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When it comes to preventing catastrophic global warming, the world is decidedly off track. Whether countries can course-correct, and which will do so the fastest, are some of the major questions at the heart of this year’s COP28 climate conference in Dubai. The answers will depend on various coalitions finding common ground on everything from the fate of fossil fuels to the role of technology in reducing carbon emissions. 

The decision texts that emerge from COP28 are likely to be filled with language that is formal, technical and steeped in bureaucracy — jargon that also has incredibly high stakes for the fate of humanity and the planet. So to help you navigate this marathon of international climate diplomacy, we’ve put together a glossary of 14 key terms that are dominating discussions.

Read More: What Is COP28 and Why Is It Important?

Paris Agreement

This is the leading international agreement to tackle the worsening climate crisis, signed by nearly 200 countries at COP21 in Paris in 2015 and ratified the following year. As part of the deal, countries agreed to cut their own greenhouse gas emissions in service of a collective goal of limiting warming this century to “well below” 2C compared to the preindustrial era, and ideally to 1.5C. Progress since the deal “has shown the world is capable of change,” writes Inger Andersen, executive director of the United Nations’ environment program, in the 2023 Emissions Gap report. But global average temperatures are still on a path to warm up to 2.9C.

Global Stocktake

Climate negotiators are conducting the first “global stocktake,” an evaluation of climate progress baked into the Paris Agreement. The results are meant “to be actionable and inform where countries go” with their next round of climate pledges, says Rachel Cleetus, a policy director with the climate and energy program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. That said, “there actually isn’t a clear process laid out” for how the stocktake will work, she says. 

Read More: Is It Time to Change How We Talk About 1.5C?

Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs)

These are the climate plans submitted to the UN by each country participating in the Paris Agreement, outlining their individual goals for cutting fossil-fuel pollution and their detailed strategy for meeting those goals. The plans, which are made public, are supposed to be ratcheted up in ambition over time. The second round of NDCs are due in 2025.

Peak Emissions

The point at which global emissions of carbon dioxide reach their highest level before falling. This date is important because how soon we reach peak emissions determines how quickly emissions will need to fall afterwards. Recent analyses have found that, based on current government policies, peak emissions could be reached as early as this year, and most likely by 2025. The later we hit peak emissions, the more likely it is that the world will need to remove lots of CO2 from the atmosphere to reach climate goals and avoid the worst climate impacts.

Net Zero

Reliance on fossil fuels means humans have been releasing far more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere over the past century than are being removed from it through natural or technological means. This imbalance in emissions is causing global warming. That’s why, as part of international climate negotiations, countries have agreed to dramatically reduce their emissions such that the amount being released by mid-century matches the level of gases being pulled out. Net zero is the shorthand term for this balance.

Carbon Markets

Australia, China, the European Union and others have launched carbon markets as a potential tool to encourage emissions reduction. They work by capping the CO2 emissions any given project can release, and then letting companies and other entities buy and sell rights to those emissions. That means polluters who exceed their cap have to pay for additional emissions rights, also known as carbon offset credits, while those who take action to lower their emissions can sell surplus credits. Some companies have turned carbon trading into a business by sponsoring climate-friendly activities — such as forest protection and renewable energy installations — to proactively produce carbon offset credits.

But attempts to implement carbon markets also highlight their limitations: Many existing carbon-trading schemes are voluntary, emissions reduction benefits can be hard to verify, and past fraud raises questions about the credibility of carbon offset projects.

Read More: Why Carbon Capture Is Big Oil’s Climate Fix

Carbon Capture and Storage

To keep atmospheric carbon dioxide within a livable limit, countries need to build more renewable energy projects and reduce carbon emissions from existing polluters. Carbon capture is a technology geared at the latter, and functions as a vacuum cleaner that sucks CO2 from a coal-fired power plant or a cement factory before it enters the atmosphere. The captured gas is then compressed and transported to a suitable geological site, where it’s pumped deep underground for permanent storage.

