Environmental Terms: What do they actually mean?

“Clean” energy
“Alternative” energy
“Renewable” energy
100% renewable
Sustainable development
Net-zero
Carbon neutral
…what the what? 

Elected officials, business figures, and the media use these terms but rarely, if ever, define them. Contrary to what we hear in the media, these terms are not interchangeable. 

Whether companies do this on purpose or not, it’s important for us to understand what is meant by these terms so that we can make informed decisions about what products, companies, and legislation to support. 

This article will arm you with the facts so that you will know what means what. Be a step ahead of the influencers. Learn how to detect when they are trying to muddy the waters, or are perhaps misinformed themselves.


QUICK FACTS

  1. Clean, alternative, and renewable energy are not interchangeable terms. However, there is some overlap in which types of energy fall under these terms (e.g. nuclear energy is considered both clean and alternative energy, but not renewable energy). Learn more
  2. Net-zero and carbon neutral are interchangeable terms that refer to the process of offsetting carbon dioxide emissions with processes that do not produce emissions, creating a balance. Learn more 
  3. Sustainable development refers to a society that is organized to survive the long term. It takes into account the needs of the present and future, as well as social and economic equity. In order to develop a sustainable society, humans need to meet their needs without causing detriment to future generations. Learn more
  4. Get involved

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Clean, alternative, and renewable energy are not interchangeable terms. However, there is some overlap in which types of energy fall under these terms (e.g. nuclear energy is considered both clean and alternative energy, but not renewable energy).

Clean energy produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions than oil and coal. It may not always be accomplished using natural resources such as solar, wind, nuclear, and fracked gas. 1  

  • Nuclear energy: “clean energy,” but is a limited resource.
  • Fracked gas: “clean energy,” but it releases methane, a greenhouse gas up to 28 times more powerful than CO2.

Alternative energy rejects fossil fuels. It allows for nuclear and hydroelectric power, in addition to solar and wind. 

Renewable energy is produced by the recycling of natural resources, such as solar, wind, geothermal, and biomass. Some of those resources, such as biomass and hydroelectric power, can have detrimental effects on the environment. 1

  • 100% renewable refers to natural resources that replenish themselves over a short period of time and/or are available without limits. These resources include sun, wind, water (hydroelectric), heat from the earth (geothermal), and wood (biomass). While solar, wind, geothermal, and hydroelectric energy do not release CO2, cutting down trees does.

Two examples of types of energy that are considered more than one of the above.

  • Hydroelectric power: alternative and renewable

Nuclear power: Clean and alternative energy since it doesn’t cause greenhouse gases nor add to global warming. It is not renewable because the resources are finite. The radioactive waste created by nuclear power means this source is not a viable alternative. 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 78


Net-zero and carbon neutral are interchangeable terms that refer to the process of offsetting carbon dioxide emissions with processes that do not produce emissions, creating a balance.

“Net-zero” and “carbon neutral” refer to the process of offsetting the produced carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions with processes that do not produce emissions, creating a balance. 1 | 2

  • It can also be created by “sequestration,” which is capturing the CO2 produced and storing it. Common acts of sequestration include planting trees and using technology to capture and store CO2 in the earth.

Australia’s leading climate change communications organization, The Climate Council, discusses “net zero”. 1

  • “‘Net zero emissions’ refers to achieving an overall balance between greenhouse gas emissions produced and greenhouse gas emissions taken out of the atmosphere.” Think of a set of scales where greenhouse gas emissions tip the scales in one direction and we want to balance the scales by tipping the scales in the other direction with no greenhouse gas emissions. After balancing out the emissions in the atmosphere, we will want to work on pumping out the emissions that have already accumulated in the atmosphere over the years. This is the difference between zero and net zero.
  • At “net zero”, some emissions can still be produced as long as “they are off-set by processes that reduce greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere.” This is called “sequestration.” The more emissions are reduced, the easier it becomes to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to reach net zero. To reduce emissions, fossil fuels (coal, oil, and gas) must be phased out as quickly as possible.

BBC News has created a Climate Change Glossary, which includes definitions for carbon neutral and related terms. 1

  • Carbon neutral refers to “a process where there is no net release of CO2. For example, growing biomass takes CO2 out of the atmosphere, while burning it releases the gas again. The process would be carbon neutral if the amount taken out and the amount released were identical. A company or country can also achieve carbon neutrality by means of carbon offsetting.”
  • Carbon offsetting [refers to a] way of compensating for emissions of CO2 by participating in, or funding, efforts to take CO2 out of the atmosphere. Offsetting often involves paying another party, somewhere else, to save emissions equivalent to those produced by your activity.”
  • “Carbon sequestration [refers to] the process of storing carbon dioxide. This can happen naturally, as growing trees and plants turn CO2 into biomass (wood, leaves, and so on). It can also refer to the capture and storage of CO2 produced by industry.”

“Carbon sink [refers to] any process, activity or mechanism that removes carbon from the atmosphere. The biggest carbon sinks are the world’s oceans and forests, which absorb large amounts of carbon dioxide from the Earth’s atmosphere.”


Sustainable development refers to a society that is organized to survive the long term. It takes into account the needs of the present and future, as well as social and economic equity. In order to develop a sustainable society, humans need to meet their needs without causing detriment to future generations.

In order to ensure that our society is able to meet the needs of every human, without causing economic inequality and detriment to future generations, we need to move away from fossil fuels and focus on sustainable development. 1 | 2

When considering the construction of new buildings, a zero energy building is “a building with zero net energy consumption, meaning the total amount of energy used by the building on an annual basis is roughly equal to the amount of renewable energy created on the site or nearby.” This does not account for the type of energy used. This means the building may use natural gas, propane, or some other fuel other than electricity. 1


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