The Carbon Cycle

Here, There and Everywhere!

In a Flash

The Carbon Cycle

All living things are made of carbon. In the atmosphere, carbon bonds with oxygen to form carbon dioxide, which plants use to grow. Once plants and animals die, the carbon they contain can turn into fossil fuels, like coal and oil.

When humans burn fossil fuels, the carbon combines with oxygen to form C02 and is released into the atmosphere, where it traps in heat to keep the earth warm.

The problem? Humans have burned so much fossil fuel, the earth is getting hotter and hotter. This is called global warming.

Burning Questions

What is carbon?

Carbon is a chemical element that is essential to life on earth. In fact, you'll find carbon in absolutely every living organism on the planet, as well as in the ocean, air, rocks, and soil.

Carbon really is all around us - and in us too!

Green Sprouts in the Rain

Plants use Carbon Dioxide, water and sunshine to grow.

What is carbon dioxide and why do plants like it so much?

In the atmosphere, carbon attaches to oxygen to form a gas called carbon dioxide.

Plants use carbon dioxide along with sunlight to make their own food – and this is what makes them grow. The process is called photosynthesis.

So without carbon dioxide, we'd have no trees or plants – and that would be the end of life as we know it!

Carbon Cycle

Living things contain carbon, which returns to the earth when they die.

What is the carbon cycle?

Carbon doesn't stay still, it's always moving.

The Carbon Cycle is the process in which carbon moves between different parts of the Earth and its living organisms. This makes it really important to life on our planet, as it allows the carbon to be continually reused and recycled.

Here's how it works…

  • All living things – like animals and humans – contain carbon. Plants do too because they take in carbon dioxide in order to grow.

The Carbon Cycle - Nathaniel Manning
The Carbon Cycle - Nathaniel Manning
  • When animals and plants die and are buried beneath the Earth's surface, the carbon they contain can turn into fossil fuels - like oil and coal - over millions of years.

  • Humans burn these fossil fuels to power everything from cars to factories. Doing this releases carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere.

  • Carbon dioxide is also released into the atmosphere through respiration. When animals and humans breathe out, carbon dioxide is the gas we produce.

So if carbon dioxide helps plants grow, isn't carbon a good thing for the planet?

Well, not exactly. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, which means it traps heat in the Earth's atmosphere. Without carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, our planet would be completely frozen. Brrr…

But here's the problem. Because humans have burned through so much fossil fuel, there's now far more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. As a result, the Earth's temperature is rising, which creates a whole heap of serious environmental problems.

Find out more about climate change >

What Do You Mean?


Plants convert CO2 to oxygen and glucose through photosynthesis.

Carbon is a chemical element, like hydrogen and oxygen. Carbon is contained in all living things – such as animals and plants – as well as the ocean, soil, and rocks.

Carbon dioxide is a gas made up of the elements carbon and oxygen. Carbon dioxide is taken in by plants, which they use along with sunlight to make their own food.

The carbon cycle is the exchange of carbon between the Earth and its atmosphere, as it is used, reused, and recycled. It shows that carbon is always on the move!

Photosynthesis is the name of the process which plants use to convert carbon dioxide and sunlight into food.

Cool Facts

Carbon is made inside stars when they burn helium.

Cool Facts

Carbon is the fourth most abundant element in the universe.

Cool Facts

Carbon makes up around 20% of the weight of all living organisms.

Cool Facts

All the carbon atoms in your body were once part of the carbon dioxide in our atmosphere.

Speedy Summary

Forest in Fall

All living things on our planet contain carbon.

In the carbon cycle, the element carbon is constantly recycled between the Earth and its atmosphere, helping to sustain life on our planet.