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Cutting through the jargon at crucial UN climate talks

December 1, 2023

Climate action is complicated, and there will be lots of talk about 1.5 degree pathways, carbon budgets and loss and damage at the UN climate conference in Dubai. What does it all mean?

Industrial complex in Russia emitting smoke via chimneys
Countries will have to significantly impove their emissions and climate targets at COP28 in Dubai if the world is to stop catastrophic warming Image: Yuri Kochetkov/EPA/dpa/picture alliance

As the COP28 talks try to act on the climate emergency, observers will benefit from a basic knowledge of the technical climate terms and idioms underpinning the debate. Indeed, what does COP even stand for? From the Anthropocene to the UNFCCC, here's a glossary of key terms that will pepper dialogue in Dubai as the world comes together to save the planet.

1.5 C pathway

A climate mitigation pathway consistent with limiting heating to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels by 2100. Climate scientists regard this temperature rise as the best-case warming scenario. Not just energy and transport, but economic growth, technological developments and lifestyle are factored into pathways consistent with 1.5 C of heating. 


Finding ways to adjust to the impacts of human-induced climate change, including extreme weather. The idea is to moderate the harm, for instance, by constructing housing away from locations vulnerable to wildfires or sea level rise. Climate finance will be vital for funding adaptation measures. 

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Human activity has had such an impact on the climate and the environment that it has led to the naming of a new geological epoch: the Anthropocene. The mid-20th century is regarded as the moment that human activities transformed the Earth system, especially through rapidly increasing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in the atmosphere.

Carbon budget

The amount of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions humanity can emit this century and still keep temperature rise to 1.5 degrees. Carbon budgets also relate to the emission limit — and associated carbon credits or permits — set as part of a cap-and-trade scheme. Entities need to surrender permits equal to their emissions. When they break their budget, they need to splash out for more credits.

Carbon capture and storage (CCS)

Reducing carbon emissions to tackle global warming by capturing the CO2 produced by power generation or industrial activity, and then transporting it to store deep underground.

Carbon intensity

A measure often used by developing countries when addressing emissions reductions, it measures the CO2 released per unit of economic output, which is most often measured as gross domestic product (GDP).

Carbon lock-in 

Existing fossil fuel-based energy systems have been so dominant that they inhibit efforts to introduce alternative energy. Carbon lock-ins happen when coal-, gas- and oil-fired energy create an inertia that inhibits the transition to zero-emission alternatives. This understanding can prompt policymakers to consider early retirement of existing high-emissions infrastructure.

Carbon neutrality

Balancing emitted CO2 by removing the equivalent amount from the atmosphere through sequestration in carbon sinks — including soil, forests and oceans. As these sinks are damaged, or cut down in the case of forests, emissions need to be equally cut to maintain carbon neutrality.

Carbon tax

Under a carbon tax, governments set a price that emitters must pay for each ton of greenhouse gas they emit. A carbon tax differs from carbon trading, in that it provides a higher level of certainty about cost but not about the level of emissions reduction to be achieved. 

Carbon trading 

Also known as cap and trade, this market-based incentive to meet carbon reduction targets caps greenhouse gas emissions and divides them into tradeable emission permits, or carbon credits. If a company overextends its credits, it will have to buy more from an entity that lowered emissions and has carbon credit in the bank. The lower the emissions, the lower the costs; and the higher the profit. 

Climate justice

The world's poorest and most vulnerable people, along with future generations, will suffer the worse climate change impacts. Climate justice aims to equitably and fairly share the burdens of climate change through broad investment in mitigation, adaptation and sustainable development.

CO2 price

As part of an emissions trading scheme, the carbon price can refer to the cost of emissions per ton, or the cost of carbon credits. The higher the carbon price, the bigger the incentive to cut emissions, meaning it is also a gauge of the economic cost of mitigation. A carbon price also refers to the rate of a carbon tax, which also puts a price on emissions.


The Conference of the Parties is the supreme body of UN conventions, including the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. All states that are parties to that convention are represented at the COP, during which they review implementation of targets set in the Paris Agreement, for example, and decide how to better achieve climate mitigation measures. 


The process by which countries, individuals or other entities aim to achieve zero fossil fuel carbon emissions largely associated with electricity, industry and transport.

Loss and damage

A key pillar of COP climate negotiations in Egypt in 2022 was a commitment to establish a fund to compensate developing and climate-vulnerable countries hit hardest by worsening weather extremes. This loss and damage fund is to be primarily paid for by developed countries who bear the most responsibility for emissions that trigger global heating and climate extremes. 


Reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and increasing greenhouse gas sinks to limit global heating. This involves slashing the use of fossil fuels, the burning of which emits GHGs like CO2 and methane, among other measures. 


Balancing the amount of GHGs emitted with the amount removed from the atmosphere. This balancing should include actual emission cuts, not just offsets by planting trees to create carbon sinks, for example — which is sufficient for carbon neutrality.

Paris Agreement

The first-ever universal, legally binding global climate change agreement adopted at the Paris climate conference (COP21) in December 2015. It established a global framework to avoid dangerous climate change by limiting global warming to well below 2 C, and preferably to 1.5 C.

United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) 

In 1992 at the Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, 154 states signed a convention to combat "dangerous human interference with the climate system" by reducing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere. The 1997 Kyoto Protocol first enshrined the measures under the UNFCCC, before it was superseded by the Paris Agreement of 2015.

Edited by: Tamsin Walker

Stuart Braun | DW Reporter
Stuart Braun Berlin-based journalist with a focus on climate and culture.