Climate Change Terms Explained

Overwhelmed by all the climate jargon? Our climate change glossary explains all

Climate change protest sign
Image Credit: Unsplash

With COP26 and climate change jargon dominating the news, you may be wondering what it all means and what you’re supposed to do with this information. It feels like new terms appear every time we check the news, which can leave us feeling overwhelmed and confused.

What is COP26 all about, what is carbon neutrality and what does it mean to achieve net-zero emissions? We’ve put together a useful climate change glossary, which explains some of the terms you’ve probably heard being thrown around recently.

What is COP26?

COP26 is a global climate summit, which will see world leaders meet to discuss how they will tackle climate change. It stands for the 26th Conference of Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

The UNFCCC is an international treaty, which was created by 196 countries (or “Parties”) in 1992. Each year, the Parties meet in a different country and agree on their climate commitments over a period of roughly two weeks.

COP26 is being hosted by the UK and will be held in Glasgow from 31 October – 12 November 2021. This conference is particularly important, as it’s clear that leaders need to act with urgency to meet climate targets set in the Paris Agreement.

What is the Paris Agreement?

At the COP21 summit in Paris in 2015, world leaders entered a legally binding agreement to tackle the climate emergency. The Paris Agreement aims to prevent the average global temperature from rising above 2 degrees Celsius, or ideally 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Scientists have warned that this temperature is the threshold that will push the planet to breaking point. Extreme weather events such as flooding and heatwaves, crop failures, mass migration and species extinction are likely scenarios if climate change isn’t slowed down.

The Paris Agreement works in five-year cycles and countries have to re-submit how they plan to meet these ambitious climate targets. These submissions are called Nationally Determined Contributions, or NDCs.

What does ‘net-zero’ emissions mean?

You’ve probably heard the term ‘net-zero’ and its growing importance, but what does it actually mean?

To achieve net-zero emissions, there must be a balance between the amount of greenhouse gases released into the environment and the amount removed from the atmosphere. For example, when the amount of CO2 added to the environment is no more than the amount removed, then we have achieved net-zero emissions.

In order to achieve the targets outlined in the Paris Agreement, we must reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 and global emissions must be halved over the next decade.

What is carbon neutrality?

Carbon neutrality refers to a state of net-zero emissions, as explained above. Following COP26, many brands and organisations are expected to announce commitments to reduce their environmental footprints.

If an organisation is carbon neutral, it means it has balanced its CO2 emissions by removing the equivalent amount from the atmosphere. Organisations can do this by carbon offsetting, as well as reducing their emissions in particular areas.

What is carbon offsetting?

One way to mitigate emissions and obtain a carbon neutral status is through carbon offsetting. Carbon offsetting schemes enable companies (or individuals) to compensate for their CO2 emissions by paying for them to be absorbed elsewhere.

For example, organisations can offset some of their carbon emissions by planting trees in other parts of the world to store the equivalent amount of CO2 they released.

Some schemes also allow companies to buy “carbon credits” to offset their footprint by funding or participating in climate projects, new technology or renewable energy.

What is a certified B corporation?

In order to become more sustainable, many organisations are seeking to become Certified B Corporations. This certification demonstrates that the company meets high standards of sustainability, public transparency and legal accountability.

To achieve this status, an organisation must undergo a thorough assessment of its impact on the environment and the community, as well as its workers and customers. Only around 1 in 3 businesses that apply for certification actually get certified.

What is meant by carbon footprint?

The phrase “carbon footprint” is thrown around often, but if you’re confused about what it means, you’re not alone. Put simply, it means the amount of greenhouse gases (such as CO2) released into the atmosphere as a result of a particular activity. It’s normally measured as tons of greenhouse gases emitted per year by individuals, organisations, or even entire countries.

Everything has a carbon footprint associated with it, but some footprints are lower than others. This makes it easier for us to make informed decisions and reduce our individual carbon footprints. For example, choosing public transport over driving, buying second hand instead of new, choosing loose produce over foods packaged in plastic and eating plant-based foods instead of animal-based foods.

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