A-Z Sustainability Dictionary
November 25, 2022

A-Z Sustainability Dictionary

Welcome to the A-Z Dictionary of Sustainability! Here you'll find definitions for sustainability-related terms. Here's a one-stop shop to help out!


Accountability: Taking responsibility for our actions and their impact on sustainability.

Adaptation: the process of adjusting to environmental changes in order to better manage their impact. It involves preparing for and responding to the effects of climate change, such as sea level rise, increased temperatures, and changing precipitation patterns

Aerosols: tiny particles in the atmosphere, usually created by human activities, that can have a significant impact on the Earth's climate. They include pollutants such as sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and carbon dioxide, as well as natural particles such as dust and sea salt. Aerosols can reflect and absorb incoming radiation, leading to cooling or warming of the atmosphere, respectively.

Afforestation: the planting of trees and shrubs in an area that was previously unforested. The aim of afforestation is to increase the amount of carbon sequestered in the form of biomass, reduce soil erosion, and create habitats for wildlife.

Atmosphere: the layer of gas surrounding the Earth and held in place by the planet's gravity. It is composed of nitrogen, oxygen and other gases in smaller proportions, and is also the source of most of the Earth's weather and climate.

Awareness: Being conscious of the potential for sustainability and making choices in our everyday lives to help make a difference. 


Behaviour: Our individual and collective actions determine whether or not we are living sustainably. 

Biodegradable: Something capable of decaying into its basic components.

Biodiversity credits: AC unit of measurement used to quantify the ecological benefits of a conservation or restoration project.

Biofuel: A fuel derived from living organisms or their byproducts. 


Carbon credits: A permit that allows a company or individual to emit a certain amount of carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases. One carbon credit represents one tonne of sequestered carbon dioxide.

Carbon Credit Bundles: A package of carbon credits that can be traded on the open market. Each carbon credit represents a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Carbon credit bundles are often created by governments or non-profit organisations as a way to generate revenue for climate change mitigation efforts.

Carbon emissions: The release of carbon dioxide gas into the atmosphere, measured through carbon units or carbon credits. 

Carbon footprint: The total amount of greenhouse gas emissions caused by an individual, event, corporation or product. 

Carbon neutral: When an activity produces a net zero carbon footprint. This means that any greenhouse gas emissions released into the atmosphere are balanced out by emissions reductions elsewhere.

Carbon register: A list of all the carbon-containing assets in a company or other organisation. It is used to track emissions and enable carbon trading.

Carbon offsetting: Compensating for our greenhouse gas emissions by investing in projects that reduce or remove emissions elsewhere. 

Carbon sink: a natural or artificial reservoir that absorbs and stores carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere. Natural sinks include forests, oceans, and other ecosystems that store CO2 through the process of photosynthesis. Artificial carbon sinks include carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies, which use filters and other processes to capture CO2 and store it underground.

Carbon unit: A more formal term for carbon credits, normally used by carbon registries.

Circular economy: A system dedicated to eliminating waste by reusing, sharing, repairing, and recycling resources.

Climate change: The long-term alteration of temperature and typical weather patterns in a place. 

Climate positive: Exceeding achieving carbon neutrality by removing additional carbon dioxide from the atmosphere; also referred to as carbon negative.

Collective action: Refers to people coming together to take action to protect the environment and promote sustainable living. This can include things like conserving resources, reducing waste, and working to mitigate climate change.

Conserve: To use resources wisely and prevent waste. 

Corporate social responsibility (CSR): A company's commitment to being socially and environmentally responsible and ethical. This means taking into account the effects of its business activities on employees, customers, suppliers, communities, and the environment. It's about being a good corporate citizen and making a positive contribution to society.

COP: The Conference of the Parties is an annual meeting of the signatories to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), at which they discuss measures to limit greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to the effects of climate change.


Deforestation: Conversion of forested lands into non-forest use.

Destroy: To ruin or damage beyond repair. 

Down-cycling: The process of turning waste into materials of lower quality. 


Eco-friendly: Products or practices that are considerate of the environment. 

Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS): A market-based system for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. A government sets a limit, or cap, on the total emissions that can be released and issues tradable allowances, or permits, to polluters. Polluters can buy and sell these allowances, and the price of the allowances depends on the demand for them.

Endangered: a species that is at risk of extinction due to environmental or human-caused changes.

ESG: Environmental, social, and governance criteria are a set of standards used by investors to evaluate companies' performance on issues relating to the environment, social responsibility, and corporate governance. 

Ethical: Moral principles that guide our behaviour. 

Extinction: the permanent disappearance of a species or group of species. It has occurred naturally over geological time scales due to changes in the environment and natural selection, but human activities such as deforestation, habitat destruction, and pollution have caused an acceleration of extinctions.


