A Glossary of Environmental Terms

We spoke with three experts in the field of sustainability to get the most up-to-date definitions of these green buzz words.

woman grocery shopping sustainably
Photo: Getty / d3sign

When we talk about combating climate change and living a more sustainable lifestyle, a few buzzwords are typically used in conversation. You've heard them before—terms like carbon neutral, zero waste, eco-friendly, and organic are tossed around consistently. Understanding how and when to properly utilize them (and implement their respective action items into your daily life, for that matter), however, is a good first step in towards greener living. Here are 13 environmental-related words (and their definitions!) that everyone is talking about right now.

Climate Change

Climate change is a topic that's becoming more common in public discourse, says Gabriela Gandel, Impact Hub's Global executive director, due to its increasingly evident adverse effects, including rising temperatures, hotter climates, increased flooding, melting ice caps, and other natural occurrences that are threatening life on Earth. "Often, climate change refers specifically to the rise in global temperatures from the mid-20th century to the present," she adds, noting that it is important to make the distinction between climate and weather. "Climate is different from weather: It is measured over a long period of time, whereas weather can change from day to day, or from year to year." This phenomenon has also been connected to damaging weather events, such as more frequent and more intense hurricanes, floods, downpours, and winter storms. And the major contributors to climate change? Us.

Carbon Neutral

Sometimes called Net Zero Carbon, this term is invoked when a company, service, product, or event removes the same amount of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere that it emits, continues Gandel. "Negative carbon emissions usually come through funding various renewable energy and energy efficiency projects," she says. "Those projects can also help reduce greenhouse gases."


Anyone aiming to live a sustainable lifestyle—which involves shopping, consuming, eating, disposing, and spending with the environment in mind—shouldn't focus solely on the here and now, explains Tamar Warburg, AIA, LEED, AP, BD C, the senior associate director of sustainability and resilience at Sasaki—you must also consider the future. "How do our choices impact the world we leave our children, and our communities, and the planet?" she asks." To be sustainable is to be mindful of the world we leave for future generations."

Fossil Fuels

"A basic way to describe fossil fuels is this: They're a substance made from decomposing plants and animals," explains Gandel. "That doesn't sound so terrible until you factor in the fact that they're a nonrenewable resource." In short, we're extracting fuels (they are responsible for nearly three-fourths of human-caused emissions over the last 20 years) that are millions of years old from the earth's crust, with no way to replenish them within our lifetimes.

Greenhouse Gases

Greenhouse gases include carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and ozone gases; they trap heat in the earth's atmosphere, explains Gandel. "They can stay in the earth's atmosphere anywhere from a few years to a few thousand years." While these gases are crucial to maintaining heat (without them, our planet would be uninhabitable due to the cold), the increase in atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide, in particular is raising Earth's temperature too quickly.


"Circularity, or the circular economy, refers to building and rebuilding from already-existing materials. It is designed to eliminate waste by continually using and reusing resources," explains Gandel, who says to envision the process as a closed-loop cycle. "You make a good, use it, reuse it, remake it, recycle it, then make something new and start the cycle all over again." She says it's the direct opposite of a linear economy, which looks at the lifecycle of a product as take, make, and dispose.


Anything that involves utilizing natural methods and processes to grow living plants or animals for food is considered organic, notes Keiran Frost, the managing director at The Headwaters.

Zero or No Waste

Zero waste practices eliminate unnecessary material and packaging, explains Warburg. Making sure to reuse, recycle, or "upcycle" all of our waste (like composting food waste to benefit our gardens or repairing clothes rather than throwing them away) are all steps you can take to live a zero-waste lifestyle.


"The concept of regeneration actively seeks to improve our environment both ecologically and societally," explains Frost, noting that this most often plays out in areas that have been damaged or disrupted by human intervention. "It is upon all of us to understand and consider these concepts, our actions, and our impact—in short if nobody changes, nothing changes."


Products and services that take advantage of every opportunity to improve the environment— rather than damage our planet—can be considered eco-friendly. "Truly eco-friendly choices, from organic produce to green cleaning products, help repair the world," adds Warburg.

Carbon Footprint

A carbon footprint is a critical metric of one's impact on climate change. "Many of our activities result in carbon dioxide emissions that cause global warming," continues Warburg. "Not just energy use, such as electricity to power our homes or gasoline to power our cars, but also 'embodied carbon' emissions from the manufacturing of materials, including household objects, food, and even buildings."


According to Frost, reforestation is the replanting of land that once bore thick forests and harbored fully functioning ecosystems that nurture the soil and plants that store carbon.

Zero Emissions

Energy that comes from renewable sources, like solar or hydro, and doesn't contribute carbon dioxide emissions to the atmosphere can be considered zero emissions, says Frost.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles