Learn more about environmental terms from our Glossary. The definition of the terms are derived from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Just click on the terms to see the Wikipedia source and find out more details about the definitions.
Acid rain is rain or any other form of precipitation that is unusually acidic. It has harmful effects on the environment and on structures. Acid rain is mostly caused by emissions due to human activity of sulfur and nitrogen compounds which react in the atmosphere to produce acids.
Air pollution is the human introduction into the atmosphere of chemicals, particulate matter, or biological materials that cause harm or discomfort to humans or other living organisms, or damage the environment.
Alternative energy is a term used for an energy source that is an alternative to using fossil fuels.
Anaerobic digestion is a process in which microorganisms break down biodegradable material in the absence of oxygen. The process is widely used to treat wastewater sludges and organic wastes because it provides volume and mass reduction of the input material.
Biodegradation is the process by which organic substances are broken down by the enzymes produced by living organisms.
Biodiesel refers to a non-petroleum-based diesel fuel consisting of short chain alkyl (methyl or ethyl) esters, made by transesterification of vegetable oil, which can be used (alone, or blended with conventional petrodiesel) in unmodified diesel-engine vehicles.
Biodiversity is the variation of life forms within a given ecosystem, biome or for the entire Earth.
Biofuel can be broadly defined as solid, liquid, or gas fuel derived from recently dead biological material, most commonly plants. This distinguishes it from fossil fuel, which is derived from long dead biological material.
Biomass refers to living and recently dead biological material that can be used as fuel or for industrial production. Most commonly, biomass refers to plant matter grown for use as biofuel, but it also includes plant or animal matter used for production of fibres, chemicals or heat.
Biomimicry (from bios, meaning life, and mimesis, meaning to imitate) is a relatively new science that studies nature, its models, systems, processes and elements and then imitates or takes creative inspiration from them to solve human problems sustainably.
Bioremediation can be defined as any process that uses microorganisms, fungi, green plants or their enzymes to return the natural environment altered by contaminants to its original condition.
Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is an approach to mitigate global warming by capturing carbon dioxide from large point sources such as fossil fuel power plants and storing it instead of releasing it into the atmosphere.
Carbon dioxide (chemical formula: CO2) is a chemical compound composed of two oxygen atoms covalently bonded to a single carbon atom. It is a gas at standard temperature and pressure and exists in Earth’s atmosphere in this state. It is currently at a globally averaged concentration of approximately 387 ppm by volume in the Earth’s atmosphere, although this is increasing due to human activity. Carbon dioxide is an important greenhouse gas because it transmits visible light but absorbs strongly in the infrared and near-infrared.
Carbon footprint is a “measure of the impact human activities have on the environment in terms of the amount of greenhouse gases produced, measured in units of carbon dioxide”.
Carbon neutral refers to neutral (meaning zero) total carbon release, brought about by balancing the amount of carbon released with the amount sequestered or offset.
Carbon offset is a financial instrument representing a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.
Carbon tax is a tax on emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.
Carpooling (also known as car-sharing, ride-sharing, lift-sharing), is the shared use of a car by the driver and one or more passengers, usually for commuting.
Chlorofluorocarbons (CFC) are compounds containing chlorine, fluorine and carbon only, that is they contain no hydrogen. They were formerly used widely in industry, for example as refrigerants, propellants, and cleaning solvents. Their use has been regularly prohibited by the Montreal Protocol, because of effects on the ozone layer.
Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) is an arrangement under the Kyoto Protocol allowing industrialised countries with a greenhouse gas reduction commitment (called Annex 1 countries) to invest in projects that reduce emissions in developing countries as an alternative to more expensive emission reductions in their own countries. A crucial feature of an approved CDM carbon project is that it has established that the planned reductions would not occur without the additional incentive provided by emission reductions credits, a concept known as “additionality”.
Climate change is any long-term significant change in the “average weather” that a given region experiences. Average weather may include average temperature, precipitation and wind patterns. It involves changes in the variability or average state of the atmosphere over durations ranging from decades to millions of years. These changes can be caused by dynamic process on Earth, external forces including variations in sunlight intensity, and more recently by human activities.
