Beth Kayser

The Carbon Dictionary: goodbye carbon jargon!

8 min Read
Potted plant on a stack of books, next to a pair of reading glasses

Do you get tangled in carbon jargon? Lost in the rainforest of impenetrable metrics? Or stumped by abstract names, which mean less to you than your neighbours' recent holiday pics? 

We get it. 

Luckily this kind of thing is right up our strata, so we’ve created a helpful listicle for you to navigate the wordy wild west out there. Armed with terminology, you can head up that workplace sustainability initiative, impress your boss and save the planet. All in a day’s work, eh?

Click a word to skip straight to a definition

biodiversity refers to the variety of life found on Earth. It is usually explored on three levels: genetic diversity, species diversity and ecosystem diversity, which all work together to ensure the successful working balance of life. Unfortunately, human activity is upsetting this natural balance, meaning we have lost 60% of the world’s species since 1970. For humans, loss of biodiversity will impact food production, livelihoods, the pace of climate change… The list goes on!

CO2 aka carbon dioxide is a gas in the Earth’s atmosphere that occurs naturally but is also emitted by human activities such as burning fossil fuels. As a greenhouse gas, excessive CO2 in the atmosphere traps the sun's heat, which causes what is called ‘The Greenhouse Effect’. This warms our planet and oceans, changing our climate and weather patterns to critical status.

CO2e stands for carbon dioxide equivalent. It is a lump term to describe all the greenhouse gases under one common unit. It signifies the amount of CO2 that would cause the same amount of global warming, allowing for different bundles of greenhouse gases to be easily compared.

GHG or greenhouse gases mainly include water vapour, carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O) and ozone. GHGs occur naturally in the Earth’s atmosphere, but human activities, such as the burning of fossil fuels, are increasing the levels of GHGs, causing global warming and climate change.

embodied carbon is all of the carbon wrapped up in the making of a product or service. For example, a bike’s embodied carbon comes from extraction and transport of raw materials, manufacturing, and getting the bike to a store/into someone’s home.

net zero will be achieved when the amount of GHG going into the atmosphere is equal to the amount being removed. Achieving net zero by 2050 gives us a good chance of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees celsius, which the IPCC recommends if we want to avoid extinction-level disaster. Typically, organisations committed to a 'net zero by' date will use a combination of reduction initiatives and offsets or removals to achieve their targets. The best net zero strategies are ones which follow science-based targets. Don't know where to start? These sustainability certifications offer guidance to businesses at all levels towards achieving net zero.

carbon neutral is when net zero emissions is achieved within an organisation or supply chain. This could be done through the elimination of emissions, but at current that’s tough. More commonly, companies achieve carbon neutrality through a combination of reduction and offsetting.

carbon negative is when more carbon is removed from the atmosphere than put in. This is typically achieved through offsets or removal.

climate positive has exactly the same meaning as carbon negative but is often used in marketing speak to communicate a more positive message.

greenwashing is the practise of making a misleading claim to suggest your organisation is being more environmentally friendly than it really is, for a betterment of public image.

carbon offsets balance out emissions elsewhere. For example, if Pawprint produced 1 tonne of CO2e and then offset it, 1 tonne of CO2e would be avoided elsewhere. The problem with offsets is that they’re not always permanent (e.g. if we’re counting on trees to sequester carbon but there’s an unexpected forest fire) and not always reliable (e.g. is it guaranteed that an area of land will always be owned by an offsetting scheme?). UN envoy on climate action and finance, Mark Carney, has launched a task force to create a reliable offsetting market. Watch that space. Until then, we've rounded up a few tried-and-true reduction ideas to roll out in your business before turning to offsetting.

carbon footprint is the total amount of your emissions that impact the planet. Think of it as what you leave imprinted on the atmosphere through your activities. To help contextualise this further, we've done some maths to determine a UK resident's average carbon footprint, as well as a global average.

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CCS (Carbon capture and storage) is the process of capturing carbon before it enters the atmosphere, and storing it indefinitely. Projects which capture carbon at the point of combustion already exist, but aren’t overly powerful. Projects which capture carbon from ambient air hold the potential to undo atmospheric damage, but are still in their infancy (read: we’re not quite sure how to do it yet). Funding to accelerate these technologies is vital if we’re to undo the damage we’ve caused.

sustainability is meeting our own needs without compromising future generations. This not only applies to natural resources, but social and economic resources too.

renewable energy comes from natural resources and does not diminish over time. Renewable energy resources include wind, solar, geothermal, biomass and tidal power. The world is transitioning to renewable energy so that we can avoid burning fossil fuels.

science-based targets provide a goal-orientated pathway for companies to reduce their emissions. They are developed in line with the measured scale of reductions required to keep global warming below 1.5-2 degrees.

scope 1, 2 and 3 are how a company's greenhouse gas emissions are classified. Scope 1 and 2 are mandatory to report, whereas scope 3 is voluntary. It is the hardest to monitor but will gain companies a sustainable competitive advantage. Scope 1 covers direct company emissions from company vehicles and facilities. Scope 2 covers indirect emissions such as purchased energy from a provider. Scope 3 covers emissions from a company’s supply chain.

Sustainable Development Goals (SDGS) are a set of 17 goals set out by the United Nations for the world to achieve by 2030. A ‘shared blueprint for peace and prosperity’, they include such worthy goals as Climate Action (13), Reduced Inequalities (10), Sustainable Cities and Communities (11) and No Poverty (1). Something all of us — governments, businesses and people — can and should work towards.

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