• Sustainability
    • General Sustainability

Small business guide to sustainability jargon

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The amount of climate change information circulating the internet and the media can feel very overwhelming. In some cases, we know this is creating a barrier for small companies that want to take action but are unsure where to start.

It can be difficult to navigate your way through all of the climate change information out there. We have prepared a set of jargon busters to help demystify the language used to explain climate change and help you feel more informed and less overwhelmed.


Our aim is to support small business to take climate action and to simply communicate with your customers and suppliers. The below definitions are designed to help small businesses break through the myths and jargon so you can understand all the things that are important for you to consider.

Who's it for?

Small businesses committed to reducing their carbon footprint, but unsure where or how to start their sustainability journey.

Adaptation: Adjusting to the actual or expected future climate. The goal however is to act now to reduce our future vulnerability to the harmful effects of climate change.

Carbon Accounting: Refers to a wide range of techniques that are used to estimate how much carbon and other greenhouse gases a business or actor emits.

Carbon Footprint: The level of carbon emissions attributable to a country, company, yourself or maybe your neighbour. Small businesses carbon footprints can often be largely due to their supply chain and their prevalence in the value chains of larger organisations.

Carbon Offset: Carbon offsetting is where a company can purchase units (carbon credits), to compensate for greenhouse gas emissions released through their activities. Carbon offsetting should be used as a last resort where organisations have been unable to avoid carbon intensive activities, operate more efficiently or replace or mitigate any residual emissions.

Carbon Negative: Carbon negative is when an organisation/business/product removes more carbon than it emits.

Circular Economy: A circular economy is based on the principles of designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems. Basically, a system where nothing really gets thrown away, and everything is re-used and recycled. Also known as a ‘closed-loop’ economy.

Climate Change: This encompasses the long-term changes we are seeing to weather conditions and the natural world, driven by global warming and the human activities which are causing it.

Climate Neutral(ity): Carbon neutrality is reached if the amount of carbon being emitted through a person’s/organisation’s/country’s everyday activities is balanced with the amount they absorb or remove from the atmosphere. It is different to Net-Zero.

Climate Resilience: Our ability to deal with climate change’s effects.

COP: COP stands for ‘Conference of Parties’ and the Parties are the 197 nations and territories that have signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. They meet once a year to decide how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions globally, and tackle climate change.

Decarbonisation: The process of removing the emissions associated with activities or sectors. For example, there is a current focus on decarbonising electricity generation by phasing out coal and gas plants and building renewable sources such as offshore wind farms.

Emissions: This is the release of greenhouse gases, particularly carbon dioxide, into the atmosphere, mainly from burning fossil fuels, such as coal, gas and oil. Livestock and changes to how we use land, including cutting down or burning forests, industrial processes such as cement making and refrigerants are among other sources of greenhouse gas emissions caused by human activity.

Environmental Injustice: A phrase underscoring the broad idea that the people who did the least to cause climate change and pollution are often the most at risk from its consequences. For example, developing nations have lower emissions but they are most at risk from climate damage, whilst the richer, more developed countries account for the most carbon emissions and are affected less.

GHG: Greenhouse Gases are gases in the Earth’s atmosphere that trap heat. They let sunlight pass through the atmosphere, but they prevent some of the heat that the sunlight brings from leaving the atmosphere. These have increased at a rapid rate in recent years. The main greenhouse gases are:

  • Water vapour
  • Carbon dioxide
  • Methane
  • Ozone
  • Nitrous oxide
  • Chlorofluorocarbons

Greenwashing: Greenwashing is when an organisation promotes themselves and/or their goods and services in a way that sounds more eco-friendly or environmentally safe than they actually are, so that consumers who care about the environment believe they are ethical, sustainable, and eco-friendly. Greenwashing promotes unstainable practices and is a huge reputational risk for organisations, given customers increasingly expect companies to play their part in saving the environment.

