Sustainability dictionary: The ultimate jargon buster for businesses
19th February 2020
Sustainability was high on the agenda in 2019, and the trend has continued strongly this year. Thanks to increasing consumer awareness around sustainability, businesses of all sizes are committing to clear goals to reduce their environmental impact.
While the importance of sustainability has never been clearer, the terminology is more confusing than ever. With Drax committing to becoming carbon negative, the UK aviation industry aiming for carbon neutral by 2050 and IKEA’s “climate positive” commitment, it can be difficult to keep on top of what everything means.
While everyone wants to do their bit for the environment, it helps to know the lingo. We’ve got you covered with our sustainability jargon buster below.
A carbon footprint is the amount of carbon dioxide that each person is responsible for. It can be calculated in different ways and will often include the carbon emissions associated with your travel and your energy consumption.
Everyone has a carbon footprint; frequent fliers will have a larger carbon footprint than someone who doesn’t fly very often.
Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, and contributes to climate change (or global warming, as you may have also heard it called).
Carbon intensity is the number of grams of carbon dioxide that it takes to make one unit of electricity at a kilowatt per hour (kWh).
Carbon intensity is high when electricity is generated using coal power stations because of the high levels of CO2 produced in the generation process. In renewables however, carbon intensity is far lower, because renewable generation like wind or solar produce almost no emissions.
Climate change refers to the changing temperature of the earth as a result of human activity. Climate change and global warming are often used interchangeably, and there is widespread scientific consensus that human activity directly contributes to the warming of the planet.
Year on year, the global average temperature has increased, and governments meet to discuss the issue and what can be done to reduce carbon emissions and limit global heating. These meetings are held by the United Nations and called the Conference of Parties, or COP for short.
COP26 will be held in 2020 in Glasgow. Each time COP comes together, it’s to discuss progress on, and commitment to, sustainability goals.
“Climate crisis” has become the favoured terminology when referring to climate change, as it more accurately reflects the severity of the dangers posed to the planet by climate change.
The climate crisis refers primarily to warming caused by human activities which have led to increased concentrations of carbon dioxide and other gases in the atmosphere.
To achieve carbon neutrality means that your carbon emissions - that is, the carbon emitted by your day-to-day operations, such as manufacturing, travelling and so on - are effectively cancelled out.
This is achieved by balancing your carbon emissions with techniques such as carbon offsetting. Or by simply not emitting carbon at all – for example, choosing to cycle instead of drive.
Carbon offsetting is a way to reduce your environmental impact. It involves calculating your carbon emissions and investing in schemes which are certified as removing a certain amount of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Depending on the partner you choose to work with, the schemes will vary, but tree planting is a common one. This is because trees naturally absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, helping to reduce the volume of the greenhouse gas.
This one is new even to us, which shows just how much the language around sustainability is evolving. Carbon insetting is like carbon offsetting but is used specifically within the supply chain of a business.
The aim is to reduce your own carbon footprint while also delivering additional benefits along that supply chain, such as promoting biodiversity or restoring damaged ecosystems to full health.
Carbon neutral and “net zero” both mean the same thing: to achieve overall emissions of zero. You may also hear of or read about “climate neutral” aims - this also means the same thing as carbon neutral.
Zero carbon means the same as carbon neutral: to achieve an overall balance between carbon emitted and carbon removed from the atmosphere. For example, if you used 100% renewable energy to power your business and used carbon offsetting to ensure your net operations and supply chain were carbon free, you could call yourself a “zero carbon” business.
David Attenborough is a national treasure, and his Blue Planet II series in 2018 laid bare the extent of the plastic waste crisis, which is one of the other ecosystem issues that has become clear in recent years.
Thanks to a sharp rise in consumer awareness around plastic waste - and where it ends up when it can’t be recycled - the zero-waste movement has sprung up, with people aiming to reduce single-use plastics.
This has been a phenomenally successful bit of consumer action; fast food chains have stopped producing plastic straws, high street supermarkets have started to move away from plastic packaging and the introduction of the 5p plastic bag charge has helped to reduce the use of plastics massively.
Carbon negative, or climate positive
Carbon negative - also confusingly referred to as climate positive - goes one step further than carbon neutrality, aiming to remove more carbon from the atmosphere than you emit.
For example, Drax announced their goal to become “carbon negative” by 2030. They’re doing this by using BECCS technology to remove carbon from the air, meaning we end up with less overall carbon emissions than we started with.
Carbon positive is also sometimes used to describe the same goal.
Bioenergy carbon capture use and storage - or BECCS for short - is the process of using biomass, a renewable energy source, to generate clean electricity. The small amounts of carbon dioxide that are released during this process are then captured and either used to produce a by-product, or stored in secure, subterranean chambers, preventing it from entering the atmosphere.
How do I know where to start?
What all these terms demonstrate is the growing awareness around, and importance of, sustainable business practise. If you want to find out what you can do to reduce your carbon footprint and improve your sustainability credentials, the easiest first step you can take is switching to a supplier like Opus Energy.
As one of the biggest business energy suppliers in the UK, Opus Energy is helping businesses all over the country to reduce their environmental impact, by supplying 100% renewable electricity, which is carbon free, at no extra cost.Sign up to the Brighter Business newsletter