Glossary Sustainability Jargon

Companies target net-zero, set science-based targets, reduce greenhouse gas emissions according to the Greenhouse Gas Protocol, and execute impact measurements for the Sustainable Development Goals. And all of this is to meet the 1.5°C target and stop global warming. What do all these terms mean exactly? This glossary might help you with sustainability discussions and the understanding of communication.

Glossary Sustainability Jargon

1.5°C. Science shows that we must limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. A bigger increase entails more frequent climate risks like wildfires, floods, droughts, heat waves, storms, and other extreme weather events.

Carbon dioxide (CO2). This gas is the most common in terms of quantity and impact on global warming. However, including CO2 only, can confuse and understate the total impact.

Carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e). The term describes the different GHG in a common unit, meaning that the impact of each GHG is expressed in the amount of CO2 that would result in the same global warming.

Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP). A non-profit organization, which enables consistent global disclosure and management of the environmental impact (Carbon Disclosure Project).

Carbon Neutral. Describes a company state, in which CO2 emissions are counterbalanced with carbon offsets. The claim does not include an actual reduction of GHG emissions by the reported amount, neither necessarily covers non-CO2 GHG emissions.

Circular economy. The system breaks through the linear production and consumption process, and transforms it to a closed loop, in which used products are reintegrated into the value chain. It is based on three principles defined by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, namely eliminating waste and pollution, circulating products and materials, and regenerating nature. The circular economy involves processes like sharing, leasing, reusing, repairing, refurbishing, and recycling existing materials and products as long as possible.

Climate change adaptation strategies. These strategies aim at adjusting business activities to actual or expected future climate events, like floods, droughts, or storms. The relevance of climate change adaptation strategies could be seen during the floods in the Ahr valley in Germany. Several business operations got disrupted by the natural disaster and it took time to recontinue business as usual. Climate assessment measures and innovative preventive measures may reduce disruptions by extreme weather events.19 However, building climate resilience would be the aim of adaptation strategies.

Climate change mitigation strategies. These strategies aim at reducing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and limit climate change to 1.5°C. (NASA) In a digital world, the transition towards renewable energy, a reduced energy consumption, and energy efficiency are essential topics to reduce GHG emissions. But also, green investments for CO2e-compensation and neutralization measurements are a part of mitigation strategies.

Footprint. The term describes the total GHG emissions caused by a company, an organization, an individual, a product, a project, or similar entities over a specific time span. Normally, the footprint is reported in the unit CO2e.

Global reporting initiative (GRI). The GRI is an independent, international organization, which provides standards and guidelines for sustainability reporting. Hereby, they aim at creating a common language to communicate sustainability impacts.

Global warming. Since industrialization, the average temperature on earth is increasing, due to mostly human activities, more rapidly than due to natural causes. Global warming is a gradual process, which is becoming more and more irreversible.

Greenhouse gas (GHG). Those gases absorb and trap heat from the sun within the atmosphere of the Earth. The Kyoto protocol (United Nations) defines those gases as Carbon dioxide (CO2), Methane (CH4), Nitrous oxide (N2O), Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), Perfluorocarbons (PFCs), Sulfur hexafluoride (SF6), Nitrogen trifluoride (NF3). The gases naturally occur in the Earth’s atmosphere but human industrial activities, such as burning fossil fuels, increase their levels.

Greenhouse gas protocol. The framework establishes a comprehensive global standard to measure and manage the climate change footprint of companies.(GHG protocol) It provides guidance for Scope 1-3.

  • Scope 1. Area includes direct GHG emissions from owned or controlled business resources, like company facilities and business vehicles.
  • Scope 2. Area includes indirect GHG emissions from the generation of purchased energy.
  • Scope 3. Area includes all indirect GHG emissions, which are not included in Scope 2, and which occur in the value chain of the reporting company, including both upstream and downstream business activities. ​

Greenwashing. The marketing approach aims at creating a sustainable image of a company without having sustainable business activities. Key areas within Greenwashing are suggestive, fraudulent, and misleading advertising statement regarding sustainability, or false labels.