Compact fluorescent lamp (CFL), also known as a compact fluorescent light bulb, is a type of fluorescent lamp. Many CFLs are designed to replace an incandescent lamp and can fit in the existing light fixtures formerly used for incandescents. Compared to general service incandescent lamps giving the same amount of visible light, CFLs use less power and have a longer rated life, but generally have a higher purchase price.
Composting is the aerobic decomposition of biodegradable organic matter, producing compost.
Corporate social responsibility (CSR, also called corporate responsibility, corporate citizenship, and responsible business) is a concept whereby organizations consider the interests of society by taking responsibility for the impact of their activities on customers, suppliers, employees, shareholders, communities and other stakeholders, as well as the environment.
Deforestation is the conversion of forested areas to non-forest land for use such as arable land, pasture, urban use, logged area, or wasteland. Generally, the removal or destruction of significant areas of forest cover has resulted in a degraded environment with reduced biodiversity.
Desalination refers to any of several processes that remove excess salt and other minerals from water.
Ecological footprint (EF) analysis is a measure of human demand on the Earth’s ecosystems and natural resources. It compares human consumption of natural resources with planet Earth’s ecological capacity to regenerate them.
Ecology is the scientific study of the distribution and abundance of life and the interactions between organisms and their environment.
Eco-Management and Audit Scheme (EMAS) is the EU voluntary instrument which acknowledges organisations that improve their environmental performance on a continuous basis.
Ecosystem is a natural unit consisting of all plants, animals and micro-organisms (biotic factors) in an area functioning together with all of the non-living physical (abiotic) factors of the environment.
Electric vehicle is a vehicle with one or more electric motors for propulsion.
Electronic waste, “e-waste” or “Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment” (“WEEE”) is a waste type consisting of any broken or unwanted electrical or electronic device. Recyclable electronic waste is sometimes further categorized as a “commodity” while e-waste which cannot be reused is distinguished as “waste”. Both types of e-waste have raised concern considering that many components of such equipment are considered toxic and are not biodegradable.
Emissions trading is an administrative approach used to control pollution by providing economic incentives for achieving reductions in the emissions of pollutants. It is sometimes called cap and trade.
Endangered species is a population of an organism which is at risk of becoming extinct because it is either few in numbers, or threatened by changing environmental or predation parameters.
Energy audit is an inspection, survey and analysis of energy flows in a building, process or system with the objective of understanding the energy dynamics of the system under study.
Energy conservation is the practice of decreasing the quantity of energy used. It may be achieved through efficient energy use, in which case energy use is decreased while achieving a similar outcome, or by reduced consumption of energy services.
Energy efficiency is using less energy to provide the same level of energy service.
Environmental engineering is the application of science and engineering principles to improve the environment (air, water, and/or land resources), to provide healthy water, air, and land for human habitation and for other organisms, and to remediate polluted sites.
Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) can be defined as the process of identifying, predicting, evaluating and mitigating the biophysical, social, and other relevant effects of development proposals prior to major decisions being taken and commitments made. The purpose of the assessment is to ensure that decision-makers consider environmental impacts before deciding whether to proceed with new projects.
Environmentalism is a broad philosophy and social movement centered on a concern for the conservation and improvement of the natural environment, both for its own sake as well as its importance to civilization.
Environmental Management System (EMS) is part of a management system of an organization (enterprise, authority, etc.), in which specific competencies, behaviours, procedures and demands for the implementation of an operational environmental policy of the organization are defined.
ESCO, the acronym for Energy Service Company, is a professional business providing designs and implementation of energy savings projects that allow building owners to perform projects to upgrade their building assets. The ESCO performs an in-depth analysis of the property, designs an energy efficient solution, installs the required elements, and maintains the system to ensure energy savings during the payback period.
Ethanol fuel is ethanol (ethyl alcohol), the same type of alcohol found in alcoholic beverages. It can be used as a fuel, mainly as a biofuel alternative to gasoline, and is widely used in cars in Brazil. Because it is easy to manufacture and process, and can be made from very common crops, such as sugar cane and maize (corn), it is an increasingly common alternative to gasoline in some parts of the world. Ethanol produced from cellulose is known as cellulosic ethanol or ceetol.
