The colour of Carbon

In our 2019 periodic table of critical elements, Carbon is depicted as large and with a green background. This means plentiful, not coming from conflict zones, and in no danger of supply in the foreseeable future. Shortly after the publication of the EuChemS table, we received a letter signed by over 20 distinguished colleagues asking to reconsider the colour of carbon. They contended that its main sources, hydrocarbons, are often tied to conflict areas, so black should apply to it, likewise gold or tantalum. Additionally, they pointed out that C is characterised by rising threat from increased use, which qualifies an element to be orange in our table. In the case of Carbon, the threat is peculiar as it is not strictly connected to the scarcity of the element itself but to the existential threat it poses to humankind in terms of climate change.

This letter sparked discussion within the Executive Board and opinions were varied. Someone noticed that it is hard not to consider C plentiful (i.e., green) due to the huge amounts stored as biomass and in the lithosphere. Others pointed out that the periodic table must contain information only on atoms and not molecules. If we undertake the latter approach, possibly the colour of every element should be reconsidered. In the end, we decided to open the discussion to the whole scientific community and even extend it to other elements. In other words, we want our table to be a living document, periodically updated as a consequence of technological, economic and geopolitical developments. Accordingly, we have implemented a Webinar series on specific critical elements.

Our first “element webinar” was focused (of course) on Carbon. Throughout a whole day, scientists with different background discussed the multifaceted aspects of carbon and the rush to decarbonize our economy. Our webinar was a great success with over 350 participants who connected during the day and listened to talks on several topics that you can watch here and here. During the webinar we made a poll among attendees on which element should be discussed next. Lithium was the winner. We are definitely going to take this suggestion up!

In the months to come, as the Executive Board, we will continue the discussion on the colour of Carbon and we look forward to receiving suggestions and comments from you all. We still do not know what the colour(s) of C in the next edition of the Table will be. Regardless, I think the only safe strategy to achieve decarbonisation will be to keep fossil fuels underground as much as possible, fostering efficiency and renewability.

In a way, the C webinar set an example. By a rough estimation, our online webinar produced around 0.2 tons of CO2 in terms of internet videoconference connection, i.e., over a 200x decrease compared to 350 participants flying to Brussels.

After the pandemic disaster, we must critically reconsider the way we communicate and interact. Perhaps, one day, this might help to put an end to the discussion, with everyone agreeing on the only colour the very element of life deserves: green.

Nicola Armaroli,
EuChemS Executive Board member



EuChemS recent science-policy activities


EuChemS organised its successful interactive webinar on the Carbon Element on 22 April 2021, which was part of an initiative of the EuChemS Task Group on the Periodic Table. Recordings are now available on the EuChemS YouTube Channel 

Public consultations 

Nevertheless, carbon has not been the only chemical element in the spotlights. EuChemS provided its views on the EU’s plan for a complete Mercury phasing-down process to be completed by 2030 by answering to the Public Consultation of the European Commission on Mercury. We also answered to the Public Consultation on the new soil strategy of the European Commission in which EuChemS underlined the importance of soil in land users’ practices. 

High-Level Roundtable for the Chemicals strategy 

EuChemS was invited to join the expert group “High Level Roundtable on the implementation of the Chemicals Strategy” set up by the DG Environment of the European Commission. Floris Rutjes, EuChemS President, is presenting more details of the sustainable chemicals policy in the new section ‘President’s columnwhich we are introducing for the first time in this issue of Chemistry in Europe. 

EuChemS Secretariat