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Where does timber fit into the Carbon Cycle?

posted: 16/Jun/2015

Advertisers and marketing campaigns are constantly making claims about those things that we “need” and “must have”, alluding to all of the lifestyle factors that are the “building blocks of life”. Well, this isn’t a marketing ploy, folks. I’m here to tell you what the real building block of life is – carbon. And timber happens to have a lot to do with it.

The fact that timber ‘stores’ carbon, and that trees ‘breathe’ in carbon and ‘breathe’ out oxygen, acting as the lungs of the earth, is widely known. But to truly understand how these processes take place, we need to understand the full ‘Carbon Cycle’.

Carbon – whether solid, liquid or gas – is everywhere. It forms the bodies of living organisms, including us; it’s in the ocean, the soil, the wind and the atmosphere. And because the Earth is a dynamic place, carbon does not stay ‘still’ or stagnant. The carbon inside living (or dead) organisms, fossil fuels and the environment (atmospheric or in the earth’s crust, for example) is organic. Conversely, inorganic carbon is in an oxidised state, and becomes organic through the process of photosynthesis – performed by trees and plants. Organic carbon already exists in this reduced state, ready to be oxidised by atmospheric oxygen – a process called respiration which often (but not always) happens in the presence and with the assistance of living organisms. The energy created by respiration, or photosynthesis in the case of plants, in living organisms maintains bodily (or ‘plantly’) functioning and in turn gives life.

At the same time carbon moves or ‘cycles’ between all of these carbon-containing ‘things’ (us and the sea and the flowers, for example) and redistributes itself in the process between carbon dioxide “sources” and “sinks”. Plants, animals and humans are part of the redistribution process when we take in carbon – plants through sunlight, animals through breathe – and use or exhale it. It is in this way that trees are said to ‘breathe’ and the forests can be our ‘lungs’.

Carbon “sources” and “sinks” can be somewhat of a mystery to science. Based on this infograph, what do you think a tree or a forest is – a carbon “source” or a carbon “sink”? Can you identify the sources and the sinks?

Source: Earth System Research Laboratory

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