Extended producer responsibility imposes accountability over the entire life cycle of products and packaging introduced on the market. This means that firms, which manufacture, import and/or sell products and packaging, are required to be financially or physically responsible for such products after their useful life. They must either take back spent products and manage them through reuse, recycling or in energy production, or delegate this responsibility to a third party, a so-called producer responsibility organization (PRO), which is paid by the producer for spent-product management.
Fairtrade certification (usually simply Fairtrade or Fair Trade Certified in the United States) is a product certification system designed to allow people to identify products that meet agreed environmental, labour and developmental standards.
Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is an international non-profit, multi-stakeholder organization established in 1993 to promote responsible management of the world’s forests. Its main tools for achieving this are standard setting, independent certification and labeling of forest products. This offers customers around the world the ability to choose products from socially and environmentally responsible forestry.
Fossil fuels or mineral fuels are fossil source fuels, that is, hydrocarbons found within the top layer of the Earth’s crust. They range from volatile materials with low carbon:hydrogen ratios like methane, to liquid petroleum to nonvolatile materials composed of almost pure carbon, like anthracite coal. Methane can be found in hydrocarbon fields, alone, associated with oil, or in the form of methane clathrates. It is generally accepted that they formed from the fossilized remains of dead plants and animals by exposure to heat and pressure in the Earth’s crust over hundreds of millions of years.
Fuel efficiency, in its basic sense, is the same as thermal efficiency, meaning the efficiency of a process that converts chemical potential energy contained in a carrier fuel into kinetic energy or work.
Geothermal power (from the Greek words geo, meaning earth, and thermal, meaning heat) is energy generated by heat stored beneath the Earth’s surface or the collection of absorbed heat in the atmosphere and oceans.
Global warming is the increase in the average measured temperature of the Earth’s near-surface air and oceans since the mid-twentieth century, and its projected continuation.
Green building is the practice of increasing the efficiency with which buildings use resources – energy, water, and materials – while reducing building impacts on human health and the environment, through better siting, design, construction, operation, maintenance, and removal – the complete building life cycle.
Green design (also referred to as “sustainable design”, “eco-design”, or “design for environment”) is the art of designing physical objects and the built environment to comply with the principles of economic, social, and ecological sustainability. It ranges from the microcosm of designing small objects for everyday use, through to the macrocosm of designing buildings, cities, and the earth’s physical surface.
Greenhouse effect is the process in which the emission of infrared radiation by the atmosphere warms a planet’s surface.
Greenhouse gases are the gases present in the earth’s atmosphere which reduce the loss of heat into space and therefore contribute to global temperatures through the greenhouse effect.
Greenwash is a term that is used to describe the act of misleading consumers regarding the environmental practices of a company or the environmental benefits of a product or service.
Hybrid vehicle is a vehicle that uses two or more distinct power sources to propel the vehicle.
Hydroelectricity is a form of hydropower, and is the most widely used form of renewable energy.
Hydrogen vehicle is a vehicle that uses hydrogen as its on-board fuel for motive power. The power plants of such vehicles convert the chemical energy of hydrogen to mechanical energy (torque) in one of two methods: combustion, or electrochemical conversion in a fuel-cell.
Incineration is a waste treatment technology that involves the combustion of organic materials and/or substances. Incineration and other high temperature waste treatment systems are described as “thermal treatment”. Incineration of waste materials converts the waste into incinerator bottom ash, flue gases, particulates, and heat, which can in turn be used to generate electric power. The flue gases are cleaned of pollutants before they are dispersed in the atmosphere.
Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) deals with the content of interior air that could affect health and comfort of building occupants. The IAQ may be compromised by microbial contaminants (mold, bacteria), chemicals (such as carbon monoxide, radon), allergens, or any mass or energy stressor that can induce health effects.
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is a scientific body tasked to evaluate the risk of climate change caused by human activity.
ISO 14001 is the international specification for an environmental management system (EMS). It specifies requirements for establishing an environmental policy, determining environmental aspects and impacts of products/activities/services, planning environmental objectives and measurable targets, implementation and operation of programs to meet objectives and targets, checking and corrective action, and management review.
Invasive species are non-indigenous species (e.g. plants or animals) that adversely affect the habitats they invade economically, environmentally or ecologically.
Jatropha oil is vegetable oil produced from the seeds of the Jatropha curcas, a plant that can grow in wastelands.
