frustration lights our fire and gives us the desire to make ReLove a business who make a positive difference in our world. This, is my optimistic future - where our species have halted climate change and brought business and political leaders to their senses.