Carbon is a key component of all known life on Earth – including animals like us. But plants have a special function that animals don’t. Whereas we breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide, plants do the opposite – taking carbon out of the atmosphere and releasing oxygen for us to breathe. They are part of the natural ‘machine’ that allows life to exist on Earth.
The Carbon Cycle
As well as in plants and animals, carbon is present in the Earth’s crust, in rocks, soils and fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas), in the sea, and in the air as greenhouse gases – and it’s cycled between these places by various processes, including erosion, mining, burning, respiration, decay, photosynthesis and absorption.
Find out more here.
We need some greenhouse gases in the air to keep the Earth at a temperature we can live in, but too many greenhouse gases make the planet warm up – and this is what is now causing climate change.
These are some of the ways that we expect the climate to change. How much it changes will depend on how successful we are at reducing our carbon emissions:
Trees in the tropics are especially valuable because they work hard at regulating our climate. All trees, and the rest of the ‘greenery machinery’ draw carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and turn it into the oxygen that animals need to breathe, while also helping to absorb greenhouse gases. (Much of the carbon dioxide we emit into the atmosphere is actually absorbed by the sea, where it causes ocean acidification, which creates problems for sea life). But rainforests also draw huge quantities of water from the forest floor and turn it into clouds, which become rain to feed rivers, lakes and streams. So it’s important that rainforests are not cut down for timber or cleared and burned for crops, and that where this has happened, new trees are planted to restore the forest.
Tropical trees also provide a warm, steamy habitat for plants and animals. One hectare of rainforest may contain 1000 trees hosting up to 300 species – 30 to 60 times more than UK forests, which have only 5 to 10 species per hectare. (Figures from Rainforest Concern)
Rainforests do not create soils suitable for farming because nutrients are mainly stored in the greenery – and this is removed with the trees if these are cleared. The exposed soil is then easily washed away, where it can block rivers and contribute to flooding, and the cleared ground will have less soil and be even worse for food production.
Nuts, bananas, coffee and spices, as well as industrial products such as rubber, resins and fibres, were all originally found in tropical rainforests. But these are best grown as crops in other areas more suited to agriculture and commercial forestry.
The human race probably evolved in tropical rainforest, and people have lived happily there for thousands of years. But when oil or logging companies arrive they can bring diseases which the indigenous people have no resistance to, threatening their survival.
Actually, more than a quarter of modern medicines originate from tropical forest plants. The rosy periwinkle from Madagascar is used to treat leukemia and quinine to treat malaria comes from the Andean cinchona tree. The Rauvolfia from African forests is used for high blood pressure and mental illness.
This is why UBoC work to help protect and restore rainforests – and why we launched Terrific Tropical Trees.
Reducing Carbon Emissions at School
Activities for Schools
The Terrific Scientific resources for Teachers can be accessed here. Our partners Bettys and Taylors of Harrogate have also produced some excellent tree & woodland-themed activities for primary schools; Working with Seedlings and these Gruffalo-themed Sheets.