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What is a Carbon Sink?

A. Leverkuhn
A. Leverkuhn

A carbon sink is any kind of reservoir that holds a carbon containing element. Carbon sinks are often used to keep carbon emissions out of the atmosphere. A carbon sink can be a natural or man-made construction.

Natural carbon sink locations include oceans, which naturally contain carbon dioxide, and stands of vegetation that consume carbon dioxide. Man-made carbon sinks include landfills and other specialized reservoirs for carbon materials. Public officials are now looking at both kinds of carbon sinks as ways to limit carbon emissions.


The recent Kyoto Protocol, ratified by nearly all of the world’s nations, regards carbon dioxide containment as a top priority. Those who are looking to implement practical reductions in carbon emissions are researching the use of carbon dioxide sinks as a possible solution. In looking at the role of oceans, it has become clear that the carbon containment potential of these natural carbon sinks is the largest existing global factor in controlling carbon elements.

Carbon control experts are also finding the significant value in increasing vegetation on the earth’s surface. Forest carbon sinks consume carbon dioxide in huge quantities, and provide organic raw materials that are being consumed by the human population every day. To support natural carbon sink areas, experts continue to look at adding to the carbon control, or ‘sequestration’, capacity of the globe with man-made carbon sinks.

A big part of evaluating how landfills can be effective as carbon sinks is in studying how much of the carbon contained in consumer materials is released into the atmosphere between the time of manufacture and the eventual addition to a landfill space. Theoretically, items that release none of their carbon would be carbon neutral in a carbon sink landfill, but critics argue that this is hardly ever the case.

In Europe and other nations that have ratified the Kyoto Protocol, issues around carbon reduction affect what kinds of materials can be placed in a landfill. In the United States, where the Kyoto Protocol does not govern municipal procedure, main issues with landfills regard toxicity, practical containment of heavy metals, and other issues related to public health. Across the world, those involved in looking at carbon emissions and climate change are trying to identify practical strategies for shrinking humanity’s total carbon footprint.

Public officials in many countries can expect to hear from scientists more often about the most practical ways to use carbon sink options for carbon dioxide sequestration in the future. Carbon sinks are just one tool in a alerger arsenal that includes many elements of carbon dioxide and greenhouse gas control. Legislative efforts like the U.S. “cap and trade” proposal work to increase the capacity of the world to limit carbon emissions.

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