May 5, 2022


An Ode to Carbon Sinks

By: Kelvey Vander Hart

Every April when Earth Day rolls around, climate change debates (read: fighting) get a little louder. Now, Earth Day 2022 has come and gone, but conversations on the environment and climate are still largely contentious. What if we could put all the energy we throw into fighting with one another toward an environmental improvement? What if we could put it toward protecting our carbon sinks? 

Everybody likes carbon sinks. And, if someone says they don’t, ask them one simple question: “Do you like breathing?” If they say yes, they like carbon sinks. 

To understand why that is (and what ‘carbon sinks’ actually are), we first need to brush up on rudimentary science. We inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide. Plant matter ‘inhales’ carbon dioxide and ‘exhales’ oxygen. We make a pretty good team. 

Sustainability for All, expounding on this point and explaining carbon sinks, wrote: 

In the fight against climate change, not only humans try to counteract the effects of global warming with mitigation and adaptation measures, but nature itself has its own weapons to try to keep the average temperature of the planet from increasing. For that, carbon sinks, which are natural (oceans and forests)…absorb and capture carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere and reduce its concentration in the air.

If anyone has ever told you to plant a tree and help the environment (and let’s be honest, it could have been me), this is one major reason why. Significant groupings of plant mass can absorb significant amounts of carbon. The ocean is the best example of this truth. 

When thinking of the ocean, water and animals are probably what first come to mind. Plant matter is likely an afterthought. But the ocean is packed not only with seaweed and other similar plants, but phytoplankton—microscopic marine bacteria and algae. Discussing the role of the ocean as a carbon sink, ClientEarth noted, “The ocean has sucked up about a quarter of the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere since we began burning fossil fuels for energy during the Industrial Revolution.” 

That is a mind-boggling statistic. Crazier? The ocean absorbs nearly as much as all of earth’s land plants and trees COMBINED. 

That is not to say that trees, plants, and other vegetation do not also play their parts extremely well. Forests across the planet absorb a joint 2.6 billion metric tons of carbon every year. And even the soil, through things like peatland and permafrost, absorbs one-quarter of annual human carbon emissions. Carbon capture and built forms of carbon sequestration are important, but we would be remiss to ignore the remarkable job the planet can do on its own…when these green spaces are protected. 

So, cheers to carbon sinks! Everyone needs oxygen, very few people hate plants. Protecting natural sources of carbon absorption may bring the climate denier and the most frantic climate activist together yet.