The UN climate talks in Paris start on 30 November. Negotiators will use a lot of jargon, but it's important to understand what they're talking about. Photo: Thinkstock

A climate dictionary

Have you ever wondered what climate scientists are really saying, but find it a little embarrassing to ask anyone about the language? Here is a glossary that explains commonly used technical terms.

CLIMATE: Carbon leakage, anthropocene, two-degree target… the upcoming UN climate talks in Paris will be translated into many different languages, but what about all the jargon that policymakers use to describe the climate problem and what they are trying to do?

What follows is a climate dictionary to help you decode some of the language that you will be hearing and reading over the next few weeks as the UN climate talks draw near.


Adaptation to global warming: Physical, social and economic measures to reduce the vulnerability of society, people and infrastructure to expected climate changes and lessen the risk of climate-related damage. Adaptive responses include physical measures to prevent damage and to strengthen society’s ability to cope with climate damage. Poor agricultural-based countries in the south are generally more vulnerable to climate change than richer industrialized countries. The financing of adaptation in developing countries has for several years been a bone of contention in international climate negotiations.

Aerosols: Small particles or droplets in the atmosphere (source) that affect the climate in various ways, e.g. by curbing radiation from the sun. Local and regional aerosol pollution thus contribute to reducing warming – temporarily.

Albedo: Measures the reflectivity of a surface or a body and specifies the ratio of incoming and reflected radiation. Fresh snow has a high albedo, up to 90 per cent, while an ice-free ocean surface has low albedo. The Earth has an average albedo of 37-39 per cent. Reduced sea ice and snow cover will mean lower albedo and thus greater heat absorption, while deforestation in most cases will result in higher albedo.

Anthropocene: Proposed name of the geological epoch we are now in, replacing the Holocene, which has lasted since the last ice age. The background for the proposal is that human activities now influence the environment to such a degree that they leave distinct geological traces on Earth. The Dutch chemist and meteorologist Paul Crutzen first suggested the proposal. The International Commission on Stratigraphy under The Geological Society of London so far has not approved the name.

BioCCS: Bioenergy combined with carbon capture and storage. Theoretically, energy produced from biomass is climate neutral, assuming that new plant growth can bind as much CO2 as is burned. If CO2 is captured from biomass burning, the result is carbon negative, i.e. CO2 is removed from the atmosphere. The IPCC points to BioCCS as a necessary technology to achieve the two-degree target.

Bioenergy: Energy produced by all types of biomass, including firewood, wood pellets, wood waste, straw, and more. Calculated in principle as climate neutral, assuming that new plants tie up as much CO2 as is released upon combustion.

Biofuel: Fuel derived from biological material. Biodiesel can be produced from plant and waste oils, and sugar and starch can be converted into ethanol. Biofuels are intended to produce lower greenhouse gas emissions than conventional gasoline and diesel. In practice, however, some types of biofuels have been shown to generate, directly and indirectly, as much pollution as fossil fuels do. EU sustainability criteria for biofuels, which Norway has endorsed, require a real reduction in emissions of at least 35 per cent. This requirement rises to 50 per cent in 2017. At the same time, the raw materials must be cultivated in a manner that does not threaten biodiversity. Efforts are underway to expand the criteria to include a requirement that the fuel is not to be based on food crops or displace food production.

Biosphere: The area of ​​the Earth that contains organic life. The biosphere is a layer that surrounds the planet and that is just over nineteen kilometres thick. Most forms of life are within a layer of only three kilometres.

Cap and trade: See Emissions trading.

Carbon budget: Measure of how much CO2 humans can emit and still stay within the two degree global warming target. According to the IPCC, to stay within this target, a maximum of 2900 billion tonnes (Gt) of CO2 can be released between 1861-1880 and 2100. 1900 Gt of the carbon budget were already spent by 2011. That means that about 1,000 Gt remain through 2100, to have a 66 per cent chance of achieving the two-degree target. With current emissions levels, the carbon budget will be exhausted in about 20 years.

Carbon footprint: A carbon footprint is a way to put a number on the amount of greenhouse gas emissions caused by a country, organization, event, product or individual. NTNU researchers have been very active in developing a website that allows you to calculate the carbon footprint of nations. You can also hear Edgar Hertwich, former director of NTNU’s Industrial Ecology Programme, describe the tools researchers used to develop the website.

