Cop28, net zero, 1.5°C: Our guide to climate change jargon

How to read the language of UN negotiations that will determine the planet's future

To help you follow Cop28 like a pro, here is The National’s guide to the language of climate change. Photo: Anadolu Agency
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At a climate summit like Cop28, words matter.

What is agreed to in all-night talks can make or break governments, shift billions of dollars and determine the future of the planet.

Two years ago, Cop26 president Alok Sharma was reduced to tears when a single word was changed at the last minute – “phase-out” to “phase-down” – weakening a deal on coal.

While the stakes are high, discussions tend to be technical. English is frequently a second language, and diplomats like using careful, repeated phrases that are familiar and cannot be misinterpreted.

The result is that climate talks have developed their own vocabulary over the years, a jargon that can mystify outsiders. Each new summit tends to add to the word salad, creating such unwieldy labels as the Glasgow-Sharm El Sheikh Work Programme on the Global Goal on Adaptation – a product of Cop26.

To help you follow Cop28 like a pro, here is The National’s guide to the language of climate change.

What Cop28 is all about

What does Cop28 stand for? Start with the “p”: there are 198 “parties” to a 1992 treaty on climate change – 197 countries plus the EU.

When they all get together, it’s a Conference of the Parties. They’ve done it 27 times since the first one in 1995.

So the next one is Conference of the Parties number 28 – that’s Cop28.

Paris Agreement Most countries signed a further deal in Paris in 2015 promising to make efforts to limit global warming to 1.5°C. You might hear this called the “Paris target” or similar.

Global Stocktake (GST) Countries agreed in Paris to mark each other’s homework every five years beginning in 2023. This “stocktake” will conclude at Cop28.

Presidency One country – this year the UAE – is normally chosen as host and organiser of each summit. The team in charge is known as the Cop presidency.

Climate basics

Greenhouse gases get trapped in the Earth’s atmosphere and act like a blanket to keep the planet warm, a phenomenon known as the greenhouse effect.

Global warming happens when so much greenhouse gas is produced that the blanket gets thicker and the planet gets hotter.

Climate change is the broad impact of this inadvertent tampering with the planet. It includes higher temperatures and changing weather patterns.

Carbon dioxide is the main greenhouse gas added to the atmosphere by human activity. It can stay there for hundreds of years. Sometimes shortened to carbon or CO2.

Fossil fuels – mainly coal, oil and gas – are responsible for emitting a lot of CO2. They are called this because they’re really bits of ancient dinosaurs and plants that were compressed over millions of years.

1.5°C is the goal: average temperatures should not rise by more than this compared to pre-industrial times, the Paris Agreement says. We’re at about 1.1°C already and some effects may be irreversible.

Net zero is a way of limiting the damage. If you can reduce the amount of CO2 you put in the atmosphere so it’s equal to the amount you take back, you won’t be making the greenhouse effect any worse.

The three stages of climate action

You’ll hear about these a lot.

Mitigation Some climate change can still be stopped by emitting less CO2 now. Think of things like electric cars and solar panels.

Adaptation Some climate change won’t be stopped and we’ll have to adapt to life on a warmer planet. Think of flood defences and drought-resistant crops.

Loss and damage Some climate change is already happening and can’t be adapted to in time. Think of natural disasters and rising sea levels. Who should meet the cost is a matter of debate.

Alphabet soup

UNFCCC The name of the 1992 climate treaty with 198 parties, and also of the UN body that oversees it. It’s the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change – pronounce it “U-N-F-triple-C” to sound extra clued-up.

IPCC The experts who write definitive reports on what the science is telling us. They’re the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

NDCs Nationally Determined Contributions, in which each country reveals how it intends to chip in towards the 1.5°C goal. These blueprints are supposed to be updated every five years.

SIDS Small Island Developing States, which are particularly vulnerable to rising sea levels and resulting loss and damage. They typically make joint statements at UN talks.

SDGs Sustainable Development Goals. Although these UN targets are mainly about reducing poverty, they overlap with green policies so are often mentioned at summits.

EVs Electric vehicles.

PV Photovoltaic, referring to solar power.

GHGs Greenhouse gases.

What people mean when they say …

Climate finance We need extra money to pay for all this.

Historical responsibility Rich countries got us in this mess and they should pay for it.

The $100 billion A sum that was promised to developing countries in 2009, but hasn’t yet materialised, and is therefore a sore point.

The Global South Developing countries.

Just transition Sorry, but my country can’t just go green overnight. The switch has to be fair and affordable. (Tick your bingo sheet again if this person talks about “common but differentiated responsibilities”).

Carbon removal Undoing some of the damage by reclaiming CO2 from the atmosphere.

Carbon capture Not the same – this means stopping CO2 entering the atmosphere in the first place and burying it.

Carbon sinks Trees, mainly, which are a natural-ish way of removing carbon from the atmosphere.

Deforestation Cutting down trees.

Carbon budget The maximum amount of CO2 you can emit without overshooting your targets.

Unabated fossil fuels We only mean some fossil fuels, namely those that are burnt without any attempt to capture the CO2.

Phase-down We’re not willing to go as far as phase-out.

Anthropogenic Caused by humans.

Energy transition The process of moving from fossil fuels towards cleaner energy sources that don’t contribute to global warming.

Renewables Sources of energy that will essentially never run out, like wind or the sun.

Hard-to-abate sectors Look, you can’t just plug in a cargo ship or a steel furnace. We’ll need to think differently about these.

Scope 1/2/3 emissions If your company directly burns coal, that’s Scope 1 emissions. If you use power from a coal-fired plant, that’s Scope 2. If your customers or suppliers burn coal in the course of making or using your product, that’s Scope 3. Some companies only report Scope 1 and 2 emissions.

Co-benefits You should do this for social or economic gains even if you aren’t persuaded by the climate benefits.

Emissions trading A system of putting a price on CO2 and making people pay for polluting rights.

Carbon leakage We banned that polluting practice here, so that factory and all its emissions just moved (“leaked”) to another country.

Green hydrogen Hydrogen is not really a fuel source in itself, but a potentially handy way of carrying energy already generated elsewhere. If it came from renewables, it’s called green hydrogen. If it was natural gas, it’s grey hydrogen. There’s also blue (gas but with carbon capture), pink (nuclear) and various others.

Greenwashing When governments or companies try to convince you they’ve gone green – say by planting some trees – but it’s really a lot of smoke and mirrors. Hopefully this guide will help you spot it.

Updated: November 09, 2023, 9:24 AM