Skip to main content

The carbon cycle - Nathaniel Manning


42,553 Questions Answered

TEDEd Animation

Let’s Begin…

What exactly is the carbon cycle? Nathaniel Manning provides a basic look into the cyclical relationship of carbon, humans and the environment.

Additional Resources for you to Explore

Every few years all the best scientists in the world working on climate change get together at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), hosted by the United Nations, and argue about every single detail of their research until they all agree. Then they take all the stuff they agree on and publish it in a big report. That report is here: One of the most significant outcomes of those reports is the section on anthropogenic climate change, the scientific statement that humans are a cause of climate change (here is that section: Read through these reports and decide whether you think humans have caused climate change. What facts seem the most convincing?
The original article by Ehrlich and Holdren, from the 1971 version of Science Magazine, first explains the IPAT equation (, This theory has been expanded upon in conjunction with Simon Kuznets's “Kuznets curve,” which has been adapted into the “Environmental Kuznets curve.” This theory shows an inverse U-shaped curve with environmental impact on the Y axis, and GNP on the X axis. This theory suggests that environmental impact, including carbon emissions, will go back down once a country reaches a certain level of income. The Kuznets curve has been debated by scientists and researchers in articles such as the following: These articles state that some environmental factors might follow a Kuznets curve but that carbon emissions have not and will not. Do you think the Kuznets curve for carbon emissions will prove to be true in the future? Will our carbon emissions begin to drop if we reach a certain level of income? If so, are income or technology the reason? Or is it some other factor that causes this reduction? In short, what causes a reduction in carbon emissions?
In 1987, Our Common Future, also known as The Brundlandt Report, was published by the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development (Our Common Future (1987), Oxford: The report defined the term 'sustainable development' as “development that does not negatively affect current or future generations.” Does this definition still work in 2012? How do sustainable technology theories, such as Cradle to Cradle ( fit into this definition?
The upper limit of the balanced amount of CO2 in the atmosphere is 350 parts per million (ppm) (, but recently it has grown to 393 ppm (PPM growth over past 4 years: The ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere increases in part because of the burning of carbon-based fossil fuels and the deforestation of plants. You can also research other contributions to the increase of CO2 in the atmosphere across history (make sure to go back to the Ice Age.) What are your takeaways?
Research the process of photosynthesis. (Smith AL (1997). Oxford dictionary of biochemistry and molecular biology. Oxford University Press p. 508. ISBN 0-19-854768-4 and Explain how plants are able to convert solar energy into stored energy. Then read this article from The New Yorker’s Innovation Review 2012 about artificial photosynthesis: Can photosynthesis be recreated in a lab, and if so, is this a potential solution to the climate change crisis?
Get creative. What inventive, crazy ideas can you think of for sustainable technologies?
Other Resources and Relevant Articles
Human Impacts on the Environment:
On solar energy:
On Photosynthesis:
Theory of Energy:
Carbon Cycle:
Population Statistics:
Kuznets Curve:
PR Ehrlich, JP Holdren, Impact of population growth, Science, 1971
Original article:
PDF of original article:
Stern, David I. ( ;"The Environmental Kuznets Curve". International Society for Ecological Economics Internet Encyclopedia of Ecological Economics.
Arik Levinson (2000). "The Ups and Downs of the Environmental Kuznets Curve" (PDF). Georgetown University. Retrieved 29 August 2011.
Paul Hawken: Blessed Unrest, How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution The Ecology of Commerce.
William McDonough’s: Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way we Make Things

About TED-Ed Animations

TED-Ed Animations feature the words and ideas of educators brought to life by professional animators. Are you an educator or animator interested in creating a TED-Ed Animation? Nominate yourself here »

Meet The Creators

  • Animator Jill Johnston
  • Educator Nathaniel Manning
  • Narrator Nathaniel Manning

More from Our Changing Climate