Sustainability Jargon Dictionary

So here you have the most boring article I had written up to now: a sustainability Jargon dictionary. Continue reading to understand my motivations for jumping into such a task.

Sustainability will be one day in all aspects of our life and inside our companies. Until that day, we need to translate the sustainability jargon used by Experts, Reporters or Activists into a language that can be understood by a wider audience.

Since this jargon can be a bit overwhelming, I decided to create this Sustainability Jargon Dictionary to allow you to talk to other people about Climate Change and other sustainability topics in a language they can understand.

The information comes from different sources that I have collected and adapted here and will continue to grow with your suggestions.

Climate change

Climate vs Weather – Mark Twain said, “The Climate is what you expect, the Weather is what you get”. I am sure there must be a more scientific definition but this one works for me to explain that both climate and weather refer to changes in atmospheric variables but over different periods of time, the climate in decades and the weather in days or hours.

Global warming – The long-term warming of the planet due to human activities, primarily fossil fuel burning, which releases heat-trapping greenhouse gases to Earth’s atmosphere. Evidence shows an already 1-degree Celsius increase in the Earth’s global surface average temperature vs the pre-industrial area (1850).

Climate Change – An alteration in global climate patterns. It includes global warming but refers to the broader range of changes to our planet including rising sea levels, shrinking glaciers or even local temperatures cooling. “Global warming” and “climate change” are sometimes used interchangeably, but they refer to slightly different things.

Green House Gases (GHGs) – Gases in Earth’s atmosphere traps heat radiating from Earth toward space producing a Greenhouse effect and thus climate change. Main ones are water vapour (H2O), Carbon dioxide (CO2), Methane (CH4), Ozone (O3), Nitrous oxide (N2O), Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and Hydrofluorocarbons (includes HCFCs and HFCs)

Anthropogenic GHGs – Gasses emitted due to human activities such as the burning of fossil fuels, deforestation, land-use changes, livestock production, fertilization, waste management, and industrial processes.

Global Warming Potential (GWP), A calculation of the greenhouse effect caused by the release of a kilogram of a GHG relative to that produced by an equivalent volume of CO2. Other GHGs have higher GWP but are simply far less abundant in the atmosphere than CO2.

Carbon footprint: Kilograms or Tons of GHGs emissions associated with a country, company, or an individual expressed in carbon-dioxide emission equivalent. Carbon footprint calculator: Tool to estimate your carbon footprint.

Scope emissions – GHG emissions are categorised into groups or ‘Scopes’ by the most widely-used international accounting tool, the GHG)Protocol. Scope 1 emissions are direct GHG emissions from owned or controlled sources. Scope 2 emissions are indirect emissions from the generation of purchased electricity, steam, heating and cooling consumed by the reporting company and Scope 3 emissions include all other indirect emissions that occur in a company’s value chain. Besides, there are Scope 4 emissions which refer to describing avoided emissions and sometimes to home-working emissions.

Offseting – Is a way to compensate for your emissions by funding a project that reduces an equivalent carbon dioxide saving elsewhere.

Net-zero emissions – According to the Science-Based Target initiative (SBTi), “Net Zero emissions are achieved when anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere are balanced by anthropogenic removals over a specified period.”

Carbon Neutral – Canceling out the carbon dioxide we emit by making sure that the same amount gets sucked up by trees, plants, machines, or other things. Sometimes is used also to refer to not only to carbon dioxide emissions but also to all GHGs.

Real zero – No carbon emissions are being produced from a product or a service, without the use of carbon offsetting e.g. zero-carbon electricity could be provided by a 100% renewable energy supplier.

Climate Positive, Carbon Positive or Carbon Negative – all terms refer to a cancelling activity that goes beyond achieving net-zero carbon emissions to actually create an environmental benefit by removing additional carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Low carbon economy – an economy which has a minimal production of GHG mainly by: 1. Using less fossil fuel as an energy source and 2. Reducing carbon-based energy use (e.g. reducing travel or eat less meat)

Carbon Budget – Carbon budgets are a simplified way to measure the additional emissions that can enter the atmosphere, if the world wishes to limit global warming to levels such as 1.5C. IPCC’s carbon budget for a 66% chance of avoiding 1.5C warming is 420Gt CO2 or 10 years at 2018 emissions.

Geoengineering: Using technology to try to counteract some of the warming caused by burning coal, oil, and gas. Like spraying tiny particles in the air to reflect the sunlight back into space so it doesn’t heat up the planet.


Sustainability Jargon Dictionary A dictionary that allows you to talk to other people about Climate Change and other sustainability topics in a language they can understand ( e.g. this article you are now reading )

Sustainability – meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. The concept of sustainability is composed of three pillars: economic, environmental, and social—also known informally as the 3 Ps: profits, planet, and people.

Environmental Justice – A phrase underscoring the broad idea that the people who did the least to cause climate change and pollution are often the most at risk from the consequences.

Just Transition – Shifting to an economy that runs on solar and wind energy without killing jobs.

Green Washing When a company or organization spends more resources on marketing themselves as environmentally friendly than on minimizing their environmental impact.

Green Wishing – The hope that well-intended efforts to make the world more sustainable are much closer to achieving the change than they are (Duncan Austin)

Green Hushing – Companies avoiding to talk about sustainability targets or progress due to fear of accusations of greenwashing.

Linear Economy – A traditional model of producing goods which takes raw material, transform them into goods which are discarded at the end of the product life. This model is also described as take-make-waste.

Circular Economy: A system where nothing gets thrown away reducing the amount of new material and resources required. This model is also described as reuse, repair and re-manufacture.

Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) – An analysis of the environmental impact of products during their entire life cycle: from resource extraction to production, use, and disposal. 

Materiality Assessment – The process of identifying, refining, and assessing numerous potential environmental, social and governance issues that could affect business and condensing them into a short-list of topics to design company strategy, targets, and reporting.

Water stewardship, The act of taking responsibility to protect the water that we do not own. Basically, all water consumers need to play a role in preserving the water resources beyond their houses, offices or factories boundaries. (Watch my video for more info

Stakeholder capitalism – A system in which companies are oriented to create long-term value for all their stakeholders such as customers, suppliers, employees, shareholders and local communities and not to just maximize shareholder profits.

Triple bottom line – is a framework or theory that recommends that companies commit to focus on social and environmental concerns just as they do on profits. The TBL posits that instead of one bottom line, there should be three: profit, people, and the planet.

ESG, set of Environmental, Social and Governance criteria designed to guide conscious investors in their decision-making process.

Sustainable Finance, Responsible Finance, an investment strategy based on considering ESG and financial performance.

TCFD – Initiative set up to develop a set of recommendations for voluntary and consistent climate-related financial risk disclosures in mainstream filings. (Read more info )

That’s all folks

Dictionaries are not the most exciting stuff to read, and still I hope reading this Sustainability Jargon dictionary has helped you. I found especially challenging selecting the most common sustainability terms and avoiding the scientific jargon coming from some of the sources I used NASA, GEMET, Appropedia, GRIST, BBC, EllenMcArthur, INVESTOPEDIA.

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