Fast Fashion: Describe clothing designs that are quickly produced and sold at a relatively low price. This type of fashion is generally not sustainable, as it often uses cheap, synthetic materials that are not biodegradable and are produced in an energy-intensive manner. Fast fashion is often criticised for contributing to environmental pollution and for being unethical, as it often relies on sweatshop labour.

Forest: A large area of land covered with trees. They can provide a habitat for animals, help to regulate the climate and produce oxygen. 

Fossil fuels: sources of energy formed over millions of years by the decomposition of dead organisms. These fuels include oil, coal, and natural gas, and are extracted from below the Earth's surface and burned to generate electricity, power vehicles, and heat homes.

Future generations: The people who will inherit the planet from us. Sustainability is about ensuring that our actions today don't compromise the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.


Geothermal: A sustainable energy source that comes from the earth's heat. It can be used to generate electricity or to heat and cool buildings.

GHG accounting: Greenhouse gas accounting is the process of quantifying emissions and removals of greenhouse gases.

Global warming: The gradual increase of the earth's average surface temperature. 

Green: The term describes actions, products, people, programmes, etc., that reduce environmental harm.

Greenhouse effect: When a layer of gases over the troposphere traps and accumulates excessive heat.

Greenhouse Gas: Gases in the atmosphere, including carbon dioxide, water vapour, and methane.

Greenwashing: The act of making false or misleading claims about a product or service's environmental benefits. 


Harmful: Damage or degrade the environment, which can ultimately lead to its deterioration. This can include air pollution, water pollution, and land degradation.

Hybrid: a term used to describe a combination of two or more different things, such as technology, energy sources, or species. In the context of sustainability and climate change, it often refers to combining different sources of energy, such as solar and wind power, to create a more efficient and sustainable energy system.

Hydro: the use of water power to generate electricity.


Ice cap: a large mass of ice that covers a land mass.

ICROA (International Carbon Reduction & Offset Alliance): A not-for-profit, membership-based organisation that promotes the development and use of carbon reduction and offset projects around the world. ICROA's goal is to accelerate the transition to a low-carbon economy by promoting the use of carbon reduction and offset projects as a cost-effective means of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Impact: the effect that an action or event has on something.

Invest: To put money into something with the expectation of getting a financial return. To invest in sustainability is to put resources into activities that will help protect and improve the environment for future generations. This includes renewable energy, energy efficiency, conservation, and sustainable agriculture.


Junk: Stuff that is not sustainable. 


Keep it up: To maintain sustainable practices or to continue doing something in an environmentally friendly way.

Kyoto Protocol: An international framework established in 1997 for industrialised countries established by the UNFCCC that aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions based on agreed individual targets.


Landfills: A site where waste is buried and then covered with soil. Landfills are used to manage solid waste, including household trash, construction and demolition debris, and sewage sludge.

Low-carbon: referring to activities or products that produce low levels of carbon dioxide emissions.


Metrics: A way of measuring something. Some standard sustainability metrics include measures of energy use, emissions, waste, water use, and resource consumption.

Mitigation: the process of reducing the severity, magnitude, or impact of climate change by reducing emissions of greenhouse gases or by increasing the ability of the ecosystem to absorb emissions. Examples of mitigation include increasing energy efficiency, switching to renewable energy sources, reforestation, and developing better building materials.


Natural: Coming from nature. 

Natural Resources: Resources provided by nature.

Nature-based solutions: Solutions are those that work with, rather than against, nature to achieve more sustainable outcomes. They can include measures such as planting trees to provide shade and windbreaks, using green roofs to insulate buildings, or creating wetlands to filter water and provide habitat for wildlife.

Native forest: Forests that have existed in an area for a long period. Native Forests are typically considered more sustainable than other types of forests, as they are better adapted to the local environment and provide more benefits to local ecosystems.

Native Birds: Birds that have existed in an area for an extended period that helps maintain balance. Many native birds are in danger of extinction due to habitat loss and other human-caused problems. 

Net Zero: A net zero emissions goal or target refers to achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions by balancing a measured amount of emissions with an equivalent amount of removals from the atmosphere.

NZ climate-related financial disclosures: the requirement of large public entities to disclose their greenhouse gas emissions per the Greenhouse Gas Protocol Corporate Standard and to set targets for reducing their emissions.


Organic: Grown without the use of synthetic chemicals. 

Ozone layer: a layer of ozone gas in the Earth's atmosphere that forms a shield from the sun's ultraviolet radiation. It is located in the stratosphere of the Earth, approximately 14-28km above the Earth's surface. It is critical to life on Earth, as it blocks out harmful UV radiation from entering the atmosphere.

Ozone hole: a region of the stratosphere where the ozone concentration has been significantly depleted over Antarctica. It is caused by the release of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and other human-made pollutants that react with the ozone molecules, leading to a decrease in the ozone concentration in the atmosphere.