Globally, only a few dozen CCS projects have been built, mainly due to the uncertain economics and technological complexity. But many more are being planned, following increased government subsidies and mounting regulatory pressure to decarbonize. To what extent those planned plants could materialize remains to be seen, though, as many affected communities are opposed to CCS, citing safety risks and other concerns. 

Read More:  Carbon Capture Desperately Needs a Reality Check 

Phase Down of Unabated Fossil Fuels

In the conversation around fossil fuels, a lot comes down to nuance. The difference between a “phase down” versus “phase out,” which emerged as a point of contention at last year’s COP, refers to the speed with which humanity will reduce its reliance on coal, gas and oil. Climate activists and a growing number of country leaders are calling for a complete phase out, while some major oil-producing nations and fossil fuel companies argue that a phase down is more realistic. “Unabated fossil fuels” is another important distinction, and refers to those fossil fuels whose emissions have not been offset by technologies such as carbon capture.

In other words, a “phase down of unabated fossil fuels” leaves open two contentious doors: One for continuing to rely on fossil fuels generally, and another for using CCS to justify that lingering reliance. Both terms are emblematic of the type of compromise necessary to reach consensus at COP28, even if that consensus isn’t 100% aligned with science.

Just Transition

As economies transition off of fossil fuels, there is a risk of leaving some people behind — much as deindustrialization harmed Rust Belt communities in the US. The goal is to transition to a renewable-energy economy in a way that includes former coal, oil and gas workers, low-income communities and developing countries. The “just transition” concept also recognizes that certain communities have historically been disproportionately harmed by the fossil fuel economy, often through pollution, and that it’s critical to address these past harms and avoid replicating them.

Read more: Why Climate Advocates Demand a ‘Just Transition’ 


In the climate context, mitigation refers to climate solutions designed to stop global warming. Those solutions may include efforts to reduce the level of greenhouse gases going into the atmosphere, such as by transitioning away from a fossil-fuel based economy to a clean-energy one, as well as natural and human-made solutions for drawing or pulling gases out of the atmosphere. Of the nearly $90 billion collected and mobilized in climate finance in 2021, almost $54 billion, or 60%, went to mitigation efforts, according to a November analysis published by the OECD.


Even if we stopped pumping  greenhouse gases into the atmosphere today, the world would continue to warm for a while. The best way to reduce the harm from this locked-in warming is to adapt for what’s to come, whether by building new construction to withstand stronger storms, avoiding building in flood-prone areas, or setting up public cooling centers during extremely hot days. Financing for adaptation remains a challenge, with only about $25 billion, or 27%, of the roughly $90 billion in climate finance amassed in 2021 going towards such efforts, OECD found. 

Loss and Damage

Even at 1.2C of global warming compared to the pre-industrial era, climate change is already killing people and destroying land and livelihoods. The harm caused by these impacts in poorer countries that are the least responsible for emissions is referred to as “loss and damage,” which is also shorthand for funding provided by developed nations to address that harm.  

Developing nations successfully pushed for the inclusion of “loss and damage” in the Paris Agreement, and last year’s COP delegates reached a landmark deal to establish funding arrangements. That momentum has carried into COP28, where rich nations are under pressure to pony up more money; in an early breakthrough, nearly 200 nations agreed on how to run the fund and more than $400 million has been committed to the program so far.

Green Climate Fund

Established at the international climate talks in Cancun in 2010, this is a mix of public and private money raised for developing countries to use to meet their climate goals. Half of the money is earmarked for mitigation projects, while the other half is for adaptation. The fund has raised roughly $30 billion so far, and started allocating money in 2015. The US is pledging $3 billion to the fund, Vice President Kamala Harris announced at COP28. 

Nature Positive

Earth’s biodiversity is in crisis, with a million species at risk of extinction. “Nature positive” is the rallying cry of those looking to reverse this trend, and refers to actions that boost the resiliency of nature rather than hastening its destruction. The term was used multiple times by UK’s King Charles III in his speech at COP28. 

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