The aid sector loves its acronyms. Stir in some climate science and the political language of global treaty negotiations, and you have the recipe for a (rapidly warming) cauldron of alphabet soup.
Here’s our updated guide to some of the tongue-twisting abbreviations, acronyms, and initialisms that help make climate change language a little more succinct, though not exactly clear.
This year, we’re also mixing in some of the core terms that underpin climate action and summit negotiations.
Adaptation: One of the main tracks of COP negotiations, adaptation is the practice of preparing for and adjusting to the impacts of climate change. It has much in common with development aid, touching on everything from livelihoods and healthcare, to improving water and food systems, to resilient infrastructure, early warning systems, and disaster preparedness. Climate finance for adaptation has long lagged behind mitigation; attracting private investment to adaptation has been far harder. The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) estimates the annual cost of adapting to the climate crisis in developing countries could reach $387 billion this decade – but only $21 billion in public adaptation finance was available in 2021.
AOSIS: The Alliance of Small Island States. A grouping of coastal and island nations that are some of the most vulnerable to sea level rise and other climate change impacts. Primarily comprising so-called Small Island Developing States (SIDS), these countries (as well as other regional blocs) have been at the forefront of a push to put financing and support for disaster loss and damages on the climate change agenda, as well as increased adaptation efforts.
Bridgetown Agenda: A climate-flavoured international finance reform agenda with origins in Barbados. Its figurehead is Prime Minister Mia Mottley and the key architect is Avinash Persaud. The agenda’s core demands include more financial support for climate-vulnerable countries, debt restructuring, and overhauling international financial institutions. It leans heavily on climate justice principles and argues that a big rethink of the global financial system is in order. Vulnerable countries face cycles of climate-fuelled disasters and heavy debt, which usually outweigh any post-disaster aid.
Climate finance: Money for mitigation, adaptation, and now loss and damage. Climate finance is supposed to be on top of countries’ official development assistance (ODA). But in practice, it’s usually tapped from existing aid flows, or comes in the form of loans – which add to the debt burdens of cash-strapped countries. High-income countries – which historically contributed the most to climate change – are obligated under international agreements to lead in paying for climate finance. This is a key climate justice principle, called “common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities” (CBDR-RC), which stresses that all countries should do what they can to fight climate change, but richer, more industrialised nations have more responsibility. The “polluter pays” principle is also key, holding that those responsible for causing climate change should finance the response. High-income countries agreed in 2009 to provide $100 billion a year in climate finance to developing countries by 2020. Progress on this is slow and disputed – contributing to significant mistrust clouding successive COP summit negotiations.
CO2: Carbon dioxide. Along with methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), and other gases, carbon dioxide is one of the key components of the greenhouse gases (GHGs) responsible for climate change. Almost everyone agrees that CO2 and other emissions must be reduced, but they don’t always agree on how to go about doing it. Extractive industries want to capture it, some jurisdictions are taxing it, and some countries want to pay others to reduce theirs then take credit for the work.
COP: The Conference of the Parties that have signed on to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The convention is the 1992 treaty, now signed by 198 countries, whereby nations agreed to the “stabilisation of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system” – in other words, they pledged to tackle human-caused climate change. The first COP convened in 1995. The current summit, COP28, is hosted by the United Arab Emirates in Dubai. COP21 in France gave us the Paris Agreement, while its predecessor, the Kyoto Protocol, was adopted during COP3 in Japan in December 1997.
CVF: A relatively new group formed in 2009, the Climate Vulnerable Forum is a high-level “cooperation platform” linking heads of state and government from countries most affected by climate change. The current chair is Ghana. An offshoot of the CVF, the aptly named V20 (Vulnerable 20 Group) brings together economic ministers to push for climate financing with a common voice. They estimate that climate change has destroyed one fifth of their countries’ wealth since 2000.
Developed and developing: The terms may be increasingly problematic, but the UN climate convention (UNFCCC) still follows rules set in 1992 in which countries are lumped together as “developed” and “developing” – or, more anodyne, Annex 1 and Non-Annex 1 parties. The labels are meant to define who has the onus and ability to fund climate action and who is owed help. But the picture gets a bit murky when countries like high-income, oil-burning Saudi Arabia, or four of five BRICS nations, are classified as developing.
FFS: Fossil fuel subsidies. Climate advocates want governments to axe billions in subsidies to fossil fuel industries, and instead divert the cash to climate financing. Fossil fuel subsidy reform (FFSR) is the push from some countries at the World Trade Organization (WTO) to phase out subsidies. The Friends of Fossil Fuel Subsidy Reform (FFFsR) is a group of 10 nations with a similar message. Vanuatu in September 2022 became the first national government to sign on to the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty, or FFNPT (so has The Vatican, BTW). The civil society campaign behind the treaty, the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty Initiative, has resisted the temptation to abbreviate.