Carbon leakage: Occurs when emission reductions in one country lead to increased emissions in another, for example by industry moving production to countries where it is cheaper to emit CO2. In the EU emissions trading system, competitive industry gets a certain amount of free allowances. In Norway, a CO2 compensation scheme was introduced to prevent carbon leakage.

Carbon negative: Technologies or remedies that remove CO2 from the atmosphere, for example, large-scale tree planting and bioenergy combined with CO2 sequestration (BioCCS). According to the IPCC, carbon negative measures will be required, especially in the second half of this century, to avoid global warming above the two-degree target.

Carbon neutrality: Processes, business actions or economic activities that achieve net zero carbon emissions, i.e. do not lead to increased CO2 content in the atmosphere. For example, bioenergy is considered carbon neutral, because in principle the CO2 released in biomass combustion is recaptured by a corresponding amount of new biomass. The term also refers to compensating one country’s emissions by purchasing carbon credits in other countries.

CCS: Carbon Capture and Storage is a method for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by capturing CO2 from an emissions source and transporting it to a secure storage site, thus preventing its release into the atmosphere.

CDM: Clean Development Mechanism, referring to of the flexible mechanisms of the Kyoto Protocol. Industrialized countries can buy carbon credits that can be used to meet national climate obligations by financing emissions reduction projects in developing countries. Norway was one of the countries that strongly advocated introducing such a scheme.

CDM credits must be approved by their own bodies. One requirement is that the investments trigger emission reductions that would not otherwise occur. CDM credits have been criticized for being an indulgence arrangement, where the effect is difficult to control. The EU does not allow the use of CDM credits to achieve climate targets for 2030.

CFCs: Chlorofluorocarbons are gases that break down the stratospheric ozone layer, which shields the Earth from harmful UV radiation. CFCs were previously used in refrigeration systems, and as solvents and aerosol propellants. The international 1987 Montreal Protocol phased out CFCs, and other gases have now mostly replaced them. CFCs are also very powerful greenhouse gases. Measured in climate effects, the Montreal Protocol is perhaps the international agreement that has resulted in the greatest reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

Climate agreement: Compromise agreement on Norwegian climate policy endorsed by all parties in Parliament, except the Progress Party. The Climate Agreement was signed in January 2008 and updated in 2012. Among the most important points are that Norway will be carbon neutral by 2030, meaning that all Norwegian emissions will be compensated with carbon credits abroad. By 2020, Norway will cut its emissions by 20 per cent of the expected emissions. Two-thirds of the emissions cuts will happen nationally, amounting to national reductions of 15 to 17 million tonnes of CO2 equivalents. The agreement also pledged increased funding for research, public transit and rainforest protection. The 2012 agreement committed to a more rapid expansion of the climate technology fund, continued tax benefits for zero-emission vehicles, a ban on heating with fossil oil as of 2020 and a goal of building at least one full-scale demonstration plant for the capture and storage of CO2 by 2020.

Climate change gases: Gases that affect the climate by affecting the Earth’s and atmosphere’s radiation balance. The term greenhouse gases refers to gases that absorb long-wave (infrared) radiation, and thus contribute to the greenhouse effect. Climate change gases refer to all gases that affect the climate. The main climate change gases, besides water vapour, are carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O). Their primary source is the use of fertilizers in agriculture. Industrial gases that do not exist naturally in the atmosphere also play a role and include CFCs, HCFCs, HFCs, PFCs and SF6. The different gases’ warming potential and atmospheric lifetimes vary greatly.

Climate forcing: A measure of the climate that indicates how much the energy balance (incoming minus outgoing radiation) has changed since a specified time without anthropogenic emissions. Climate forcing is used to compare the impact of various greenhouse gases and other components that affect the climate.

Climate models: Advanced computer programs based on mathematical formulas that describe the physical processes that influence the Earth’s climate. The most advanced Earth-system models require extremely high computing power. The models are used to simulate the evolution of the climate on the Earth or in restricted areas, under different assumptions. Climate models have become increasingly sophisticated in recent years. One way to evaluate the models is to run them in reverse and see if they give an accurate description of the climate in the past.

Climate sensitivity: The measure of how much the temperature will increase at different concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and how fast climate change will happen. IPCC estimates that a doubling of the atmospheric CO2 concentration compared to pre-industrial levels will eventually result in an increase in the average global temperature of 1.5 to 4.5 degrees. There are still numerous uncertainties in the calculation of climate sensitivity.

