Climate change vocab

A vocabulary for a sustainable world

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A vocabulary for a sustainable world

08 Nov 2017

7min min read
  • Sustainable development
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limate change: it’s real, and we must fight it. The proliferating field of research on this topic is integral to the sustainability of our planet. It should inform domestic and international policies and prompt ways to build up resilience against the devastating impact that its effects have on vulnerable communities and societies.

With COP23 underway in Bonn, Germany, attention turns to the 'Paris Agreement' and other terms like ‘mitigation’, ‘generational equity’ and ‘climate finance’ that are often heard but not often understood. We unpack them here. 

1. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

Spearheaded by the United Nations, the SDGs are a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity in a post-2015 world. The goals are interconnected – often the key to success on one will involve tackling issues more commonly associated with another. 

There are 17 goals that build on the successes of the Millennium Development Goals. The SDGs include new themes of which climate change is probably the most prominent

Climate change presents the single biggest threat to development, and its widespread, unprecedented effects disproportionately burden the poorest and the most vulnerable. Goal 13 calls for urgent action not only to combat climate change and its impacts, but also to build resilience in responding to climate-related hazards and natural disasters.

Read more:
How a High-Ambition Global Climate Deal Will Help Achieve the Sustainable Development Goals [PDF]
The Roles of Civil Society in Localising the Sustainable Development Goals [PDF]


2. Conference of Parties meetings (COP)

The COP meetings refer to the annual UN-led international climate change talks – negotiations that seek to shape the future architecture of the global climate change regime.

They originated after the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) – an international environmental treaty that was adopted in 1992 to collectively address global temperature increase and climate change – went into force in 1994. Since then, countries that are parties to this Convention have been meeting annually to negotiate a global political response to climate change. Meetings convene every year in a different country under a rotating presidency or COP Chair. This year's meeting takes place under the presidency of Fiji.


3. Paris Agreement (PA)

At COP21 in 2015, after many years of negotiations, countries signed the momentous Paris Agreement, setting out the global expectations for dramatically reducing carbon emissions. The Paris Agreement entered into force in November 2016 and lays out the overarching global goals and framework for international climate action in the post-2020 period. Under the PA, countries have pledged to keep global temperature increases below 2 degrees from pre-industrial times. 

Countries that ratify the PA commit to the decisive actions and policies outlined in their own national climate strategies. This ‘Nationally Determined Contribution’ (NDC) lays the foundation for actions and investment pathways towards clean energy, green infrastructure and climate resilience. The Agreement’s provisions include the requirement for all countries to report their climate actions transparently, collectively take stock of progress (starting in 2018), and enhance their climate actions every five years.

To date, 195 member states have signed the Paris Agreement and 169 have ratified it. Despite the US's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, other countries remain committed to their climate targets and new actors have come to the fore as implementers of the Agreement, including business and non-state actors.

Read more:
The Paris Agreement - full text [PDF]
The Global Goal for Adaptation Under the Paris Agreement: Putting Ideas into Action [PDF]


4.  Climate change mitigation

This refers to efforts to reduce or prevent man-made effects on climate change. Activities like burning fossil fuels, deforestation and livestock farming all increase the concentrations of greenhouse gases (GHG) in the atmosphere, producing a blanketing effect and warming the earth. Experts have highlighted that drastic measures are needed to transform our carbon emissions pathways and mitigate climate change, and that this must happen at a global level. Therefore, cumulative mitigation targets make up the core of the Paris Agreement.

Countries throughout the world have developed national plans and policies to move towards low emissions strategies. South Africa, for example, has developed a renewable energy vision 2030 with the aim of moving its energy production away from a dependence on coal. 

Mitigation policy has implications for the major sectors of the economy, especially for carbon intensive sectors such as energy, transport, construction, industry, agriculture and forestry. Mitigation choices include new technologies and renewable energies, storing carbon, making older equipment more energy efficient, or changing management practices or consumer behaviour. Efforts underway can take various forms at various levels. They range from private sector efforts towards adopting high-tech subway systems to individual choices to use public transport or solar water heaters in their homes. Permits and incentives are a useful way of encouraging this kind of mitigating behaviour.

Aside from the global benefit of reduced GHG emissions, other co-benefits of these mitigation actions include improved air quality, reduced health costs, increased energy efficiency and better energy security.

Read more:
Challenges Associated with Implementing Climate Change Mitigation Policy in South Africa [PDF]
The (Missing) Link: Climate Change Mitigation and Poverty [PDF]


5. Climate change adaptation

This is the principal way to deal with the impacts of a changing and unpredictable climate. It involves taking practical actions to manage risks from climate impacts, protect communities and strengthen the resilience of the economy. Adaptation can take place in anticipation of an event or as a response to it. It can include adjustments through climate planning, climate policy intervention and autonomous reactions by individuals and public bodies. The involvement of communities in climate change adaptation is key. 

