It’s just so confusing! So many environmental terms… what do they all mean.

Below is a list of some you may have heard of and some you may not. We’ve done our best to put them into straightforward language and included some links so you can find out more.

Acid rain

Acid rain is a result of air pollution. When any type of fuel is burnt, lots of different chemicals are produced. The smoke that comes from a fire or the fumes that come out of a car exhaust don’t just contain the sooty grey particles that you can see – they also contains lots of invisible gases that can be even more harmful to our environment.

Power stations, factories and cars all burn fuels and therefore they all produce polluting gases. Some of these gases (especially nitrogen oxides and sulphur dioxide) react with the tiny droplets of water in clouds to form sulphuric and nitric acids. The rain from these clouds then falls as very weak acid – which is why it is known as “acid rain”. The release of sulphur dioxide can also occur naturally when a volcano erupts.

Acid rain was considered a major problem in the 1980s and while steps to reduce sulphur emissions have been successful we are still feeling the effects today, and there is still work to be done.

Young People’s Trust for the Environment


The Soil Association states:

Agroforestry means combining agriculture and trees.

There are two main types of agroforestry:

1. Silvo-pastoral agroforestry: which means the grazing of animals under trees. The animals enrich the soil while the trees provide shelter and fodder for the animals.

2. Silvo-arable agroforestry: where crops are grown beneath trees, often in rows which are large enough for a tractor to tend to the crops without damaging the trees. This is farming in 3D, the trees and the crops occupy different levels above ground, and also below ground where the tree roots will reach down deeper than the crops.

Other types of agroforestry include hedgerows and buffer strips, forest farming – cultivation within a forest environment, and home gardens for agroforestry on small scales in mixed or urban settings.

Trees also provide vital habitats for wildlife. They help farmers by housing natural predators to many common crop pests, thus reducing the need for pesticides.


Biodiversity is about the diversity – the range of different living things and systems in an area. The more plant, insect and animal species there are in one area the greater the biodiversity and the healthier the ecosystem!

The Young People’s Trust for the Environment


On Earth, most carbon is an element stored in rocks and sediments, while the rest is located in the ocean, atmosphere, and in living organisms. These are the reservoirs, or sinks, through which carbon cycles.

For hundreds of millions of years, dead plants and animals were buried under water and dirt. Heat and pressure turned the dead plants and animals into oil, coal, and natural gas. When these fossil fuels burn, we mostly get three things: heat, water, and carbon dioxide. We also get some solid forms of carbon, like soot and grease.

Carbon dioxide

Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas: a gas that absorbs and radiates heat. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is an important heat-trapping (greenhouse) gas, which is released through human activities such as deforestation and burning fossil fuels, as well as natural processes such as respiration and volcanic eruptions.


Carbon neutral

Carbon neutrality means having a balance between emitting carbon and absorbing carbon from the atmosphere in carbon sinks. Removing carbon oxide from the atmosphere and then storing it is known as carbon sequestration. In order to achieve net zero emissions, all worldwide greenhouse gas emissions will have to be counterbalanced by carbon sequestration.

European Parliament

Carbon Offsetting

The idea behind carbon offsetting is that the carbon emissions generated through an activity (like flying) can be calculated, and then the equivalent amount “paid off” via a scheme which removes carbon from the atmosphere (such as tree planting). To work, the “carbon removal” scheme or project must be in addition to existing schemes.

Circular Economy

Looking beyond the current take-make-waste extractive industrial model, a circular economy aims to redefine growth, focusing on positive society-wide benefits. It entails gradually decoupling economic activity from the consumption of finite resources, and designing waste out of the system. Underpinned by a transition to renewable energy sources, the circular model builds economic, natural, and social capital. It is based on three principles:

  • Design out waste and pollution
  • Keep products and materials in use
  • Regenerate natural systems

Extract from: The Ellen MacArthur Foundation

Climate Change

Climate change is the long-term shift in average weather patterns across the world. Since the mid-1800s, humans have contributed to the release of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the air. This causes global temperatures to rise, resulting in long-term changes to the climate.

These ‘warming stripe’ graphics are visual representations of the change in temperature as measured in each country over the past 100+ years. Each stripe represents the temperature in that country averaged over a year.

These ‘warming stripe’ graphics are visual representations of the change in temperature as measured in each country over the past 100+ years. Each stripe represents the temperature in that country averaged over a year.

Changes to the climate system include:

Rising ocean levels – Rising temperatures are causing glaciers and ice sheets to melt, adding more water to the oceans and causing the ocean level to rise. Oceans absorb 90% of the extra heat from global warming: warmer water expands, and so our oceans are taking up more space.

