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From ‘net zero’ to ‘mitigation,’ here’s how to sound smart on climate

The whole world seems to be talking about the climate crisis, thanks to months of wild weather and new science showing that we need to act quicker than we previously thought to avoid the worst consequences.

As leaders prepare to meet in Glasgow, Scotland, next month for crunch talks, they’ll be using a lot of technical lingo. The terminology isn’t particularly communicative and can be daunting. Even the name of the summit — COP26 — sounds more like a bad police drama than a climate event. (First pointer: COP is short for Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention on Climate Change. It convenes global leaders, scientists and negotiators on climate, and usually takes place annually. The “26” means Glasgow will be the 26th meeting.) Here are other terms to know to keep up with the talks, understand what’s at stake and, most importantly, sound smart around the dinner table.

Net zero emissions can be achieved by removing as much greenhouse gas from the atmosphere as what’s emitted, so the net amount added is zero. To do this, countries and companies will need to rely on natural methods — like planting trees or restoring grasslands — to soak up carbon dioxide (CO2), the most abundant greenhouse gas we emit, or use technology to “capture” the gas and store it away where it won’t escape into the atmosphere. Dozens of countries have already pledged to achieve net zero by mid-century and there is huge pressure on countries that haven’t yet to do so by COP26.

To save the world from the worst effects of climate change, scientists say it’s probably not enough to reach net zero. Net negative emissions is the situation where the amount of greenhouse gas removed from the atmosphere is actually more than the amount humans emit at a given period of time. This is a reservoir that absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and locks it away. Natural sinks like trees and other vegetation remove CO2 from the atmosphere through photosynthesis — plants use the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to grow. The ocean is also a major carbon sink because of phytoplankton which, as a plant, also absorbs carbon dioxide. Scientists say preservation and expansion of natural sinks such as forests are crucial to reducing emissions. There are also artificial carbon sinks that can store carbon and keep it out of the atmosphere. More on that below.

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