Abstract Air pollution and climate change are two important environmental thrusts in our planet and are tightly linked to carbonaceous components in the atmosphere. A better understanding of the emission sources, environmental fate/sink of carbonaceous components is of the critical need to improve our knowledge on the global carbon cycle, and to mitigate the negative environmental impacts of air pollution and climate change on human well-being. Radiocarbon (14C), decayed completely in fossil fuel (e.g., coal and petroleum), is an ideal tool for quantitatively tracking the carbon flow among various carbon reservoirs. This study reviews the current knowledge of 14C in organic carbon (OC), elemental carbon (EC), individual organic compounds, methane (CH4), carbon dioxide (CO2), annual plants, and tree rings. The impacts of fossil and non-fossil sources on the atmosphere can be elucidated quantitatively by 14C measurement. In addition, we report the influences of the nuclear power plant (NPP) and air-sea gas exchange on the abundance of 14C in the atmosphere. The increasing fossil-fuel emission indicated by the depleting of 14CO2 under IPCC RCP scenarios strongly suggests that there is an urgent need to make ambitious strategies in reducing carbonaceous components for achieving sustainable development in our Earth. Last but not least, this review summarizes the challenges and perspectives of 14C studies in the atmosphere.

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