Updated 07 May 2013

Glossary of environmental terms

This glossary is a work in progress. If the term or concept that's baffling you isn't on this list, just ask and we'll add it.


Anthropogenic: Caused by human activity. Anthropogenic climate change is due to human use of fossil fuels, modern agriculture and deforestation.

Biodiversity: Or biological diversity, which refers to the varied forms of life. The most familiar aspect of biodiversity is the classification of different living organisms into species. Biodiversity also includes genetic diversity within one species (e.g. brown and blue eyes in humans), and ecosystems (e.g. a rock pool; the Great Barrier Reef).

Biopiracy and bioprospecting: Biopiracy means exploiting another country's biological resources or traditional knowledge of these e.g. use of a medicinal plant, without asking permission or sharing the benefits. This usually refers to a developed world entity “biopirating” a developing country's resource. “Bioprospecting” is a less damning term for development and commercialisation of biological resources.

Business as usual: Carrying on producing and emitting carbon as we are doing now, with no intervention, or new intervention, to change the situation.

Cap and trade/ cap and tax: See emissions trading

Carbon capture and storage (CCS): Collecting CO2 from emission sources such as power plants, and keeping it out of the atmosphere by storing it underground.

Carbon dioxide (CO2): A natural atmospheric gas, and the main greenhouse gas produced by human activity. It is given off whenever organic material is burned e.g. when we burn coal and oil to produce electricity and drive our cars.

Carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalent:
Different atmospheric gases contribute to global warming to a greater or lesser degree. These contributions are converted into the equivalent amount of CO2 that would be required to cause the same amount of warming.

Carbon footprint: The amount of carbon emitted by a person/manufacturer/city etc. over a certain period.

Carbon neutral: If there is no net increase of CO2. E.g. a growing tree removes CO2 from the atmosphere; burning the wood from the tree releases CO2. The process is carbon neutral if the amount removed equals the amount released. A company or country can achieve carbon neutrality through carbon offsetting.

Carbon offsetting:
Compensating for emissions by aiding or funding efforts to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. Offsetting often involves paying another party to reduce emissions equivalent to those you produce.

Carbon sink:
A reservoir that stores carbon from the atmosphere. The oceans and forests are the largest natural carbon sinks. Manmade sinks are created through carbon capture and storage.

CFCs: Chlorofluorocarbons. A group of gases that have infamously contributed to stratospheric ozone depletion, and are also greenhouse gases. CFCs are being phased out thanks to an international agreement, the Montreal Protocol.

Climate change:
Observable, significant changes in global or regional climate, including average temperature and rainfall, and the frequency of extreme weather events. This change may be caused by both natural processes and human activity. Global warming is one aspect of recent climate change; "Climate change" is popularly used to refer to the dangerously rapid recent changes that most scientists believe are  due to human activity. 

Climate change sceptic: Someone who doesn't agree with the scientific consensus on climate change. Also referred to as a climate change denialist, although this implies a more total refusal to accept that climate change is happening.

Climategate: In November 2009, unknown hackers stole emails from the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) of the University of East Anglia, and posted them online. Climate change sceptics latched onto this, stating that the emails proved climate change scientists had manipulated data and sidelined denialists. CRU countered this by saying the emails are simply normal exchanges between scientists, and were taken out of context. The IPCC supports CRU on this.

CO2: Carbon dioxide.

COP: Conference of the Parties, the highest body of the United Nations Climate Change Convention, consisting of environment ministers from signatory countries who meet annually to discuss the convention’s developments.

COP17: Shorthand for the 17th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

Ecotherapy: Using nature to improve mental health. Includes visiting reserves, gardening, pets.

Emissions trading:
(also called cap and trade, or cap and tax) A limit or “cap” is set on the amount that can be emitted. Countries or companies are issued a set number of emissions credits, which allows them to emit a set amount. Countries who want more credits, i.e. they want to emit more, can buy them from other countries, also members of this trading scheme, who have credits to spare because they’re managing to emit less. So the total amount emitted in the scheme stays under the limit, and those who want to emit more pay a kind of tax.

Endemic: Occurring naturally and common to, an area.

Escherichia coli (E. coli): A bacteria found in the gut of warm-blooded animals. Most strains are harmless, but some can cause food poisoning.

Extinction rate: The rate at which species are becoming extinct. Rapid mass extinction is currently occurring: an estimated 150 to 200 species go extinct every 24 hours.

Extreme weather: Unusually severe storms, floods, heatwaves and droughts. As global warming continues, more extreme weather events are expected.

Kinetic energy: Energy of a moving body e.g. a spinning wheel.

Feedback loop: Feedback loops can be positive (adding to the rate of warming), or negative (reducing warming). E.g. melting polar ice is a positive feedback process. As the ice on melts, there is less of it to reflect the sun's heat back into space, and more water to absorb it. The less ice, the warmer the water becomes, causing more ice to melt.

Fossil fuels: Coal, oil and natural gas. These formed over millions of years in the earth’s crust from plants and animals.

Fynbos: Type of vegetation indigenous to the Cape Floral Kingdom in the Cape Peninsula.

Global warming: The steady rise in global average temperature in recent decades, which climate change scientists agree is likely largely caused by man-made greenhouse gas emissions.

Greenhouse gases
(GHGs): Natural and industrial gases that trap the suns' heat and warm the earth's surface. CO2 is the most important of these. Methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), hydrofluorocarbon compounds (CFC gases) and ozone (O3) are also greenhouse gases.

Greenhouse effect:
The insulating effect of certain atmospheric gases, which allow solar radiation to warm the earth and prevent some of the heat from escaping. The greenhouse effect is a natural process and necessary for life on earth. But the increased greenhouse effect, the result of increased greenhouse gas emissions, has lead to global warming.

Hockey stick:
A graph published in 1998 plotting the average temperature in the northern hemisphere over the last 1 000 years. The line remains roughly flat until the last 100 years, when it turns upwards like the end of a hockey stick.

IPCC: International Panel on Climate Change. A United Nations climate panel, established to evaluate the extent and and impact of climate change, as well as how to manage or prevent these changes.

Kyoto Protocol: A protocol attached to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which sets legally binding commitments on greenhouse gas emissions. Industrialised signatories agreed to reduce their combined emissions to 5.2% below 1990 levels during 2008-2012.

Methane: (CH4). Also called natural gas. The second most important greenhouse gas. Sources include wetlands, termites, wildfires, agriculture, waste dumps and coal mine leaks

Mitigation: Action to control man-made climate change,  including action reducing emissions and removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.

Nitrous oxide:
(N2O) A greenhouse gas. Emission sources include agriculture (inorganic fertiliser and manure) and from burning petrol and oil.

Pre-industrial levels of CO2: Levels of atmospheric CO2 prior to the start of the Industrial Revolution. Those levels are estimated at 280 parts per million by volume (ppmv), compared to the current level which is about 380 ppmv.

Renewable energy:
Energy sources that don’t run out e.g. wind, water and solar power. Harnessing these does not in itself produce greenhouse gases, although installating the infrastructure to tap these energy sources may do so – but to a far lesser extent than using fossil fuels.

Scientific consensus on climate change:  Agreement by the majority of climate scientists that global warming and related changes are occurring, and that human activity is largely responsible for this. There is still considerable debate within this consensus about the mechanisms of climate change.

Sea level rise: Global warming causes the sea level to rise, because water expands when it gets warmer, and because melting ice increases the volume of water.

If there's a term you'd like to see added, please post your request to the EnviroHealth Forum.


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