Ocean acidification – Ocean acidification occurs when the ocean absorbs carbon dioxide and becomes more acidic. It is often called the ‘evil twin’ of climate change.

Extreme weather events – Climate change is causing many extreme weather events to become more intense and frequent, such as heatwaves, droughts, and floods.

Conspicuous consumption

the spending of money on and the acquiring of luxury goods and services to publicly display economic power of the income or of the accumulated wealth of the buyer.

Doughnut Economics

Humanity’s 21st century challenge is to meet the needs of all within the means of the planet. In other words, to ensure that no one falls short on life’s essentials (from food and housing to healthcare and political voice), while ensuring that collectively we do not overshoot our pressure on Earth’s life-supporting systems, on which we fundamentally depend – such as a stable climate, fertile soils, and a protective ozone layer. The Doughnut of social and planetary boundaries is a playfully serious approach to framing that challenge, and it acts as a compass for human progress this century.

Kate Raworth – The Doughnut Economy

Ecological emergency

Humanity has wiped out over 60% of our wildlife since 1970. We need to stop destroying wildlife habitats. We need to manage land more sustainably and create more space for wildlife.

We need a new way of thinking – Nature is not there for us to take or leave. It is essential for all life. The forests, rivers, oceans and soil are taking care of us by providing us with food, clean air, water and products we use. Being part of nature improves our wellbeing.




Endangered Species

Endangered means to be under threat or near extinction. When a species/animal is endangered it means that they are disappearing fast or have a very small population. Extinction means the end of existence for a species.

Young Persons Trust for the Environment

Global warming

Global warming is the long-term heating of Earth’s climate system observed since the pre-industrial period (between 1850 and 1900) due to human activities, primarily fossil fuel burning, which increases heat-trapping greenhouse gas levels in Earth’s atmosphere. The term is frequently used interchangeably with the term climate change, though the latter refers to both human- and naturally produced warming and the effects it has on our planet. It is most commonly measured as the average increase in Earth’s global surface temperature.



Greenwashing is used to describe the practice of companies launching adverts, campaigns, products etc. under the pretence that they are environmentally beneficial, often in contradiction to their environmental and sustainability record in general.


The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is the United Nations body for assessing the science related to climate change.

The IPCC provides regular assessments of the scientific basis of climate change, its impacts and future risks, and options for adaptation and mitigation.

Kyoto Protocol

The Kyoto Protocol was adopted on 11 December 1997. There are 192 Parties to the Kyoto Protocol.

The Protocol acknowledges that individual countries have different capabilities in combating climate change, owing to economic development, and therefore puts the obligation to reduce current emissions on developed countries on the basis that they are historically responsible for the current levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Montreal Protocol

The Montreal Protocol is when the world came together in 1987 to save the ozone layer. Over 30 countries signed a treaty to ban CFCs found in aerosols, air conditioning units and fridges. It became clear soon afterwards that this wasn’t enough. Two years later the richer nations agreed to help pay for every nation to move away from CFCs.



‘Net zero’ means that by 2050, the amount of greenhouse gases (like carbon dioxide) the UK adds to the atmosphere will no longer be more than what they take out. This could – on the face of it – make the UK’s total contribution to climate change zero.

It will involve huge changes to lifestyles and industries to cut all man-made emissions.

Another term often used to mean net zero is carbon neutral.

Organic Food

Organic food in the UK is produced without the use of man-made fertilisers, pesticides, growth regulators and livestock feed additives. Genetically modified organisms are not allowed under organic legislation.

Organic agriculture works sustainably relying on crop rotation, use of manure as fertiliser, some hand weeding and biological pest control.

Ozone layer

Ozone is a naturally occurring gas found in the atmosphere where it absorbs most of the sun’s ultraviolet light – invisible rays which are harmful to both plant and animal life.

Ozone is found throughout the atmosphere including at ground level, but is mostly (about 90%) found in a band called the ozone layer at about 15 – 30 km above the Earth’s surface, in the stratosphere, the height at which larger aircraft fly. It is not really a “layer” at all but one of many gases found in the stratosphere.

The ozone layer is essential for life – until it was formed, about a billion years ago, the only life on Earth was at the bottom of the ocean. It is thought that single celled organisms released oxygen through photosynthesis.

Destruction of the Ozone Layer – The Causes
Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) have been identified as the main cause of the destruction to the ozone layer, but there are also compounds containing bromine, other halogen compounds and also nitrogen oxides which cause damage.