Kilowatt (symbol: kW), equal to one thousand watts, is typically used to state the power output of engines and the power consumption of tools and machines.
Kyoto Protocol is a protocol to the international Framework Convention on Climate Change with the objective of reducing greenhouse gases that cause climate change.
Landfill, also known as a dump, is a site for the disposal of waste materials by burial and is the oldest form of waste treatment.
Life cycle assessment (LCA, also known as life cycle analysis, ecobalance, and cradle-to-grave analysis) is the investigation and valuation of the environmental impacts of a given product or service caused or necessitated by its existence.
Materials recovery facility or materials reclamation facility (MRF) is a specialized plant that receives, separates and prepares recyclable materials for marketing to end-user manufacturers.
Montreal Protocol on Substances That Deplete the Ozone Layer is an international treaty designed to protect the ozone layer by phasing out the production of a number of substances believed to be responsible for ozone depletion.
Municipal solid waste (MSW) is a waste type that includes predominantly household waste (domestic waste) with sometimes the addition of commercial wastes collected by a municipality within a given area.
Noise pollution (or environmental noise) is displeasing human or machine created sound that disrupts the activity or balance of human or animal life.
Nuclear power is any nuclear technology designed to extract usable energy from atomic nuclei via controlled nuclear reactions.
Organic foods are produced according to certain production standards, meaning they are grown without the use of conventional pesticides, artificial fertilizers, human waste, or sewage sludge, and that they were processed without ionizing radiation or food additives. Livestock are reared without the routine use of antibiotics and without the use of growth hormones. In most countries, organic produce must not be genetically modified.
Overfishing occurs when fishing activities reduce fish stocks below an acceptable level.
Ozone layer is a layer in Earth’s atmosphere which contains relatively high concentrations of ozone. This layer absorbs 93-99% of the sun’s high frequency ultraviolet light, which is potentially damaging to life on earth.
Paper recycling is the process of recovering waste paper and remaking it into new paper products.
Particulates, alternatively referred to as particulate matter (PM) or fine particles, are tiny particles of solid or liquid suspended in a gas. In contrast, aerosol refers to particles and the gas together. Sources of particulate matter can be man made or natural. Some particulates occur naturally, originating from volcanoes, dust storms, forest and grassland fires, living vegetation, and sea spray. Human activities, such as the burning of fossil fuels in vehicles, power plants and various industrial processes also generate significant amounts of aerosols.
Peak oil is the point in time when the maximum rate of global petroleum extraction is reached, after which the rate of production enters terminal decline.
Persistent organic pollutants (POPs) are organic compounds that are resistant to environmental degradation through chemical, biological, and photolytic processes. Because of this, they have been observed to persist in the environment, to be capable of long-range transport, bioaccumulate in human and animal tissue, biomagnify in food chains, and to have potential significant impacts on human health and the environment.
Photovoltaics (PV) is the field of technology and research related to the application of solar cells for energy by converting sunlight directly into electricity.
Plastic recycling is the process of recovering scrap or waste plastics and reprocessing the material into useful products, sometimes completely different from their original state.
Polluter Pays Principle is a principle in environmental law where the polluting party pays for the damage done to the natural environment.
Pollution is the introduction of contaminants into an environment, of whatever predetermined or agreed upon proportions or frame of reference; these contaminants cause instability, disorder, harm or discomfort to the physical systems or living organisms therein. Pollution can take the form of chemical substances, or energy, such as noise, heat, or light energy.
Post-consumer waste is a waste type produced by the end consumer of a material stream; that is, where the waste-producing use did not involve the production of another product.
Precautionary principle is a moral and political principle which states that if an action or policy might cause severe or irreversible harm to the public or to the environment, in the absence of a scientific consensus that harm would not ensue, the burden of proof falls on those who would advocate taking the action.
Recycling is the reprocessing of old materials into new products, with the aims of preventing the waste of potentially useful materials, reducing the consumption of fresh raw materials, reducing energy usage, reducing air (from incineration) and water (from landfilling) pollution by reducing the need for “conventional” waste disposal, and lowering greenhouse gas emissions as compared to virgin production.
Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and restriction of CHemicals (REACH) is a new European Union Regulation, EC/2006/1907 of 18 December 2006. REACH addresses the production and use of chemical substances, and their potential impacts on both human health and the environment.