Handprint. The term describes the positive impact individuals or organizations have on the environment. It is a footprint consistent estimate of positive change. Because of the relatively open definition, three handprint concepts are described in this article (Alvarenga, R.A.F.; et al. 2020).

  • Direct handprint/ Enablement. The absolute positive impacts that products have on the footprint of their users. The telco industry, for instance, enables other industries to avoid emissions through digitalization of processes.
  • Indirect handprint. The absolute positive impact that products have on unintended affected subjects. Here, positive by-products that occur during the lifecycle of specific products may benefit the climate. During the production of biofuels, for instance, carbon is sequestrated, producing a positive by-product.
  • Relative handprint/ Scope 4. The relative positive impact a product can bring for the intended user, compared to a benchmark. The modernization of equipment may entail a positive impact on the climate during the use phase. For instance, equipment with high energy efficiency may enable customers to save energy and reduce emissions, compared to equipment with lower energy efficiency.

Impact measurement for the Sustainable Development Goals. The approach includes an assessment of the impact a company has on each SDG. Specific and detailed descriptions about each single SDG impact are recommended.

Life cycle assessment (LCA). The analysis systematically assesses the footprint of products or projects. During the LCA a company defines system boundaries about the stages of a product/ project lifetime, which will be included in the assessment. Accordingly, for products, there are cradle-to-cradle, cradle-to-grave, or cradle-to-gate options depending on the use case.

Net Zero. Describes a balance between the generated GHG emissions and the GHG emission removals. This balance needs to be achieved to stabilize global warming. SBTi’s net zero standard6 outlines what companies need to do to achieve net zero.

Neutralization. GHG emissions, which cannot be reduced by a company, may be neutralized to reach net zero. Neutralization describes activities that remove GHG emissions from the atmosphere, e.g. reforestation, or renaturation of peatlands. By the way, marine plants, especially unicellular algae, also consume considerable amounts of GHG emissions (Friedl 2010). This makes the world’s oceans the Earth’s second green lung and offers an interesting neutralization field.

Paris Agreement. The framework is a legally binding climate change agreement adopted in the Conference of the Parties 21 (COP21) in 2015. It aims at avoiding climate change by limiting global warming to well below 2°C, preferably to 1.5°C, compared to pre-industrial levels.

Science-based targets. Science-based targets concentrate on the quantity of GHG emissions that need to be reduced to reach the 1.5°C target, set by the Paris Agreement. SBTi’s net zero standard (Science based targets initiative) supports companies to set science-based targets.

Science-based targets initiative (SBTi). The initiative drives climate action in the private sector and enables companies to set science-based reduction targets (Science based targets initiative). Their work includes defining best practices, providing technical assistance, bringing together experts, and mobilizing companies.

Sustainability. The term consists of three interconnected dimensions, the environmental, social, and economic dimension. It is used to describe the integration of all three pillars to enable maintaining communities and nature for this generation and generations to come.

Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The 17 goals were adopted by the United Nations in 2015, and include the topics peace, prosperity, people, planet, now and in the future.

Triple bottom line (TBL). The approach describes a permanent balance between environmental, social, and economic demands. It is used for accounting the sustainable performance of companies.



Carbon Disclosure Project. General information.

Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Circular economy introduction.

NASA. Global Climate Change Solutions. Mitigation and Adaptaiton, responding to climate change.

United Nations. Kyoto Protocol.

GHG protocol. General information.

Alvarenga, R.A.F.; et al. (2020). A framework for using the handprint concept in attributional life cycle (sustainability) assessment. Journal of Cleaner Production 265.

Friedl (2010). Haben Algen Einfluss auf das Klima?, Max-Planck Institut

Science based targets initiative. SBTi’s net zero standard.

Science based targets initiative. General information.