CFCs were discovered by Thomas Midgeley in the 1930s as a cheap, non-flammable coolant for refrigerators. They have been used in refrigerators, air conditioning, fast food packaging and propellants. CFCs are very stable, they decay slowly and so endure in the atmosphere for up to a century.

CFCs rise and gradually accumulate in the stratosphere where they are broken down by the sun’s ultraviolet light, so releasing chlorine atoms. The chlorine attacks the ozone, one chlorine atom can help to destroy 100,000 ozone molecules.

The Montreal Protocol banning CFCs was signed by leading industrial nations in 1987 though the ozone layer continued to thin for the next decade as countries sought to reduce their use. Meanwhile other countries such as China and North Korea increased their use of CFCs. As reported in The Independent in 2000 ‘China raised its emissions from 29,000 tons in 1986 to 51,000 in 1997; South Korea from 8,500 to 9,200 tons and the Philippines from 1,900 to 2,700 tons’.

Palm oil

Palm oil is amazingly versatile. It is found in many ready made products such as snacks, ready meals, shampoo and toothpaste. Oil palms are grown in many tropical countries, although Indonesia is the largest producer in the world.

But this has all come at an enormous cost. Indonesia’s forests have been bulldozed, replaced with hectares upon hectares of plantations. Palm oil companies are encroaching on local communities and there are reports of violence and people being forced from their land. Meanwhile, orangutans and other species are being pushed to the edge of extinction.


Paris Agreement

At COP 21 in Paris, on 12 December 2015, Parties to the UNFCCC reached a landmark agreement to combat climate change and to accelerate and intensify the actions and investments needed for a sustainable low carbon future. The Paris Agreement builds upon the Convention and – for the first time – brings all nations into a common cause to undertake ambitious efforts to limit climate change to below 2ºc and adapt to its effects, with enhanced support to assist developing countries to do so.

United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change


Peat is formed over thousands of years in waterlogged areas. The lack of oxygen causes plant matter to only partially decompose leaving a bog rich in nutrients. Peat is really important to our planet for lots of reasons but it needs to be kept in the ground undisturbed.

As well as being home to many important species of wildlife, it is an important carbon sink. 1 hectare of a 30cm deep bog locks in as much carbon as 1 hectare of rainforest – and a peat bog can be 10 metres deep! It can take one year for a peat bog to build up by 1 millimetre.

A peat bog can hold up to 20 times it’s own weight in water which helps prevent flooding which we are seeing a lot more of year after year. Once the top layer of peat is disturbed, the peat will continue to erode. If a bog dries out it releases carbon dioxide.

Defra planned to phase out household peat-based compost by 2020 but this wasn’t compulsory. Most garden centres still stock more peat-based composts than peat-free and it is still being used by plant and seed suppliers.



The word ‘permaculture’ was originally a contraction of ‘permanent agriculture’. It is not just a way of gardening, it is a set of principles to live by for a more ethical and sustainable way of life learning from nature and other people.



Rainforests nearest to the equator, where the climate is very hot and wet all through the year. They are found in South and Central America, Central Africa, Indonesia, Malaysia and the north eastern tip of Australia.

Rainforests contain about half of the existing plant and animal species in the world.
They contain a third of the world’s bird species and 90% of its invertebrates.

The rainforests also provide medicines, food and oxygen to the world. Millions of indigenous people live or depend on the rainforest for their survival.


Recycling is the process of converting waste materials into new materials and objects.

Regenerative Agriculture

A way of farming that aims to increase biodiversity, improve soils, protect the environment and enhance ecosystems by using crop rotation, not tilling (breaking up) the soil and growing green manures instead of leaving the ground bare between crops. Animals are sometimes used to clear crops instead of ploughing.



Using resources carefully so there is enough for people and wildlife now and in the future.

Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the needs of future generations to meet their own needs.

UN Sustainable Development Goals

The UN Sustainable Development Goals are the blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all. They address the global challenges we face, including poverty, inequality, climate change, environmental degradation, peace and justice.

The UN 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs) to transform our world:

GOAL 1: No Poverty

GOAL 2: Zero Hunger

GOAL 3: Good Health and Well-being

GOAL 4: Quality Education

GOAL 5: Gender Equality

GOAL 6: Clean Water and Sanitation

GOAL 7: Affordable and Clean Energy

GOAL 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth

GOAL 9: Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure

GOAL 10: Reduced Inequality

GOAL 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities

GOAL 12: Responsible Consumption and Production

GOAL 13: Climate Action

GOAL 14: Life Below Water

GOAL 15: Life on Land

GOAL 16: Peace and Justice Strong Institutions

GOAL 17: Partnerships to achieve the Goal

UN Sustainable Development Goals

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