Remediation deals with the removal of pollution or contaminants from environmental media such as soil, groundwater, sediment, or surface water for the general protection of human health and the environment or from a brownfield site intended for redevelopment.
Renewable energy is energy generated from natural resources – such as sunlight, wind, rain, tides and geothermal heat – which are renewable (naturally replenished).
Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directive or RoHS was adopted in February 2003 by the European Union. The RoHS directive took effect on 1 July 2006, and is required to be enforced and become law in each member state. This directive restricts the use of six hazardous materials in the manufacture of various types of electronic and electrical equipment.
Reuse is using an item more than once. This includes conventional reuse where the item is used again for the same function, and new-life reuse where it is used for a new function.
Sick building syndrome (SBS) is a combination of ailments (a syndrome) associated with an individual’s place of work (office building) or residence. Most of the sick building syndrome is related to poor indoor air quality.
Solar energy is the heat and light radiated from the Sun that powers Earth’s climate and supports life. Solar technologies allow controlled use of this energy resource. Solar power is a synonym of solar energy or refers specifically to the conversion of sunlight into electricity by photovoltaics, concentrating solar thermal devices and various experimental technologies.
Sustainable development is a pattern of resource use that aims to meet human needs while preserving the environment so that these needs can be met not only in the present, but in the indefinite future. The term was used by the Brundtland Commission which coined what has become the most often-quoted definition of sustainable development as development that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
Thermal pollution is a temperature change in natural bodies of water caused by human influence.
Toxic waste is waste material, often in chemical form, that can cause death or injury to living creatures. It usually is the product of industry or commerce, but comes also from residential use, agriculture, the military, medical facilities, radioactive sources, and light industry, such as dry cleaning establishments.
United Nations (UN) is an international organization whose stated aims are to facilitate cooperation in international law, international security, economic development, social progress and human rights.
User pays is a pricing approach based on the capitalist idea that the most economically efficient allocation of resources occurs when consumers pay the full cost of the goods that they consume.
Vegetarianism is the practice of a diet that excludes all animal, including poultry, game, fish, shellfish or crustacea, and slaughter by-products. The reasons for choosing vegetarianism may be related to morality, religion, culture, ethics, aesthetics, environment, society, economy, politics, taste, or health.
Vermicompost is the end-product of the breakdown of organic matter by some species of earthworm. Vermicompost is a nutrient-rich, natural fertilizer and soil conditioner. The process of producing vermicompost is called vermicomposting.
Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are organic chemical compounds that have high enough vapor pressures under normal conditions to significantly vaporize and enter the atmosphere.
Waste, is an unwanted or undesired material or substance. It is also referred to as rubbish, trash, garbage, or junk depending upon the type of material and the regional terminology.
Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive (WEEE Directive) is the European Community directive 2002/96/EC on waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) which, together with the RoHS Directive 2002/95/EC, became European Law in February 2003, setting collection, recycling and recovery targets for all types of electrical goods. The directive imposes the responsibility for the disposal of waste electrical and electronic equipment on the manufacturers of such equipment.
Waste hierarchy refers to the “3 Rs” reduce, reuse and recycle, which classify waste management strategies according to their desirability. The 3 Rs are meant to be a hierarchy, in order of importance.
Waste management is the collection, transport, processing, recycling or disposal of waste materials.
Waste minimisation is the process and the policy of reducing the amount of waste produced by a person or a society. It is part of the wider aim of waste reduction which is often described as a component of the waste hierarchy.
Water purification is the process of removing contaminants from a raw water source. The goal is to produce water for a specific purpose with a treatment profile designed to limit the inclusion of specific materials; most water is purified for human consumption (drinking water). Water purification may also be designed for a variety of other purposes, including to meet the requirements of medical, pharmacology, chemical and industrial applications. Methods include, but are not limited to: ultraviolet light, filtration, water softening, reverse osmosis, ultrafiltration, deionization and powdered activated carbon treatment.
Wind power is the conversion of wind energy into a useful form, such as electricity, using wind turbines.
Zero-emissions vehicle, or ZEV is a vehicle itself that produces no emissions or pollution from the vehicle when stationary or operating.