What is renewable carbon?


As the effects of climate change take a growing toll on society, it’s increasingly important to produce goods sustainably and responsibly. One emerging solution is renewable carbon. Renewable carbon is carbon derived from sources other than fossil fuels. For example, renewable carbon may come from bio-based sources, carbon captured from the atmosphere, and recycled materials.

In this article, we will define renewable carbon, its use, and its potential to reshape the chemistry that goes into essential products used by billions of people every day.

Carbon: A naturally occurring element

To appreciate the significance of renewable carbon, it helps to first understand what carbon is and its fundamental role in the Earth’s ecosystems. Carbon, a building block of life, is an element that resides at the core of all known forms of life and countless compounds that make up our planet. It exists in various forms, from the complex organic molecules in living organisms to the carbon dioxide in our atmosphere. Moreover, the Earth’s carbon cycle – a natural and dynamic process where carbon is exchanged between the atmosphere, oceans, and living things – is vital for maintaining the balance of life on Earth. 

Rising carbon emissions and climate change

Human activities, particularly the burning of fossil fuels, are disrupting this balance. Elevated levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, including carbon dioxide, are causing climate change — a global challenge with far-reaching impacts. The excessive amount of carbon released into the atmosphere traps heat, leading to a rise in global temperatures, altered weather patterns, and severe consequences for natural ecosystems and human society. 

Carbon’s role in the value chain

Just like living things, almost every manufactured good on Earth contains carbon. It’s a necessary part of the chemistry that makes up everything we use day in and day out including cars, clothes, construction materials, mattresses, furniture, and more. It has a unique ability to form stable bonds with many other elements, including itself. This makes carbon incredibly versatile and, from a chemistry perspective, irreplaceable. 

This use of carbon is completely distinct from burning fossil fuels for energy. The energy sector can decarbonize by switching to renewable energy sources like solar and wind, for example. But you can’t decarbonize organic chemistry. Manufacturers can, however, choose to use carbon that is not derived from fossil fuels. They can choose renewable carbon. 

Defining renewable carbon

Unlike the carbon sourced from fossil fuels, which introduces long-stored carbon back into the atmosphere, renewable carbon comes from other sources. These include biomass (like plants, algae, and waste materials), carbon dioxide directly captured from industrial sites or the atmosphere, and recycled carbon materials from sources such as industrial and municipal waste. 

According to the Renewable Carbon Initiative, “Renewable Carbon entails all carbon sources that avoid or substitute the use of any additional fossil carbon from the geosphere. Renewable carbon can come from the biosphere, atmosphere, or technosphere – but not from the geosphere. Renewable carbon circulates between biosphere, atmosphere or technosphere, creating a carbon circular economy.”

Using renewable carbon

By focusing on these renewable sources, chemical manufacturers and other key players along the value chain can move away from fossil fuels and lock carbon into manufactured goods, keeping it out of the atmosphere.

For example, captured atmospheric CO₂ can be used to create bioplastics and other bio-based materials, including foams for furniture and mattresses

Companies are also developing carbon-negative building materials by converting captured atmospheric CO₂ into aggregates for concrete.

Personal care companies are exploring renewable carbon too. Renewable carbon can be used in surfactants, ingredients used in body wash and shampoo.

In other words, renewable carbon is becoming part of the products used by millions if not billions of people every day.

The importance of renewable carbon

As people confront the realities of climate change and environmental degradation, renewable carbon stands out as a beacon of sustainable innovation, demonstrating that progress and environmental stewardship can, indeed, go hand in hand. Embracing renewable carbon is more than an ecological choice; it’s a commitment to a future where the health of our planet and human prosperity are mutually reinforcing.

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