Using the right terminology to help save the planet


We bring to you this refreshed post originally published on the 25th of January, 2016 after the recent events affecting the Paris Agreement. In this post you will find an interesting reflection on the role that terminology plays in the construction of social dialogue and in the success of global conversations, and also a useful glossary in relation to the issues covered by the Paris Agreement. We hope you find it interesting!

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Communication is not always easy, especially not when you find yourself discussing a very complicated and utterly delicate subject with potentially far-reaching consequences for the whole planet with people from the farthest corners of the world who do not speak the same native tongue. Indeed, I am referring to the climate talks during the COP21 in Paris that took place from 30 November until 11 December 2015 and led to the most significant international climate change deal in history.

It goes without saying that these two weeks of non-stop negotiations were a dashing exploit, not only due to the challenge to get everyone on the same wavelength and to arrive to an agreement with 196 governments, but also because of the technical and highly specialised terminology that is used.

140308treemonteverde-1000x657First of all, the name of the event – COP21 – is not very clear if you do not see it in the right context or if you do not know the full version of the acronym. Some of you might even think it has something to do with the Danish capital Copenhagen or even with football (‘cup’ and ‘cop’ is quite close). According to the ‘Glossary of Climate Change Terms’ of the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the term stands for “Conference Of the Parties” and is explained as follows:

The supreme body of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). It comprises more than 180 nations that have ratified the Convention. Its first session was held in Berlin, Germany, in 1995 and it is expected to continue meeting on a yearly basis. The COP’s role is to promote and review the implementation of the Convention. It will periodically review existing commitments in light of the Convention’s objective, new scientific findings, and the effectiveness of national climate change programs. See United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The word ‘conference’ is not used here in the sense of ‘meeting’ but rather of ‘association’. The ‘Conference’ meets in sessional periods, for example, the “fourth session of the Conference of the Parties”.

cop21-parisAfter reading this rather clarifying definition, there are still some aspects that require further elucidation, like “United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change”, “the Convention’s objective”, as well as the context in its entirety. Another example that illustrates very well to what extent negotiations on such a high level could go wrong, is the misunderstanding or misinterpretation of the term “carbon neutrality”:

Carbon neutrality means annual zero net anthropogenic (human caused or influenced) CO2 emissions by a certain date. By definition, carbon neutrality means every ton of anthropogenic CO2 emitted is compensated with an equivalent amount of CO2 removed (e.g. via carbon sequestration), but this term has been used differently in several occasions. For instance, Costa Rica’s INDC would “achieve Carbon Neutrality by 2021 with total net emissions comparable to total emissions in 2005,” while Ethiopia’s goal is to “achieve carbon-neutral middle-income status before 2025” and at the same time “limit its net greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in 2030 to 145 Mt CO2e or lower.” Instead of aiming at zero net emissions, some countries seem to misinterpret carbon neutrality as stabilizing emissions at a certain level (World Resources Institute, COP21 Glossary of Terms Guiding the Long-term Emissions-Reduction Goal).

When it comes to international climate-related decision-making, every single detail counts; this fact is underlined by the ostensible, yet extremely important difference between the words “shall” and “should”. Only a few hours before the final text would be read aloud by a delegate in the plenary hall, some lawyers noticed the mistake and urged the French summit hosts to change the text accordingly, as “shall” implies a legal obligation and “should” does not. Or how a seemingly innocuous verb almost torpedoed the historical result of all the hard work of many years and parties.

It may be clear that you almost need to be a specialist in the field to understand what the politicians, diplomats and experts are talking about, but emissions-reduction is the responsibility of every human being. In order to facilitate the communication about this complex, interesting and life-changing topic, we compiled a comprehensive glossary with climate-related terminology, based on several already existing glossaries.

You will find our glossary in this link, and do not forget that what goes around, comes back around…

Written by Leen Boel, former Terminology trainee at TermCoord.

Post edited by Doris Fernandes del Pozo – Journalist, Translator-Interpreter and Communication Trainee at the Terminology Coordination Unit of the European Parliament. She is pursuing a PhD as part of the Communication and Contemporary Information Programme of the University of Santiago de Compostela (Spain).