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Glossary from ClimateBiz - The Business Resource for Climate Management.

This glossary provides concise definitions of terms that commonly arise during the discussion of climate change. The primary source for each glossary item is noted within the text below. Definitions that have been shortened or otherwise edited are noted as "adapted."
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Activity data:

Information that quantifies an action in units so that one may calculate emissions generated by that action. One example of activity data for business travel is miles flown on commercial airlines. (Source: Adapted from WRI's Working 9 to 5 on Climate Change)


Organic nonfossil material of biological origin which may be used as a renewable energy source (Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration)

Carbon cycle:

The flow of the Earth's carbon through four main reservoirs (atmosphere, terrestrial biosphere, oceans, and sediments) interconnected by pathways of exchange. (Source: Adapted from Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center)

Carbon dioxide:

A colorless, odorless noncombustible gas with the formula CO2 that is present in the atmosphere. It is formed by the combustion of carbon and carbon compounds (such as fossil fuels and biomass), by respiration of animals and plants, and by the gradual oxidation of organic matter in the soil. (Source: Adapted from U.S. Department of Energy)

Carbon dioxide fertilization:

The acceleration of plant growth by CO2 enrichment that can occur in natural or agricultural systems as a result of an increase in the atmospheric concentration of CO2. (Source: Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center)

Carbon equivalent:

A measure used to compare the emissions of the different greenhouse gases based upon relating their global warming potential to that of carbon dioxide. Greenhouse gas emissions in the United States are most commonly expressed as "million metric tons of carbon equivalents (MMTCE)." (Source: Adapted from U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

Carbon offset:

A compensation for the impact of a company's emissions by avoiding or sequestering an equal amount of greenhouse gases at another site.

Carbon sequestration:

The uptake and storage of carbon. Trees and plants, for example, absorb carbon dioxide, release the oxygen and store the carbon. Fossil fuels, which were at one time biomass, release stored carbon when burned. (Source: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

Carbon sink:

A pool (reservoir) that absorbs or takes up released carbon from another part of the carbon cycle. (Source: Adapted from Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center)

Clean Development Mechanism (CDM):

A provision in the Kyoto Protocol that enables industrialized countries to finance emissions-avoiding projects in developing countries and receive credit for doing so.

Climate change:

The long-term fluctuations in temperature, precipitation, wind, and all other aspects of the Earth's climate. Also a popular term for current changes in the Earth's climate commonly attributed to the increase in atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations since the start of the industrial revolution. (Source: Adapted from Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center)


The generation of electricity or shaft power by an energy conversion system and the concurrent use of rejected thermal energy from the conversion system as an auxiliary energy source. (Source: Adapted from U.S. Department of Energy)

Conference of Parties (COP):

The supreme body of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change . It comprises more than 170 nations that have ratified the Convention. The COP's role is to promote and review the implementation of the Convention. (Source: Adapted from U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

Direct emissions:

Emissions that are produced by a source controlled by a company. Examples include operations within a company-owned factory, or gasoline burned in a company car. See also "indirect emissions." (Source: Adapted from WRI's Working 9 to 5 on Climate Change)

Distributed generation:

A popular term for localized or on-site power generation. (Source: U.S. Department of Energy)

Emissions factor:

A unique value for scaling emissions to activity data in terms of a standard rate of emissions per unit of activity (e.g., grams of carbon dioxide emitted per barrel of fossil fuel consumed). (Source: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

Emissions credit:

Under a cap-and-trade emissions trading system, an allowance received by an organization for avoided emissions that may be sold or traded to another organization, allowing the second organization to exceed its emissions level.

Emissions intensity:

A level or amount of emissions per some unit of economic output, such as GDP, sales revenue, or goods produced.

Emissions trading:

A system in which a regulatory agency specifies an overall level of pollution that will be tolerated (a cap) and then uses allowances to develop a market to allocate the pollution among sources of pollution under the cap. Emissions permits or allowances become the currency of the market, as pollution sources are free to buy, sell, or otherwise trade permits based on their own marginal costs of control and the price of the permits. In no case can total emissions exceed the cap. (Source: Adapted from U.S. Energy Information Administration)

Fossil fuel:

Any hydrocarbon deposit (such as petroleum, coal, and natural gas) that can be burned for heat or power. (Source: Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center)

Fuel cell:

An electrochemical device that converts chemical energy directly into electricity. (Source: Adapted from U.S. Department of Energy)

Geothermal energy:

Energy derived from heat transferred from the earth's molten core to underground deposits of dry steam (steam with no water droplets), wet steam (a mixture of steam and water droplets), hot water, or rocks lying fairly close to the earth's surface. (Source: Adapted from U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)


See "greenhouse gas."

GHG protocols:

Generally accepted sets of rules for measuring greenhouse gas emissions.