CLIMIT: Public research programme that contributes to the development of cost-effective technologies for CO2 management through research, development and demonstration. The programme is a collaboration between the Research Council of Norway and the Norwegian state enterprise, Gassnova.

CO2: Carbon dioxide, composed of one carbon and two oxygen atoms, is naturally occurring and is an important constituent of atmospheric air. CO2 plays a vital role for all life on Earth, and is used in the two basic biological processes of photosynthesis and respiration. CO2 in the atmosphere also reduces heat radiation from the Earth, known as the greenhouse effect.

The amount of CO2 that is pulled out of and put into the atmosphere through natural processes in the carbon cycle is almost equally balanced. Burning fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas emits additional CO2 and disturbs this equilibrium; the emissions are larger than nature can cope with in the carbon cycle. From the Industrial Revolution to the present, the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere has increased from around 270 to over 400 ppm (parts per million), the highest level in at least three million years. This amplifies the natural greenhouse effect and leads to global warming. To avoid warming of more than 2 degrees, the CO2 concentration must be stabilized at 450 ppm, according to the IPCC.

CO2 equivalent: Unit of measure used in greenhouse gas accounting for comparing the climate effects of different greenhouse gases, with CO2 as a reference. Usually one CO2-equivalent corresponds to the greenhouse effect of one tonne of CO2.

CO2 management: See CCS.

COP (Conference of the parties): Annual UN climate conference, or more precisely the annual party conference for countries that are parties to the UN’s climate convention, UNFCC. The first Conference of the Parties, COP1, was held in Berlin in 1995. There, countries agreed to a negotiating mandate, which resulted in the Kyoto Protocol two years later, adopted at COP3 in the Japanese city of Kyoto. COP21 in Paris is being held from 30 November to 11 December 2015.

The annual party conferences in November or December usually last two weeks, with the second week at the ministerial level. For particularly important party meetings, such as the 2009 COP15 in Copenhagen, even heads of state or government leaders typically attend.

El Niño: ENSO – El Niño Southern Oscillation – is a weather phenomenon that occurs every two to seven years. Large fluctuations in ocean temperatures and airflows in the southeastern Pacific Ocean have consequences for the weather across much of the world, and particularly in the entire southern hemisphere. Unusually warm surface waters off the coast of South America characterize this weather phenomenon. It was christened El Niño (the boy/baby Jesus) by Peruvian fishermen because it usually came at Christmastime. Its contrasting sister phenomenon La Niña (the girl) is characterized by uncommonly cold surface waters in the same area.

Emissions trading: Also called cap and trade. An emission credit is a certificate that gives an allowance to emit one tonne of CO2 equivalent. The “cap” sets an overall limit on emissions, which is lowered over time to reduce the amount of pollutants released into the atmosphere. The “trade” creates a market for carbon allowances, helping companies innovate in order to meet, or come in under, their allocated limit. Emissions trading between companies and across borders is designed to allow emission reductions to occur as cheaply as possible.

The EU’s trading scheme (EUETS), which Norway is a part of, is the largest international market for emissions trading. The EU trading scheme covers about half of Norwegian emissions in the credit regulated sectors. So far, the system has not worked out quite as intended, because of an over-allocation of emissions allowances that makes it cheaper to purchase credits than not to pollute.

The US Congress blocked a proposal to introduce a cap-and-trade system for greenhouse gases in the US in 2010, but California and several other states have implemented an emissions cap-and-trade programme. China has initiated pilot projects with emissions trading in several regions, and is planning a national system. Similar plans exist in several other countries.

In addition, UN CDM credits are based on countries being able to fulfil part of their emission reduction obligations under the Kyoto Protocol by financing climate emission reduction projects in developing countries. The system has received a lot of criticism because the climate effect is often questionable.

EU climate goals: The EU climate and energy package for the years up to 2030 has three main objectives:

  1. A binding target of cuts in emissions of at least 40 percent by 2030, relative to 1990 levels. All countries must contribute, but some flexibility is possible between countries.
  2. The share of renewable energy will be increased to 27 per cent. The target will be binding at the EU level.
  3. Increase in energy efficiency of 27 per cent. The target is “indicative”, and thus less binding.

EUETS: EU Emissions Trading System is a cap-and-trade system for emissions trading within the EU, and is the world’s largest market for carbon credits. Norway joined the EU carbon market in 2008. Industry, fossil power generation, oil and gas enterprises and aviation must buy carbon credits to offset emissions over a certain amount. About half of Norway’s total emissions are covered by EUETS.

