Acronyms climate wonks really need to stop using


This stands for Conference of the Parties. Or more specifically, a conference of the countries signed up to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (the UNFCCC, which is both a treaty, and an organization). So it’s not really that illuminating when it’s spelled out either.

You mean the UN climate talks. Just say the UN climate talks. Stop talking in code only people in the know understand.


Business As Usual. Just say business as usual. Or don’t. It’s a clunky cliche which hides any of the problematic political structures of interest. Find a more meaningful way of expressing yourself.


The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is yet another acronym that doesn’t tell us much when we spell it out. It’s a scientific body, but one organised to support and advise politics, run under the auspices of the UN. They don’t do original research, but rather summarise scientific knowledge on climate change.

It’s an amazing undertaking but, despite wining the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize, arguably under-valued in terms of human scientific and political endeavour. I’m not really sure what we should say instead of the IPCC, but maybe the body itself could do with a bit of a re-brand so the public could get a better sense of what they do.

If nothing else, with on-going controversies surrounding police spying on environmental activists, it’s all too easy to mix up with the UK’s Independent Police Complaints Commission.

ARs, WGs, SREX, SPM and TS.

The IPCC’s acronym problem doesn’t end with its name. The reports it’s issued since the early 1990s are known as AR1, AR2, AR3, AR4 and AR5 and are divided up into parts known as WG1, WG2 and WG3 including SPMs and TSs.

Catchy, eh?

The AR thing is just which Assessment Report it was, number one being the first in 1990 and five being the most recent last year. Between reports four and five, they released a special extra on managing risks of extreme events, or SREX for short. SPM and TS mean Summary for Policy-Makers and Technical Summary respectively, referring to parts of the reports.

Finally, WG is Working Group. This is a very bland way of talking about a key aspects of these reports, the topics they cover. WG1 focuses on the physical science explanation of what is going on, WG2 explores impacts of climate change and, finally, WG3 considers options for limiting and mitigating climate change.

It’s understandable that shortcuts and technical terms like these emerge when experts organise ways to talk to each other, but it does make it hard for new-comers to get a grip on the topic. And because it’s important more people get involved in this debate, it’s worth keeping language as expressive as possible.

Renaming IPCC reports along the lines of movie trilogies —“Climate Change Science 2014: Catching Fire” — might be a step too far, but more descriptive titles would help share them with a broader audience.

And no, just because SREX sounds a bit like sex doesn’t mean it’s OK.


UN negotiations often work via regional groups, but climate diplomacy is much more than mere proximity. So we get alliances like the Alliance Of Small Island States (AOSIS), Like Minded Group of Developing Countries (LMDC), Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), or the Independent Association of Latin America and the Caribbean (AILAC). Carbon Brief produced a useful infographic mapping the alliances at the Lima talks last year. On the run-up to the Paris talks in December, it’d be good to see similar projects to help bring the realpolitik of climate negotiations into the public eye.


REDD stands for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation. Finally, a climate acronym that is kind of clear when you spell it out (even if you do still have to spell it out…).

It refers to projects to protect forests in the hope it’ll help absorb at least some of our emissions. AFOLU and LULUCF similarly reflect the interaction between land use and climate change, though with a less policy-orientated stance. They’re more simply descriptive, and stand for Agriculture, Forestry and Other Land Use and Land Use, Land Use Change, and Forestry respectively.

The plus sign you sometimes see at the end of REDD is less obvious, and reflects conservation and sustainable forestry policies beyond the issue of deforestation. What’s not expressed in either acronym — though key to the policies it reflects — is a desire to express the financial value of the carbon stored in forests. It’s not simple tree-hugging.

SRM and CDR.

These are geo-engineering terms, and reflect how much of that debate has developed outside of the public eye. Solar Radiation Management refers to systems for reflecting sunlight away from Earth. Carbon Dioxide Removal is when you try to remove carbon from the environment.

There are some reasonable arguments why people have avoided talking about geoengineering much in public. If you start popularising it, do you end up legitimise it by default? But as policy and science goes ahead anyway, those avoiding public debate (or keeping the debate we have as geeky as possible) may well just be storing up problems for later on.


Green House Gases — gases like carbon dioxide and methane which trap heat in the atmosphere. This is an acronym rooted in an analogy. Whilst it’s true science at large is awash with dead metaphors — it’s not just a problem for climate change — surely there is a less abstract way of making your point?

No responses yet post your response

We welcome feedback. Be the first to share your voice.

Leave a Reply