Global warming:

A popular term used to describe the increase in average global temperatures due to the greenhouse effect. (Source: U.S. Department of Energy)

Global warming potential (GWP):

The index used to translate the level of emissions of various gases into a common measure in order to compare their relative effect on climate change. GWPs are calculated as the ratio of the change that would result from the emissions of one kilogram of a greenhouse gas to that from the emission of one kilogram of carbon dioxide over a period of time (usually 100 years). The GWP of CO2 is defined to be 1.0. (Source: Adapted from U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

Greenhouse effect:

A popular term used to describe the roles of water vapor, carbon dioxide, and other gases in keeping the Earth's surface warmer than it would be otherwise. These gases are relatively transparent to incoming shortwave radiation, but are relatively opaque to outgoing longwave radiation. The latter radiation, which would otherwise escape to space, is trapped by these gases within the lower levels of the atmosphere. The subsequent re-radiation of some of the energy back to the surface maintains surface temperatures higher than they would be if the gases were absent. (Source: Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center)

Greenhouse gases (GHG):

Those gases, such as water vapor, carbon dioxide, tropospheric ozone, nitrous oxide, and methane, that are transparent to solar radiation but opaque to outgoing longwave radiation. Their action is similar to that of glass in a greenhouse. (Source: Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center)

Green power:

A popular term for energy produced from renewable energy resources that are commonly considered environmentally preferable. (Source: Adapted from U.S. Department of Energy)

Green tags:

A kind of currency used in the energy trade to represent the environmental and social benefits of renewable energy. Also called renewable energy credits.

Indirect emissions:

Emissions that result from a company activity, but are produced by a source external to the company. One common example is use of electricity provided by a commercial utility. The company uses the electricity to run lights or office equipment, but the electric utility is producing the power and the emissions. (Source: Adapted from WRI's Working 9 to 5 on Climate Change)

Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change (IPCC):

The organization established jointly by the United Nations Environment Program and the World Meteorological Organization in 1988 to assess information in the scientific and technical literature related to all significant components of the issue of climate change. Leading experts on climate change and environmental, social, and economic sciences from some 60 nations help the IPCC to prepare periodic assessments of the scientific basis for statements on global climate change and its consequences. (Source: Adapted from U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

Kyoto Protocol:

An international agreement struck by 159 nations attending the Third Conference of Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (held in December of 1997 in Kyoto, Japan) to reduce worldwide emissions of greenhouse gases. If ratified and put into force, signatory countries must reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by pre-specified amounts. (Source: Adapted from U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

Landfill gas:

Gas generated by the natural degrading and decomposition of municipal solid waste by anaerobic microorganisms in sanitary landfills. The gases produced, carbon dioxide and methane, can be collected by a series of low-level pressure wells and can be processed into a medium Btu gas that can be burned to generate steam or electricity. (Source: California Energy Commission)

Megawatt (MW):

A standard measure of electric power plant generating capacity; a megawatt equals one thousand kilowatts or 1 million watts. (Source: U.S. Department of Energy)


A colorless, odorless, tasteless gas composed of one molecule of carbon and four of hydrogen. Highly flammable, it is the main constituent of "natural gas," which is used as a fuel and for manufacturing chemicals. The global warming potential of methane is 21. (Source: Adapted from U.S. Department of Energy)

Net metering:

The practice of using a single unit of measurement to quantify consumption and generation of electricity by a small generation facility (such as a house with a wind or solar photovoltaic system). The net energy produced or consumed is purchased from or sold to the generator, at the same price. (Source: U.S. Department of Energy)

Nitrous oxide:

A powerful greenhouse gas with a global warming potential of 310. Major sources of nitrous oxide include soil cultivation practices, especially the use of commercial and organic fertilizers, fossil fuel combustion, nitric acid production, and biomass burning. (Source: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)


See "carbon offsets."

Perfluorocarbons (PFCs):

A group of human-made chemicals composed of carbon and fluorine only. These chemicals (predominantly CF4 and C2 F6 ) were introduced as alternatives, along with hydrofluorocarbons, to ozone-depleting substances. In addition, PFCs are emitted as by-products of industrial processes and are also used in manufacturing. PFCs do not harm the stratospheric ozone layer, but they are powerful greenhouse gases: CF4 has a global warming potential (GWP) of 6,500 and C2 F6 has a GWP of 9,200. (Source: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

Portfolio standard:

The requirement that an electric power utility generate or purchase a specified percentage of the power it supplies/sells from renewable energy resources, and thereby guarantee a market for electricity generated from renewable energy resources. (Source: U.S. Department of Energy)

Renewable energy:

Energy derived from resources that are regenerative or for all practical purposes cannot be depleted. Types of renewable energy resources include moving water (hydro, tidal and wave power), thermal gradients in ocean water, biomass, geothermal energy, solar energy, and wind energy. Municipal solid waste (MSW) is also considered to be a renewable energy resource. (Source: U.S. Department of Energy)


See "carbon sequestration."


See "carbon sink."

Sulfur hexafluoride (SF6):

A very powerful greenhouse gas used primarily in electrical transmission and distribution systems and in electronics. The global warming potential of SF6 is 23,900. (Source: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

United Nations Framework Convention On Climate Change (UNFCC):

The international treaty unveiled at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in 1992, which commits signatory countries to stabilize anthropogenic (i.e., human-induced) greenhouse gas emissions to "levels that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system." The UNFCCC also requires that all signatory parties develop and update national inventories of anthropogenic emissions of all greenhouse gases not otherwise controlled by the Montreal Protocol. (Source: Adapted from U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

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