Paris Agreement: an international agreement to combat climate change signed in December 2015 by 195 countries. It seeks to limit the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit it to 1.5°C. The agreement also sets out a framework for countries to submit and build upon their nationally determined contributions to reduce emissions.

Plastic credits: A type of carbon credit that can be earned by investing in or developing new technologies that help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 

Pollution: Pollution is the release of harmful substances or products into the environment, damaging ecosystems, loss of biodiversity, and climate change. This can happen through human activity, such as factories emitting toxic chemicals into the air, or it can happen naturally, like when a volcano erupts and releases harmful gases into the atmosphere. 

Preservation: To preserve the environment and its resource's original state and protect against harm.


Quality of life: A sustainable community can provide its residents with a good quality of life by preserving natural resources, maintaining a strong economy, and providing social services.


Reduce: When we talk about reducing our ecological footprint, we mean making changes in our lives to help reduce the number of resources we consume. This can include anything from recycling and composting to driving less and eating more locally sourced food.

Reforestation: Planting of trees on once barren land. It helps to restore the natural environment and mitigate the effects of climate change.

Renewable energy: Electricity is produced by renewable resources like wind, solar, hydropower, and geothermal energy.

Reuse: The act of using something again, typically something that would otherwise be considered waste. When something is reused, it reduces the need for new resources, which can help to conserve the environment.

Recycle: The process of turning waste materials into new products, which can help reduce pollution and conserve resources.

Regulatory carbon market: A market-based approach to controlling pollution by providing economic incentives for achieving reductions in the emissions of pollutants.


Science-Based Targets: Science Based Targets are emission reduction targets in line with what the latest climate science says is necessary to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement. 

SDG: The Sustainable Development Goals. A set of 17 "global goals" that were adopted by all United Nations Member States in 2015. The SDGs are a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity. The SDGs are built on the premise that sustainability is a prerequisite for development and that economic growth must be inclusive and equitable to be sustainable.

Sea level rise: the increase in the average global sea level due to melting ice caps and glaciers, as well as the thermal expansion of the ocean. Over the past century, the global sea level has risen by about 20 cm.

Sustainability: Meeting the present's social, environmental and economical needs without compromising future generations' ability to meet their own needs. 

Sustainability solutions: Solutions that help organisations operate more sustainably by reducing environmental impact and promoting social and economic development. 


Take-back Programs: A take-back program is a system in which consumers can voluntarily return products they no longer need or use to the manufacturer or retailer. The products are then recycled, reused, or disposed of properly. Take-back programs are often used to reduce waste and keep hazardous materials out of the environment. Examples of take-back programs include electronics recycling, printer and toner cartridge recycling, and packaging recycling programs.

TCFD reporting: The TCFD is a set of guidelines for disclosing climate-related financial information. The goal of the TCFD is to help organisations disclose climate-related risks and opportunities in a manner that is useful to investors and other financial decision-makers.

Technology credits: A type of carbon credit that can be earned by investing in or developing new technologies that help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 

Toxins: Poisonous substances that have a negative effect on humans and the environment. 

Trees: Trees are important for sustainability because they help to clean the air and water, provide homes for wildlife, and stabilise the climate.


UN: The United Nations is an intergovernmental organisation that aims to maintain international peace and security, develop friendly relations among nations, achieve international cooperation, and be a centre for harmonising the actions of nations. The UN was established in 1945 after World War II to replace the League of Nations, stop wars between countries, and provide a dialogue platform. It contains multiple subsidiary organisations to carry out its missions.

UNFCCC: The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change is an international environmental treaty that was adopted in 1992. Its objective is to stabilise greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere to prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system. The UNFCCC entered into force in 1994 and now has 197 Parties (196 States and the European Union).

Upcycling: The process of taking something that is no longer being used and transforming it into something new and useful. It is a form of recycling that focuses on extending a product's life, reducing waste and saving money. Examples of upcycling include turning old furniture into modern home décor, using old t-shirts to make quilts, and transforming plastic bottles into plant pots.

Unsustainable: Practices or products that are not environmentally friendly and that will eventually lead to the depletion of resources.


Values: The principles that guide our behaviour.

Voluntary carbon market: A market-based approach to reducing greenhouse gas emissions that allows companies, organisations, and individuals to offset their emissions by purchasing carbon credits. Carbon credits are generated when companies or projects reduce their emissions or help to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.


Waste: Something that is no longer wanted or needed. Waste can be seen as anything that is not part of the natural cycle or that is not able to be reused or recycled.


eXploitation: The overuse and depletion of natural resources in a way that is not sustainable. This often happens when resources are extracted faster than they can be replenished.


You: The individual reading this definition who can make a difference. 


Zero waste: A waste management strategy that aims to reduce waste sent to landfills; zero is the point at which there is no net output of greenhouse gases.