21 July 2024, 12:21
By Richard Naylor Nov 17, 2023

A quick guide to carbon literacy

It’s not easy being green – but furniture businesses must face up to the challenge. In the fifth of an exclusive series of articles exploring the whys and hows of becoming a more eco-conscious furniture business, Richard Naylor, group sustainable development director at Hypnos, explains the facts behind the “carbon jargon” of the green movement …

What is carbon? Why is it significant? Is it bad? Can someone please explain net zero? What is carbon neutral? Do you ever feel like you are drowning in an ocean of carbon vocabulary that is only understood by the few, who like to preach to the many? With this article, I will hopefully provide you, dear reader, with ‘all you really need to know about carbon, but were too afraid to ask’. So, what’s all the fuss about?

Carbon is an element whose atoms easily attach to other atoms to become the basis of all living organisms. It is often used as shorthand for carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases, as last month’s column described. It is the sixth element on the periodic table and has three physical forms – diamonds, graphite and fullerite. 

Without carbon, Marilyn Monroe would not have sung ‘diamonds are a girl’s best friend’ in the 1953 box office smash, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. But more importantly, there would be no living things – no trees to make furniture from, and no craftsmen to carve the furniture, because carbon occurs in all living things and is the basis of organic chemistry. We are all carbon-based lifeforms. 

So, here are a few facts about carbon that may come in useful at your next pub quiz night:

• 18% of the human body weight is carbon.

• A one-carat diamond can be considered a single huge molecule consisting of 1022 carbon atoms

• A 90 tonne whale contains nine tonnes of carbon

• 100% of life on earth contains carbon compounds

• There is 50 times more carbon in the ocean than in the air

• Most carbon on earth is stored in rocks – this equates to around 65 billion tonnes!

• Just under 60% of decomposed organic matter in soil is carbon

• It is the sixth most abundant element in the universe

To appreciate the influence of carbon, a little basic science is helpful. The flexible qualities of carbon stem from its chemistry – put simply, a carbon atom readily attaches itself to up to four other atoms. 

Unlike many other players in the table of elements, carbon is not selective about its attachments. It can be found transforming itself from liquid to gas to solid, depending on the conditions. 

All life is based on carbon. Just as water is essential for life, carbon too, is fundamental. From ocean-travelling whales to soil-residing earthworms, from ancient rocks deep underground to free-flowing gases high in the sky, carbon is everywhere. All living creatures eat carbon, exhale carbon and excrete carbon. Part of the carbon cycle, known as photosynthesis, enables plants, algae and certain types of bacteria to convert CO2 into energy, which in turn delivers our life-sustaining oxygen supply. 

Carbon, in all its different forms and functions, is breathtakingly important – but can we have too much of a good thing? If carbon is natural, and essentially a good and crucial element, where do things go wrong, and why has it become so contentious? 

The answer is purely about balance. The movement of carbon through the air, earth, water, and living things is called the carbon cycle. Within the natural carbon cycle are assorted sources and sinks of CO2. Living and decomposing animals and plants are the primary sources. Oceans, forests, other kinds of vegetation and soils act as natural sinks. 

Problems only start to arise when carbon emissions increase dramatically and overwhelm the capacity of natural systems to absorb or counterbalance them. CO2 levels are higher today than at any time in at last 800,000 years. Indeed, fossil evidence suggests the last time the world knew 400ppm was three million years ago! 

When we burn fossil fuels we release carbon that was locked away millions of years ago, putting it back into the carbon cycle as CO2. Oceans and forests have soaked up lots of this extra carbon, but these ecosystems have their limits. The huge amounts of CO2 being absorbed by the world’s oceans is making them more acidic than they have been for tens of millions of years. The more acidic the oceans become, the lower their capacity to store excess CO2, meaning more will accumulate in the air. Some of these natural carbon sinks have been further undermined through deforestation, which has been widely reported as an issue for decades. 

So, in a nutshell, the carbon cycle is out of balance, with too many sources of CO2 and too few sinks. The facts are clear – unless we change tack, this burden will be shouldered by society, business and future generations, in the form of an increasingly unpredictable global climate.

Our roles as furniture businesses is to grow or sustain our organisations in a balanced way – a way that does not take more from the planet than we put back. This issue has given rise to a host of new not-for-profit organisations, consultants, certification schemes and businesses eager to assist us to operate in a more balanced ways. This phenomena has brought with it a language that is becoming more familiar to us all, but does require translating at times. 

Here are my top 10 carbon literacy terms, and a brief explanation of their meaning …

Carbon footprint

A measure of the CO2 released into the atmosphere as a result of particular human activities or industries

Carbon neutral

Carbon neutral means achieving a ‘neutral’ balance between the amount of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions produced in the context of a given project, asset or organisation, and the ‘carbon’ offsets purchased to abate any remaining emissions

Net zero

Net zero, on the other hand, refers to a given project, asset or organisation which first reduces its emissions following science-based reduction pathways, then offsets any remaining GHG emissions by LFL removals (in other words, permanent removals for fossil carbon emissions)

Carbon offset

Carbon offset schemes allow individuals and companies to invest in environmental projects around the world in order to balance out their own carbon footprints. The projects are usually based in developing countries and are, most commonly, designed to reduce future emissions. This might involve rolling out clean energy technologies or purchasing and ripping up carbon credits from an emissions trading scheme. Other schemes work by soaking up CO2 directly from the air through the planting of trees

Carbon accounting

Carbon accounting is the process of measuring how much carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2e) an organisation emits

Carbon negative

A business is carbon negative (or climate positive) if the net result of its activities is a decrease in the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. This is going a step further than net zero

Carbon removal

Carbon removal is the process of taking carbon from the atmosphere and storing it where it won’t contribute to climate change

Carbon sink

Once carbon has been removed from the atmosphere (see carbon removal), it needs to be stored somewhere. This storage is called a carbon sink

Decarbonisation

Decarbonisation (also known as carbon reduction) is the process of reducing the amount of GHG emissions your company produces. For example, this can be done by switching to more climate-friendly suppliers or to clean energy providers. Decarbonisation is a crucial step in the journey to net zero.

SECR

The Streamlined Energy and Carbon Reporting (SECR) is a piece of UK legislation. It requires large companies and all publicly traded companies to report on their energy consumption and associated GHG emissions

This column featured in November's Furniture News.

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