Carbon credits, or allowances, are the most important instrument to reduce emissions, both in the EU and Norway. But the price of carbon credits in recent years has dropped drastically, and there is a huge surplus of allowances. That means allowances are contributing less to climate-friendly restructuring, because it is cheaper to buy permits than to cut emissions.

In 2015, the EU adopted new mechanisms to help boost the price of carbon offsets.

Feedback: Used in climate research to describe natural processes that strengthen or weaken climate change. A positive feedback mechanism reinforces a trend that is already underway. One example is the melting ice in the Arctic due to global warming. Less ice cover allows more sunlight to be absorbed, so that the temperature rises more and melting occurs even faster.

Fossil fuels: Coal, oil, gas and certain other substances containing hydrocarbons are called fossil fuels because they are formed from decomposed organic material that has been below the ground or seabed for millions of years. Coal—and later also other fossil fuels—was crucial to the industrial revolution. The burning of fossil fuels is also the main source of anthropogenic CO2 emissions.

Gassnova: Norwegian state enterprise for CO2 management, under the Ministry of Petroleum and Energy. Gassnova’s purpose is to administer governmental interests related to CO2 management and to spearhead the development and operation of facilities and infrastructure for planned CO2 capture and storage solutions. Gassnova’s work has primarily been linked to the technology centre and the now shelved full-scale plant at Mongstad. The state enterprise was established in 2007 and is located in Porsgrunn.

Geoengineering: The manipulation of the climate with the aim of limiting human-induced global warming. Different technologies have been proposed, for example the scattering of particles high in the atmosphere to mitigate radiation from the sun, or the creation of artificial clouds to increase reflectivity (albedo). Widespread opposition to such climate manipulation exists. Both efficacy and possible side effects are very uncertain.

Green Climate Fund (GCF): A fund established at the climate conference in Cancun in 2010. The fund is to be used to finance emission reductions and climate adaptation practices in developing countries.

Greenhouse effect: Gases in the atmosphere act as a “greenhouse rooftop” that absorbs part of the infrared radiation from the Earth. It is the natural greenhouse effect that creates a liveable temperature on Earth – without the greenhouse effect the average temperature on Earth would be 34 degrees colder than it is. But anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases, such as CO2, methane and others are increasing the concentrations of these gases in the atmosphere. These emission levels are resulting climate changes that are happening faster than nature can adapt to.

INDCs: Intended Nationally Determined Contributions describe what individual countries plan to do to address global warming starting in 2020 under a new international climate agreement.

IPCC: The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was established by two UN organizations, the UN World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) in 1988. The IPCC does not conduct its own research, but reviews and summarizes published scientific material. The IPCC summarizes this data in assessment reports that are published every 5-6 years. The first report, in 1990, concluded that there had likely been a discernible human influence on the global climate. The fifth assessment report from 2014 states “with more than 95 percent certainty” that human activity has already contributed to the increase in global temperatures. Over 800 scientists, among them 19 Norwegians, worked on the fifth report.

Each assessment report is several thousand pages and contains multiple sub-reports. These are summarized in the “Summary for Policymakers”, and subjected to line-by-line review and approval in a painstaking process, in which representatives of the national political authorities can participate.

In 2007, the IPCC, along with former US Vice President Al Gore, received the Nobel Peace Prize.

Kyoto Protocol: International agreement that was negotiated in the Japanese city of Kyoto in 1997, as a binding protocol under the UNFCCC. The agreement committed industrialized countries to reducing their greenhouse gas emissions in the period 2008-2012 by an average of five per cent relative to 1990 levels. Developing countries did not have a corresponding obligation. The USA’s then Vice-President Al Gore signed the agreement, but President George W. Bush subsequently withdrew the US signature. Canada later also withdrew from the agreement.

The 2009 UN climate summit in Copenhagen was scheduled to adopt a new international climate agreement to replace the Kyoto Protocol after 2012, but this failed to happen. As an emergency measure, the climate meeting in Doha in 2012 agreed to extend the Kyoto Protocol until 2020 (Doha Amendment). However, the Kyoto 2 agreement includes only the EU, Norway, Switzerland and Australia, which together account for only 14 per cent of global emissions.

The Kyoto 2 agreement will be replaced by a new international climate agreement from 2020 onward – assuming the 2015 Climate Change Conference in Paris does a better job than the 2009 Copenhagen Summit.