G77 + China: Political summits and treaty negotiations are always bloc parties, and COP is no different. There are more than a dozen officially recognised negotiating groups, including AOSIS. A few others: the African Group (of Negotiators), AILAC (the Independent Association of Latin America and the Caribbean), ALBA (the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America, started by Venezuela and Cuba), the LMDC (Like-minded Developing Countries), the humbly named but weighty BASIC (Brazil, South Africa, India, and China), and an obscure grouping of fluctuating size calling itself the European Union. The sprawling and now inaccurately named Group of 77 (member count: 134) made waves at COP27. With flood-besieged Pakistan at its helm, the G77 + China insisted that loss and damage financing be on the summit’s menu – a key step on the long road to creating a dedicated fund.
GCF: Created during COP16 in Mexico, the Green Climate Fund holds the purse strings for funding to help developing nations reduce emissions and adapt to the impacts of climate change. The GCF says its total project portfolio is $13.5 billion, of which $3.9 billion has been disbursed. Analysts say far more is needed, and far quicker. New CEO Mafalda Duarte has pledged the GCF will manage $50 billion by 2030.
ICJ: The International Court of Justice was rarely on the climate radar, but times have changed. Vanuatu led the movement (#ICJAO) to bring the climate emergency to the UN’s top court in The Hague. A resolution adopted by the UN General Assembly (UNGA) in March 2023 asks for legal advice, known as an advisory opinion, clarifying state responsibility for acting on climate change. The ICJ’s opinion could set a legal precedent applicable in any court – a powerful lever for the growing number of plaintiffs using legal means to try and hold big polluters and countries to account.
Innovative finance: Public purse strings are tight, at least for public international climate finance. But this boring-sounding term encompasses new ideas for how to raise climate cash – some of which are actually quite radical. Examples often include different forms of carbon taxes like shipping or airline levies, tapping the profits of fossil fuel producers, and leveraging private sector, financial markets, and multilateral funds for the public good.
IPCC: The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is the expert body that sifts through, appraises, and compiles the rapidly expanding trove of scientific research into a mammoth compendium outlining what we know about climate change. Its authoritative “assessment reports” are published every few years. The most recent cycle, which served up the sixth assessment report (AR6), wrapped this year. Sections released in 2022 examined climate impacts and vulnerability (AR6 WGII), and progress on reducing climate change (AR6 WGIII). To whet the appetite, the IPCC serves up morsel-sized “special reports” on specific topics. In 2018, the SR15 report contrasted the impacts of a 1.5-degree warmer world and a 2-degree one – helping to galvanise the current push to limit temperature rise to 1.5. A punchier version combining all the AR6 and special reports (AR6 SYR) launched in 2023. It’s supposed to be written in a “non-technical style”.
Loss and damage: The impacts of disasters caused by climate change. It’s now a key element of climate negotiations, but remains politically sensitive as it places further funding demands on prospective donors. Dubbed “climate reparations” by staunch supporters and opponents alike, funding loss and damage runs the risk of becoming a political wedge issue in donor countries, particularly the United States. COP27 saw a breakthrough agreement to create a dedicated loss and damage fund, which was followed by a year of tough negotiations. The fund received early approval on COP28’s opening day, along with a raft of pledges. Uncertainty remains over the World Bank’s role as an interim host, clarity over higher-income countries’ funding obligations, and longer-term financial sustainability.
Mitigation: Refers to efforts to reduce the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that are driving global warming. Mitigation is one of the main tracks of climate negotiations at the COP summits. Campaigners’ big goal is to agree on a fossil fuel phaseout – different from a slower phasedown – where the world would set a clear timeline for ending the use of coal, oil, and gas.
NCQG: New Collective Quantified Goal on climate finance. This is the plan, struck under the Paris Agreement, to agree on a much higher target in 2024, compared to the previous – and failed – goal of $100 billion per year by 2020. Developing countries say far more is needed to adapt to climate change and to pay for mounting losses and damage. At COP28, discussions will formally begin on what the new number should be.
NDC: Nationally Determined Contributions spell out each country’s actions to reduce emissions and adapt to a warming world. In other words, the NDCs are national gameplans to fight climate change. Those promises haven’t worked particularly well so far, adding up to “baby steps” instead of “bold strides”, the UNFCCC warned. Tallies in 2023 show slight improvements on limiting emissions, but levels are still expected to jump by 8.8% by 2030 over 2010 baselines (the previous year’s predictions pegged emissions rise at 10.6%). COP28 will see the conclusion of a first Global Stocktake – a Paris Agreement process designed to help countries assess progress. It’s both a report card and an opportunity to spice up those NDCs: New ones are due in 2025.
UNEP: The UN Environment Programme publishes a yearly “emissions gap” report – a scorecard showing how the world is doing on its greenhouse-gas reduction targets. What’s the ruling? There’s only a 14% chance of limiting global heating to the 1.5-degree threshold, the most recent report warned.
WMO: The UN’s World Meteorological Organization. It assists national and regional meteorological bodies with research and helps to set standards on tracking extreme weather. It also studies climate trends: The WMO recently concluded that 2023 will be the warmest year on record, “shattering” climate records.
This climate glossary has been revised and updated for COP28. It was first published during COP25, and refreshed for COP27.