Carbon has been clobbered in the headlines lately for its link to global warming and pollution. But is this much-maligned element—the fourth most abundant in the universe—getting a bum rap?

There's no question that carbon when paired with fellow element oxygen can spell trouble. The combo creates carbon dioxide (CO2), the root of climate change, the most destructive environmental woe facing our planet. But carbon is not inherently evil. In fact, it is a building block of life, present in all living creatures. In our daily lives we often see it in its pure form–think diamonds or lead in pencils. And it is a key ingredient in oil (made from hydrocarbons), certain types of surfboards, and even carbohydrates like bread and pasta, which provide energy for humans and animals. 

So how did carbon get such a bad rep?

It's where—and in what quantities—carbon ends up that causes trouble. Over time, our daily activity on Earth has broken the carbon cycle.   When we burn fossil fuels (from the fossils of dead plants and animals) to run our cars, light our homes or make Tupperware, we release CO2 into the atmosphere.  Normally, plants take back that CO2 via photosynthesis (the process by which plants turn sunlight into energy). Carbon dioxide can also be absorbed by the oceans. But as more CO2 is pumped out, more is accumulating in the atmosphere than the plants and oceans can take back. And too much CO2 traps heat, like a blanket covering Earth, causing the globe to warm up.