Climate Change

10 climate terms you need to know

Person holding a sign that says climate justice now.

Climate terminology: Do you know what 'just transition' means? Image: Unsplash/Markus Spiske

Victoria Masterson
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
Madeleine North
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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Climate Change

This article is part of: Centre for Nature and Climate
  • Terms such as climate mitigation and Global Stocktake are becoming common parlance. But what do they actually mean?
  • Here’s a brief glossary of 10 climate-change terms.
  • Climate change related events make up the top four risks to the world over the next 10 years, finds the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report 2024.

Do you know your climate terminology?

According to a recent survey of the British public, that answer might be no. Just a quarter of people questioned fully understood the term 'green', reports the Guardian newspaper, and over half couldn't confidently define 'single-use plastics'.

Here are 10 common climate terms – and what they actually mean.

1. Mitigation

Mitigation is the action we need to take to stop the climate crisis getting worse.

This is mainly about cutting greenhouse gas emissions, by not burning fossil fuels, for example.

Restoring and enhancing parts of nature that store greenhouse gases, like forests and oceans, is another form of mitigation.

2. Adaptation

Adaptation is the process of adjustment to the inevitable impacts of the climate crisis.

For example, countries in Europe are strengthening coastal defences like sea walls and surge barriers.

In San Francisco in the United States, artificial intelligence is being used to help detect wildfires. And in Brazil, Italy and Spain, the Internet of Things is helping to manage water use in agriculture.

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3. Loss and damage

Loss and damage is about the destruction caused by the climate crisis when mitigation and adaptation efforts have not been enough, explains policy thinktank Chatham House.

Floods, drought, rising sea-level and other climate change events can impact physical infrastructure, like buildings. Climate change can also cause loss and damage to ways of life, health, cultural heritage and other human and natural systems, UNICEF explains in its Climate glossary for young people.

In international politics, including the COP28 climate summit, loss and damage is focused on helping developing countries that are particularly vulnerable to climate change.

4. Paris Agreement

The Paris Agreement was signed by 196 countries in Paris at COP21, the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference.

The countries agreed to limit global warming to below 2 degrees celsius above pre-industrial levels, and aim for 1.5 degrees celsius – to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

The Paris Agreement was a landmark because it was the world’s first legally binding treaty bringing all nations together to combat the climate crisis and adapt to its effects.

5. Global Stocktake

The Global Stocktake is an exercise to count and record what progress is – and isn’t – being made on the goals of the Paris Agreement.

This includes, for example, the state of greenhouse gas emissions and how countries are progressing on their climate targets.

Led by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the global stocktake is happening for the first time in 2023 and will inform new country targets on climate change.

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6. Just transition

A just transition means everyone has to be included in the move to a more sustainable future – all communities, workers and social groups – explains the United Nations Development Programme.

Creating the green economy should be a fair and inclusive process, with decent work opportunities, the International Labour Organization adds.

For example, if coal miners lose their jobs, they should get help to retrain and find new work, explains business journalism site Raconteur.

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7. Climate anxiety

Climate anxiety is when worries about climate change impact our mental health. Studies suggest young people are particularly affected.

Online searches around climate anxiety in the first 10 months of 2023 were 27 times higher than over the same time in 2017, the BBC reported.

Yet for many people in the world, ‘climate grief’ is a more accurate term, as they are already experiencing the loss and damage that others are worriedly anticipating.

8. NDCs

Nationally determined contributions (NDCs) are country targets for cutting greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to the impacts of the climate crisis.

The NDCs have to be updated every five years, and become more ambitious each time.

Together, the climate actions countries take in line with these targets will determine whether the world can keep greenhouse gas emissions and global warming within agreed limits.

9. Emissions Trading Scheme

An Emissions Trading Scheme is a way for governments to economically incentivize organizations to cut greenhouse gas emissions, explains environmental news website Earth.org.

Governments set a limit – or ‘cap’ – on how much emissions can be produced, and this is lowered over time to make sure emissions fall.

Organizations need to get permits for every tonne of CO2 they emit within the government cap. If emitters run out of permits, they need to either cut their emissions or buy more permits.

Diagram of emissions trading.
In an emissions trading scheme, organizations can trade emission allowances. Image: Dutch Emissions Authority

10. Carbon sink

Carbon sinks are parts of nature that absorb more carbon than they produce.

This means they can help to combat climate change by removing CO2 from the atmosphere, helping to slow global warming as a result.

Examples of carbon sinks include forests, oceans, fungi and… elephants. Carbon sinks are an important component of the world’s ‘nature-based solutions’ to the climate crisis.

Diagram of different types of forests and it's impact on carbon.
Carbon sinks absorb more carbon than they produce. Image: World Resources Institute

Climate risks

Climate change-related events make up the top four risks to the world over the next 10 years, finds the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report 2024.

Extreme weather events are considered the number one risk, followed by critical change to Earth systems, biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse, then natural resource shortages.

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How is the World Economic Forum fighting the climate crisis?

“Against a backdrop of rapidly accelerating technological change and economic uncertainty ... the world is plagued by a duo of dangerous crises: climate and conflict,” says the Forum's Managing Director, Saadia Zahidi.

The actions of individual citizens, companies and countries "can move the needle on global risk reduction if they reach a critical mass," says the report, which urges cross-border coordination to tackle the world's most pressing threats.

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