Climate Action for Beginners: The 10 Key Terms You Need to Know
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There is no disputing that we’re seeing the effects of climate change in real-time around the world, which also means more news and media coverage. What’s also guaranteed in the coverage is a mix of scientific jargon and trending climate action buzzwords that can be hard to follow, let alone understand.
To help simplify some things, we’re breaking down climate science to its most basic key terms and phrases for you.
1. Carbon Dioxide (CO2)
The chemical compound carbon dioxide, also known as CO2, is the primary driver of climate change. Human activities are drastically altering the carbon cycle in many ways. Two of the most detrimental are burning fossil fuels and affecting the ability of natural sinks (like forests) to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through deforestation.
2. Greenhouse Gas
A greenhouse gas is a naturally occurring chemical compound that is found in the Earth’s atmosphere, such as carbon dioxide, methane, or water vapor. However, when over-produced, these gasses allow much of the solar radiation to enter the atmosphere.
Some of this energy is reflected back towards space as infrared radiation, but the remaining radiation bounces off the greenhouse gasses, trapping it in the atmosphere in the form of heat. The more greenhouse gas molecules there are in the atmosphere, the more heat is trapped, and the warmer it will become.¹
3. CO2 vs. CO2e
Carbon dioxide equivalent, also known as CO2e or CO2eq, is a metric measure that is used to compare emissions from various greenhouse gasses on the basis of their global warming potential (GWP) by converting amounts of other gasses to the equivalent amount of CO2.
The main difference between CO2 and CO2e is that CO2 only accounts for carbon dioxide, while CO2e accounts for carbon dioxide and all the other greenhouse gasses: methane, nitrous oxide, and others.²
4. Weather vs Climate
The difference between weather and climate is all about timing. Weather refers to atmospheric conditions in the short term, including changes in temperature, humidity, precipitation, cloudiness, brightness, wind, and visibility.
While the weather has consistent short term changes, climate is the average of weather patterns over a long period of time (usually 30+ years).¹
5. Global Warming vs. Climate Change
These two terms are often used interchangeably, but it’s important to understand their fundamental differences. Global warming is an increase in the Earth’s average surface temperature from human-made greenhouse gas emissions.
Climate change refers to the long-term changes in the Earth’s climate, or a region on Earth, and includes more than just the average surface temperature. For example, variations in the amount of snow, sea levels, and sea ice can all be consequences of climate change.
6. Carbon Footprint
A carbon footprint is the total amount of greenhouse gasses that are generated by our actions. Our spending habits, the way we travel, how we grow and eat our food, and how we power our homes, all generate a carbon footprint. The more carbon released into the atmosphere, the greater the greenhouse effect. Similar to what happens when a car has its windows closed under the sun - CO2 keeps heat from escaping the atmosphere.³
7. Carbon Neutral vs. Climate Positive
Carbon neutral means that any CO2 released into the atmosphere from a company's activities is balanced by an equivalent amount being removed.
Climate positive means that activity goes beyond achieving net-zero carbon emissions to create an environmental benefit by removing additional carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
You might also hear the phrase “carbon negative,” which means the same thing as climate positive.
8. Net Zero
Net Zero means that any carbon emissions created are balanced by taking the same amount out of the atmosphere (i.e. canceled out), with any remaining emissions re-absorbed from the atmosphere, by oceans and forests, for instance.⁵
9. Carbon Offsets
A carbon offset is a reduction or removal of emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses made to compensate for emissions released elsewhere. The goal of an offset is to first calculate the amount of carbon dioxide released because of your activities, and then pull or replace the equivalent amount of CO2 somewhere else.³
10. Cap and Trade
A system for controlling carbon emissions and other forms of atmospheric pollution by placing an upper limit on the amount of CO2 a business or other organization can produce each year, but which allows further capacity to be bought from organizations that have not used their full allowance.