GHG reductions: Actions that reduce the quantity of GHGs attributable to an entity or actor.

GHG removals: Actions that remove GHGs from the atmosphere relative to baseline. Some examples include afforestation, carbon capture and storage and marine fertilisation.

Like for Like: When a source of emissions and an emissions sink correspond in terms of their warming impact, and in terms of the timescale and durability of carbon storage.

Mitigation: Actions that reduce the volume of GHG’s in the atmosphere.

Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs): An outline of what each country has resolved to do to reduce its emissions and adapt to the impacts of climate change, as part of the United Nations process for tackling climate change. These plans are submitted every five years.

Net Zero: Balancing the emissions produced by human related activity with the amount removed from the atmosphere. Net zero is an approach that focuses on companies reducing and mitigating emissions as much as physically possible before offsetting any residual emissions.

Paris Agreement: The Paris Agreement is a legally binding international treaty on climate change. It was adopted by 196 countries at COP 21 in Paris, on 12 December 2015 and entered into force on 4 November 2016.
The goal of the Paris Agreement is to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees, preferably to 1.5 degrees Celsius, compared to pre-industrial levels.

To achieve this long-term temperature goal, countries must reach global peaking of GHG emissions as soon as possible. The Paris Agreement is a multilateral binding agreement that brings all nations into a common cause to undertake ambitious efforts to combat climate change and adapt to its effects.

Paris-aligned: Targets are considered ‘Paris-aligned’ if they are in line with what the latest climate science deems necessary to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement – limiting global warming to well-below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit warming to 1.5°C, with no or low overshoot.

Science-based: Targets are considered ‘science-based’ if they are in line with what the latest climate science deems necessary to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement – limiting global warming to well-below 2°C above preindustrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit warming to 1.5°C, with no or low overshoot.

Scopes 1,2 & 3: Greenhouse gas emissions are categorised into three groups or 'Scopes' by the most widely-used international accounting tool, the Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Protocol.

Scope 1 covers direct emissions from your owned or controlled sources. Scope 1 emissions include emissions associated with fuel combustion in boilers, furnaces and transport.

Scope 2 covers indirect emissions from the generation of the electricity, steam, heating and cooling your business purchases/consumes.

Scope 3 includes all other indirect emissions that occur across your company’s value chain. Scope 3 emissions can include leased assets, investments, use of sold products, franchises, business travel to name a few.

For many companies, the majority of their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and cost reduction opportunities lie outside their own operations. there is an increasing focus on being able to understand your Scope 3 emissions.

There are currently 15 categories of Scope 3 emissions as defined by the Greenhouse Gas Protocol. They are currently:

  1. Purchased Goods and Services
  2. Capital Goods
  3. Fuel- and Energy-Related Activities (not Included in Scope 1 or Scope 2)
  4. Upstream Transportation and Distribution
  5. Waste Generated in Operations
  6. Business Travel
  7. Employee Commuting
  8. Upstream Leased Assets
  9. Downstream Transportation and Distribution
  10. Processing of Sold Products
  11. Use of Sold Products
  12. End-of-Life Treatment of Sold Products
  13. Downstream Leased Assets
  14. Franchises
  15. Investments

UN Sustainable Development Goals: The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a collection of 17 interlinked global goals designed to be a "blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all". The SDGs were adopted in 2015 by the United Nations General Assembly and are intended to be achieved by the year 2030.

For further support to help you on your climate action journey, see our other guides, tools and templates, including:

Working with Climate Action for Associations

We are working with the team at Climate Action for Associations (CAFA) to provide small businesses with practical guidance, steps and checklists to support your low carbon journey. CAFA are dedicated to accelerating business and industry climate action. CAFA provide resources, tools, guidance and peer to peer learning to drive greater, and quicker, climate action across whole systems, industries and supply chains.

This Small Business Guide to Sustainability Jargon is just one of many straight-talking resources prepared by CAFA that we will be sharing to help you implement climate action in your business

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