Today, adaptation approaches consider the social and economic drivers of risk, as well as other factors not directly related to climate change. Furthermore, adaptation is viewed as a process to address vulnerability, including the means to support livelihood resilience, maintain the integrity of ecosystems and their services and build the capacity of those most vulnerable. 

Developing countries are the most susceptible to climate change, with poor communities being most vulnerable to its impacts. In order to make these societies more resilient,  financial assistance, the transfer of technology and capacity support is needed. These means of implementation are now front and centre of international climate change negotiations.

Read more:
Conflict-sensitive Adaptation to Climate Change in Africa [PDF]
Energy and Adaptation: Exploring how Energy Access can Enable Climate Change Adaptation [PDF]


6. Intergenerational equity

Intergenerational equity refers to the fair and just consideration of present and future generations in the face of climate change. This includes the consideration of young and old generations present today and those that are not yet born. 

Climate change is already disproportionately affecting children and young people, and the predicted impacts from climatic events (i.e. floods, droughts and sea-level rise) will intensify the risk and vulnerability of generations to come. Intergenerational equity requires present generations to be conscious of their actions and efforts to address climate change, so that future generations can have fair access to resources and opportunities for sustainable livelihoods. 

Read more:
Climate Change, Intergenerational Equity, and International Law [PDF]
Engaging Youth in Climate-Smart Agriculture [PDF]


7. Blue Economy

The blue economy, as defined by the World Bank, is the sustainable use of ocean resources for economic growth, improved livelihoods and jobs, and ocean ecosystem health. It overlaps with concepts such as blue growth, ocean governance and ocean economy.

The blue economy encompasses all maritime industries, both traditional (shipping, fisheries, etc) and emerging (seabed mining, bioprospecting, etc), but importantly, it also includes governance and sustainability concerns. These may relate to laws and regulations as well as maritime security and marine spatial planning. 

Today, conversations on sustainability include activities to reduce marine pollution and address the impact of climate change on marine environments, overfishing, habitat destruction and marine conservation. Climate change and the health of oceans are intrinsically linked, and it is expected that at COP23 (especially with Fiji presiding) much focus will be awarded to discussions on healthy oceans. 

Read more:
Room for (Blue) Growth? Exploring national, regional and global ocean strategies [PDF
Taking back the Seas: Prospects for Africa’s Blue Economy [PDF


8. Climate-Smart Agriculture 

Agriculture is one of the sectors most vulnerable to climate change impacts, not only because of the most obvious climate impacts such as shifting rainfall patterns, but also because in many areas of the world we can expect growing seasons to become shorter, the expansion of pests, diseases and invasive species, more extreme weather events (including damaging floods and storms) and other harmful climate-related impacts. 

Climate-smart agriculture is a broad approach that focuses on implementing farming technique and guidelines that support and reorient agricultural systems towards greater resilience, maintaining productivity to support food security and livelihoods. It is applicable to all forms of agriculture, ranging from small-scale subsistence to large-scale, capital intensive and high-tech farming.

Climate-smart agriculture focuses on three main objectives: (1) sustainably increasing agricultural productivity and farmers’ incomes; (2) building resilience into agricultural farming methods and production, so that it can be resilient against climate changes; and (3) reducing greenhouse gas emissions, where possible. 

Read more:
Improving Forest Governance in East Africa’s Eastern Arc Mountains [PDF]
Gender-Sensitive, Climate-Smart Agriculture for Improved Nutrition in Africa South of the Sahara [PDF


9. Green Economy 

The green economy is a vision for an environmentally sustainable system of production and consumption. It aims to reduce the carbon footprint of our economic system by enhancing energy and resource efficiency. Biodiversity will be more highly valued and preserved as a result. The natural environment provides ecosystem services – the ability to absorb carbon and provide food security. The value of these services will inform economic decision-making to a much greater degree. This will result in improved human well-being and social equity.

Read more:
The Green Economy and the BRICS Countries: Bringing Them Together [PDF]
Gender Equality: A Cornerstone for a Green Economy [PDF]


10. Climate finance 

As countries gear up their efforts to combat the effects of climate change (rising water levels, severe weather conditions such as storms or changing rainfall patterns) they need to develop instruments to deal with these adverse impacts. This include both measures to prevent climate change (constructing renewable energy to help curb carbon emissions) and mitigation measures (advanced irrigation systems for future drought prone areas). 

Developing countries are most likely to be adversely affected by these changes, often due to weak existing measures to deal with climatic changes, and inadequate finance available to develop such measures. Public, private and international institutions have all committed to providing specific funds for this purpose. Currently, the Green Climate Fund, established by the UNFCCC, is the largest pool of funding countries can tap into to assist in mitigating and adapting to climate change. 

Read more:
Understanding ‘bankability’ and Unlocking Climate Finance for Climate Compatible Development [PDF]
How Can the Green Climate Fund Initiate a Paradigm Shift? [PDF


Alex Benkenstein, Talitha Bertelsmann-Scott, Romy Chevallier, Ross Harvey, Thuli Montana, Asmita Parshotam and Cyril Prinsloo contributed to this guide.