COP26: Confused about greenhouse gases and carbon emissions? Read this guide to key climate terms

Leaders will meet in Glasgow at COP26 to discuss how to tackle what some call the "climate emergency". Credit: PA

Leaders from around the world are meeting in Glasgow for COP26 to discuss how to tackle the climate crisis.

From greenhouse gases to net zero, there are many climate terms that will be used over the course of the summit.

Here's a guide to some of the most-used climate terms, and what they mean.

The COP26 climate conference - what you need to know

What is COP26? When and where will it be?

Each year, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) meets at what is called the Conference of the Parties (abbreviated as COP) to discuss the world's progress on climate change and how to tackle it.

COP26 is the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties summit which will be held in Glasgow from 31 October to 12 November.

Who is going?

Leaders of the 197 countries that signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) – a treaty that came into force in 1994 - are invited to the summit.

These are some of the world leaders that will be attending COP26:

  • US President Joe Biden, climate envoy John Kerry, climate adviser and former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy, and 10 other US cabinet officials.

  • Australia's Prime Minister Scott Morrison. In the days leading up to COP26, Mr Morrison committed Australia to a target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Prince Charles, Prince William, the Duchess of Cornwall and the Duchess of Cambridge are also attending. The Queen has withdrawn from visiting after being advised by her doctors to rest - she will address the conference virtually instead.

China's President Xi Jinping, Russia's President Vladimir Putin, and President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil are among the leaders that have decided not to travel to Glasgow.

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What is it hoping to achieve?

1. Achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 and limiting global warming to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels - Countries are being encouraged to set ambitious 2030 emissions targets. They are also encouraged to accelerate the phase-out of coal, clamp down on deforestation, speed up the switch to electric vehicles and encourage investment in renewables.

2. Protect natural habitats and communities from climate change disasters

3. Finances for a greener future - In 2009, developed countries were asked to keep to their promises to contribute at least $100 billion (£72.5 billion) per year by 2020 to protect the planet. In 2015, it was agreed that the goal would be extended to 2025.

However, new analysis shows the goal is unlikely to have been met last year and is on track to fall short in 2021 and 2022.

4. Getting all countries and organisations to work together to tackle the climate crisis

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Climate change

Climate change means the fast changes we are seeing to weather conditions, as well as changes to ecosystems, habitat, seas, and the rest of the natural world.

Climate change is caused by global warming. Human activities such as burning oil and gas and deforestation lead to climate change.

Some of the effects of climate change that we have seen more frequently include: extreme heatwaves and wildfires, higher rainfall and storms which lead to floods, melting ice and rising sea levels which mean fewer fish caught, fewer crops harvested, and less wildlife more generally.

Climate change will lead to more flooding and sea level rises. Credit: AP/Dake Kang

Climate crisis and climate emergency

We are expected to see the negative impacts of climate change more and more. With temperatures rising and the situation expected to get worse, many have been referring to climate change as "the climate emergency" or "the climate crisis".

The group Extinction Rebellion has called on the government to declare a climate emergency. Credit: PA

Greenhouse gases

Greenhouse gases are gases that trap heat from the sun in the atmosphere. They keep the planet warm enough for life to thrive.

Concentrations of these gases – which include carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide – have increased at a rapid rate in recent years.

Burning coal, gas, and oil releases greenhouse gases.

Burning coal to generate electricity - like at this power station in Germany - contributes to fossil fuel emissions and global warming. Credit: AP

Global warming

The more greenhouse gases that are released into the atmosphere, the more the world heats up. This is known as global warming.

Global warming can have a huge impact on people and places across the world. It can lead to droughts and floods.

Global warming can change habitats and ecosystems, which could mean things like fewer fish in seas for people to eat and sell.

Global warming melts glaciers and can lead to sea level rises. Such rises could make entire cities underwater and uninhabitable.

Carbon emissions and fossil fuels

Carbon emissions mean the release of greenhouse gases - especially carbon dioxide - into the atmosphere.

This comes from burning fossil fuels – coal, gas and oil – in power stations, vehicles, and boilers.

Other contributors to carbon emissions include cutting down and burning forests, industrial processes like making cements and refrigerants.

Indonesia's capital city Jakarta (pictured) is predicted to be one of the first cities lost to climate change, with sea level rising. Credit: AP

Net zero

Net zero means cutting greenhouse gas emissions from human activity to zero overall.

This is needed to stop global warming, which comes from an increase in greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere.

Carbon offset

It is very difficult to completely stop emissions. But some measures - such as planting trees, which absorb greenhouse gases from the atmosphere - can help. This is called carbon offsetting: actions that absorbs carbon to have the net effect of cutting emissions to zero.

Air travel is highly polluting, meaning we could see more carbon offsetting from airlines in the years to come.

Planting trees can absorb CO2 and help "offset" carbon emissions. Credit: PA


Decarbonisation means removing the emissions associated with activities or sectors.

This includes decarbonising the energy sector by phasing out coal and gas methods of generating electricity, and replacing them with renewable energy sources like solar and wind power.

Paris Agreement

The Paris Agreement is a climate change agreement that world leaders signed in 2015. They reached the agreement under the United Nations (UN). It is the world's first comprehensive treaty on climate change.

As part of the Paris Agreement, world leaders committed to taking action in their countries to limit temperature rises.

Nationally determined contributions (NDCs)

These are each individual country's national plans for climate action. The countries submitted these under the Paris Agreement. NDCs involve post-2020 action to tackle climate change, and many plans run to 2030.

COP26 marks the deadline for new and more ambitious NDCs. A recent UN report said that the world is currently not on track to meet its climate action goals on limiting temperature rises. The report recommended that stronger and more ambitious NDCs are put in place.

Climate change will lead to more serious weather and events like wildfires, which hit Australia (pictured) earlier this year. Credit: AP


Some of the key groups that you could see at COP26 include:

AOSIS is the Alliance of Small Island States. Many Caribbean and Pacific islands, as well as small islands from across the world, are members. Sea levels rises are a particular concern for AOSIS.

LULUCF is a group concerned with land use, land use change and forestry.

YOUNGO consists of many youth-led organisations and groups that work in climate action.