Montreal Protocol: International agreement of 1987 on the phasing out of gases that destroy the stratospheric ozone layer, starting with CFC compounds and halons. The agreement has been revised several times. Virtually all the world’s countries have ratified the agreement. In the follow-up to the agreement, 98 per cent of ozone-depleting substances have been phased out from the 1980s to the present. Because the gases have long atmospheric lifetimes, it will still take several decades before the ozone layer returns to its pre-1980 level. Increased greenhouse effects could delay this process.

Ozone layer: Ozone is an unstable molecule composed of three oxygen atoms. Ground (tropospheric) ozone is a pollution problem, because the gas is a powerful oxidizing agent and toxic to humans.

In the stratosphere at 10-50 km altitude, however, ozone plays a far more positive role. Commonly known as the ozone layer, it shields the earth from harmful UV radiation, which can weaken the immune system and inhibit photosynthesis.

In the 1980s, British scientists discovered what was referred to as the ozone hole over Antarctica, and proved that anthropogenic substances, especially various chlorine compounds, break down the ozone layer. The international community reacted relatively quickly to the findings. The Montreal Protocol, an international agreement to phase out ozone-depleting gases, had already been adopted in 1987.

REDD+: Reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation. International programmes were initiated, both under the World Bank and the UN, for channelling financial and technical support to enhance forest management in developing countries. Norway’s “rainforest billions” have played a central role in this work.

REDD (later REDD+, which added biodiversity and indigenous populations) has been an important topic in international climate negotiations for many years. Deforestation was not included in the Kyoto Protocol, but now appears to be part of the draft agreement to be adopted at the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris in late 2015.

Short-lived climate forcers: Gases and particles that contribute to climate change, but that have short atmospheric lifetimes. Short-lived climate pollutants include black carbon (soot), tropospheric ozone, methane, nitrogen oxides (NOx) and some hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). In Norway, the greatest producers of short-lived climate emissions are diesel-powered vehicles and methane from agriculture. Many of the short-lived climate forcers create local hazardous pollution. Soot contributes to faster ice and snow melt in the Arctic. The foreign ministers of the Arctic Council’s eight member countries have discussed a plan of action for reducing soot emissions.

Sustainable development: Defined as development that meets current needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. Sustainable development was a central concept in the UN report Our Common Future, released by the Brundtland Commission in 1987.

Tipping point: In a climate context, tipping point refers to a “point” where gradual, quantitative changes turn into a qualitative, perhaps irreversible change. Where such tipping points in the climate system may be, is poorly understood.

Two-degree target: The 2009 UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen resulted in a statement that the increase in the average global temperature must be limited to 2 degrees relative to pre-industrial times to avoid dangerous climate change. The two-degree target is assumed in international negotiations. Countries that are particularly vulnerable to climate change, such as small island states, believe this risk limit is too high, whereas others criticize the goal as unrealistic. The average global temperature has already risen 0.85 degrees compared to pre-industrial times.

The objects clause in the 1992 UN climate convention is to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that prevents dangerous anthropogenic climate change.

With the two-degree target, politicians have defined the limit for what is dangerous.

UNEP: United Nations Environment Programme. Coordinates UN environmental activities and supports environmental efforts in developing countries. UNEP was established by the UN’s first international environmental conference in 1973. The organization is headquartered in Nairobi, Kenya.

UNFCCC: The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Treaty was negotiated in advance of the 1992 UN Summit on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro. It came into force in 1994 and is now ratified by 195 countries plus the European Union.

The aim of the treaty is “to achieve stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.”

How much constitutes “dangerous” was subsequently politically determined to be two degrees of warming relative to pre-industrial times. See Two-degree target.

The treaty also states that the parties have “common but differentiated responsibilities” for climate problems, interpreted to mean that industrialized countries have greater responsibility than developing countries to initiate measures that curb climate change.

As the name implies, the UNFCCC is a framework treaty and has not set quantified or binding limits. Instead, it allows for additional protocols with specific emissions targets and other implementation measures to be negotiated. The Kyoto Protocol is the most important one so far.

WMO: The World Meteorological Organization is a specialized agency within the United Nations. The WMO emerged in 1951 from a non-governmental organization that had existed since 1873. It aims to promote practical and scientific cooperation in meteorology and has its secretariat in Geneva, Switzerland.

(Sources: UNFCCC, IPCC,, Wikipedia, Norwegian Environment Agency, Norwegian News Agency- NTB, Cicero, environment. no)