A quick and dirty glossary of climate negotiation jargon and abbreviations

Climate march
© Margaret Badore. Demonstrators rally before a 2014 UN meeting in New York City.

It can seem like the people involved with the upcoming climate talks in Paris speak their own language. Below, you’ll find some of the most frequently used jargon, accompanied by user-friendly definitions that will hopefully help you understand what’s going on in the upcoming negotiations. I’m assuming that you, dear TreeHugger reader, know a thing or two about greenhouse gas emissions and renewable energy, but not necessarily the inner workings of the UN. Over the past couple of years, I’ve gotten utterly lost in the UN buildings, slogged through thousands of pages of reports, and asked many pedestrian questions of important officials…so you don’t have to!

Wait, sorry—what’s happening in Paris?

From November 30 to December 11, there will be a big important United Nations conference on climate change. It’s widely seen as the last and best opportunity for all the member nations of the UN to reach an international agreement on how to deal with climate change, or else really bad things (like hurricanes and droughts and floods) will happen to everyone. There is currently a draft text of the agreement, which you can find here, but there’s still a lot to be decided.

Regardless of the outcome of the talks, Paris was a smart location choice because you can find a lot of good wine for cheap.


The goal is to prevent the average global temperature from rising more than two degrees Celsius from pre-industrial temperatures. This limit was internationally agreed upon in 2010, so the world needs to figure out how to cut emissions enough to meet that goal. Most predictions say that if we continue to emit greenhouse gas emissions at the current rate, the global average temperature is on track to rise 4ºC.

Binding Agreement

If the negotiating parties (national governments) reach a binding agreement, that means they will be legally obligated to keep their word or suffer from some sort of consequence.

This is a particularly contentious issue. In order for the U.S. to agree to a legally binding international agreement, it must pass Congress, something that’s currently unlikely. Similarly, a number of developing nations, like India, also feel that they shouldn’t be held to a binding agreement but think that developed nations still should.


Conference of the Parties is a name for the type of UN meeting that's happening in Paris this year. This is the 21st Conference of the Parties. There is one COP per year, but there are various other types of meetings that lead up to this one. COP20 was held in 2014 in Lima.

Emissions Gap

That’s the gap between how much the parties have already promised to cut emissions and how much more needs to be cut to stay under the 2°C goal. Various agencies have slightly different ways of calculating the gap, but one recent report put it at 12 gigatons of greenhouse gasses. So far, the UN nations have collectively promised to reduce emissions by only 4 to 6 gigatons.


Green Climate Fund. This fund was established in 2010, as a way for developed nations to help developing nations grow their economies sustainably (what exactly that means is still being debated). The idea is that countries that historically polluted a lot and benefitted economically from that pollution need to give money to developing nations to grow their economies, because if we want to stop climate change, poorer countries can’t follow the same path to growth.


Intended Nationally Determined Contributions, also commonly called national climate plans. This is what each country promises to do to help fight climate change, and it allows different nations to set different goals. However, each nation must submit their plan for public review (the deadline was March 2015, but there are still tardy parties who have not submitted), so if they submit a lame plan other nations have some opportunity to tell them to step up their game.

There seems to be a lot of positive momentum with these. You can see how many countries have submitted their plans and get the details on each INDC over at the World Resources Institute’s awesome tracker tool.


Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. A baller group of top climate change scientists, who survey climate change research from around the world and compile really important reports that tell us all the bad things that will happen if we don’t fix our emissions problem.


Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation. A UN program that should be dear to any TreeHugger’s heart, whose goal is to prevent people from cutting down trees. There’s also REDD+, which not only aims to prevent chopping down trees but also to promote sustainable forestry.


Sustainable Development Goals. This is a set of 17 goals that the UN hopes to accomplish and sees as universally applicable. They are extremely high-minded targets, like “No poverty” and “Zero Hunger.” Climate Action is goal 13. These goals are intended to set the agenda for the UN for the next 15 years, and were agreed upon in September of this year.


United Nations Environment Programme. This is an agency of the United Nations that’s in charge of activities related to the environment. They were instrumental in founding the IPCC.

Still looking for a definition?

There’s also this very official glossary from the UN itself. Or leave us a comment and I’ll do my best to answer, unless of course, you’re a climate whomp whomp.

A quick and dirty glossary of climate negotiation jargon and abbreviations
Some of the most frequently used jargon you’ll want to know before the Paris climate change talks, accompanied by user-friendly definitions.

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