What’s in a word? Untangling and communicating sustainability jargon
Organisations need to challenge each other to make sustainability targets and achievements clear, coherent and comparable.Sustainability issues have taken an exponential leap to the top of governmental and company agendas in recent years. The pace of change is sometimes dizzying, and as someone who’s been working in and around the sector for the better part of two decades, it’s quite incredible to see the transformation in the last two to three years alone.
With the increasing expectations of governments and the wider public to address not only the climate crisis, but also many other sustainability issues we face – from plastic pollution to modern slavery and water scarcity – the attention has become more urgent, more focused, and more tangible in terms of what needs to be done.
With that progress also comes a plethora of experts and professions needed to address these issues more widely, and, consequentially, a proliferation of new terminology, confusing jargon, and a range of policies, laws, and claims has emerged.
‘Net Zero’, ‘climate neutral’, ‘climate positive’, ‘negative emissions’, ‘carbon positive’, ‘circularity’, ‘SDGs’… the list goes on. This is not a new phenomenon – jargon and acronyms sprout from any industry sector, and even within individual businesses. Such is the nature of language and communication. What is different here, is that corporates and governments are using these terms to set the playing field and goalposts in terms of how we measure success and how achievements are communicated.
The danger from this mainly carbon-related ‘gobbledygook’ is that, at best, we can end up talking past each other, and at its worst, these ever-changing terms can be used to airbrush out the details of what a company’s goals or claims really are.
Unclear definitions – the devil is in the detail
If you search the terms ‘net zero’ or ‘climate neutral’ online, you quickly run into a whole host of definitions, that are either inconsistent, ill-defined, or the differences between them are non-existent. When there is a difference, depending on the source, this appears to be about the extent to which any carbon emissions or other greenhouse gases are allowed to be ‘offset’ (i.e., by planting carbon-absorbing trees or via some other method), and where in the supply chain this occurs.
The UK Government’s 2021 Net Zero Strategy for example – which mentions ‘net zero’ 1061 times! – doesn’t really provide any clear definition around this. In their 2018 ‘Special Report: Global Warming of 1.5°C’, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) actually make little differentiation between ‘climate neutral’, ‘carbon neutral’ or ‘net zero’ terminology, especially with regard to where any emissions might be offset, while the EU’s 2021 Green Deal legislation doesn’t even mention net zero - it instead refers to reaching ‘climate neutrality’.
The Science-Based Targets Initiative (SBTi) appear to have the closest thing to a ‘watertight’ definition within their ‘Net Zero Standard’, but even within this, there are nuances that can complicate things (e.g., the difference between elements of their four-step process, such as which emissions fit under ‘beyond value chain mitigation’ versus those that fit under ‘neutralisation’). Time will tell if this approach becomes the industry de facto standard to determine where and when offsetting emissions is acceptable in order to make ‘carbon neutral’, ‘climate neutral’ or ‘net zero’ claims.
Does it really matter? Well, yes, and no. Yes, in the sense that this net zero term has already become a dominant part of the sustainability discourse and therefore how this and other concepts are defined will affect how we plan for the future and how we can compare ‘apples with apples’ – between companies and between institutions. Many companies are already making bold claims about reaching ‘net zero’ and offering ‘climate neutral’ products, but not necessarily with any specific definition of what it actually means or how their chosen methodology is an acceptable way to back up their claims. This can devalue established methods used by other companies, who might perhaps be waiting for clearer standards to be set before making bolder claims.
And the ‘no’? As long as we are clear about what we intend to do, and we are clear about what the terms we are using actually mean, no amount of jargon or messing about with new terms will be able to hide the facts about what any organisation achieves in the long run. If you can show where you have made emissions reductions, and how your product or service is lower or no carbon, then the terminology itself becomes less relevant.
Keep it clear and coherent
So, while this new terminology swirls around, my advice is that we challenge each other on how we communicate what we are trying to say, are clear in our messages about what we are aiming for, and are prepared to question those who make claims that don’t seem to add up. We should also retain a healthy skepticism around the latest buzzwords redescribing or redefining what we already know. Without this focus and attention, ‘net zero’, ‘climate neutral’ and all its variations risk being perceived as the new ‘greenwash’ for the 2020s – more corporate rhetoric that promises everything but delivers very little.
At UPM Pulp, we take a generally precautionary approach to using many of these terms. We are not immune, however, from using such terminology, and so should always make the effort to be crystal clear about what we are talking about – whether it’s ‘climate positive forestry’ or the carbon footprint of our pulp. We cannot presume our audience understands the jargon. We need to be clear and coherent about what we achieve, what our ambitions are, and how we compare to others in the market, so that our customers and other stakeholders can retain trust in the products we make and the claims we make about them.
 The UK Government’s ‘Net Zero Strategy: Build Back Greener’ when discussing what net zero is, states that “by the middle of this century the world has to reduce emissions to as close to zero as possible, with the small amount of remaining emissions absorbed through natural carbon sinks like forests, and new technologies like carbon capture. If we can achieve this, global emissions of greenhouse gases will be ‘net zero’”. There is however no clear level regarding what this “small amount of remaining emissions” might be or where in the supply chain emissions might be offset.
 IPCC Special Report (2018): Global Warming of 1.5 ºC [Webpage: https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/ ]
 Science Based Targets Initiative: Net Zero Standard (e.g. see page 10) https://sciencebasedtargets.org/resources/files/Net-Zero-Standard.pdf