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Environment Glossary


This glossary will help you understand terms used is discussing the environment, global warming, CO₂ emissions. It is intended only for a lay audience. For scientific rigour, you will have to look elsewhere. The intent here is to explain these concepts in as simple a way as possible. Please submit additional terms. This is just a start.


The following index is sorted alphabetically in columns, like a phone book.
agribusiness agrifuel albedo alternative energy
bio-fuel burn
cap and trade carbon dioxide carbon sequestration climate change
carbon carbon neutral carbon tax CO₂
carbon credits carbon offsets climate
ecological anorexia ecological footprint el Niño ethanol
factory farm fossil fuel free range eggs free run eggs
global warming Gore, Al greenhouse gas
hybrid hydrogen
ice cores IPCC
la Niña
methane methanol
nitrogen nitrous oxide
organic ozone ozone layer
PCB peak oil pesticide ppm
sustainable Suzuki, David
water weather

The Glossary

large corporations that grow food and raise livestock with heavy emphasis on the use of pesticides, fertilizers and mechanisation. They have a powerful government lobby which gives them subsidies both to grow crops and not to grow them. They are currently heavily into growing corn for bio-fuel.
Usually refers to growing corn, then fermenting it to create ethanol which can be substituted for gasoline. However, other crops can be used as well.
Canada from space A measure of reflectivity. Snow, being white, has high albedo. Most of the sunlight landing on it just bounces back into space. Bare soil, being black or brown has low albedo as does deep blue open ocean. The high contrasts in the photo to the right should make this clear. Most of the sunlight landing on it is absorbed, warming the soil. There is a run-away effect in climate change because of albedo. As the poles warm and the ice melts, you have either more bare earth or open ocean exposed. This surface absorbs far more heat that the original ice did, thus accelerating the warming process in a vicious circle, melting ever more ice. Further, as the permafrost melts, it releases methane, a potent greenhouse gas, again creating another vicious circle of warming.
alternative energy
As fossil fuels, especially oil and natural gas run out, we have a choice, either cut back and live as we did in the 1800s with a smaller 1800s sized population, or find some alternative. In the meantime, we should use oil and natural gas as efficiently as possible to buy us some time. Possibility include:

In Germany, there are more people building windmills than building cars. Why are we North Americans so reluctant to get on with alternative energy, knowing full well there is an exploding captive market for it? Why do we so desperately want to be the Johnny-come-lately?

Usually refers to growing corn, then fermenting it to create ethanol which can be substituted for gasoline. However, other crops can be used as well. When you produce biofuel, you must expend almost as much energy in petroleum as you get back in ethanol. Further, you create more global warming gases than had you just burned the petroleum. Why then are so many companies clamouring to get into such an economically marginal and ecologically unsound business? Because over the decades, powerful agribusiness lobbies have wangled huge government subsidies to grow corn. It is a multi-billion dollar scam where the taxpayer is the mark.
A fossil fuel is made primarily of carbon and hydrogen atoms. When you heat the fuel, the bonds between the carbon and hydrogen break. This frees them to join with the oxygen in the air. The carbon then becomes carbon dioxide, CO₂, a greenhouse gas. The hydrogen joins with the oxygen in the air to form water, H₂O. This rejoining releases heat, which breaks still more C-H (carbon-hydrogen) bonds.
cap and trade
Uninformed people disparage this technique as a modern version of medieval church indulgences where people bought a ticket to sin without after death punishment. Unlike indulgences which encourage sin, cap and trade works to reduce the sin of greenhouse gas emission. The goverment decides on a quota of greenhouse gas emissions for each potential polluter. If he keeps below that limit, he pays no penalty. However, if he goes over 100 units, he must buy 100 carbon credits to compensate. Where do these come from. One place is from fellow potential polluters who kept well below the limit. They can sell credits for the difference, for the going rate. Another place is from people who by some means remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. Most commonly they do this by planting trees. This scheme encourages polluters to get back under the wire and it encourages clean companies to get even further under the wire so that can sell their credits. What happens when all the players get under the wire. Then nobody needs credits any more so the incentive disappears to stay well below the limit. Over time the government gradually lowers the quota, so that everyone always has incentive to clean up as fast as possible.
Pollution is nothing but the resources we are not harvesting. We allow them to disperse because we’ve been ignorant of their value.
~ Richard Buckminster (Bucky) Fuller (1895-07-12 1983-07-01 age:87)
To their surprise, corporations find that cleaner processes are more efficient and hence more profitable. Corporations just need a prod to get them to act in their own best interest.
Carbon itself, soot, is harmless. The word carbon is used as shorthand for carbon dioxide, or other greenhouse gas adjusted to account for the difference in potency. So when you hear about carbon reduction, they really mean greenhouse gas reduction. Ironically, part of that is literal carbon preservation — e.g. not burning coal.
carbon offsets
A virtuous activity that reduces the amount of CO₂ in the atmosphere. It could be squestering CO₂ underground. It could be maintaining a forest. Oddly, even green energy projects are considered offsets because they produce energy that would otherwise emit CO₂ In a cap and trade system, someone who does these virtuous activities can sell credits for them to polluters who have emitted more CO₂ than their quota. It is more a political creation than a scientific one.
carbon credits
to come
carbon dioxide
carbon dioxide molecule
carbon dioxide molecule
aka CO₂. The gas that gives pop its fizz. plants use it during photosynthesis, emitting oxygen. people, animals (and machines) breathe it out during metabolism.

You breathe out about 215.46 kg (475 lbs) of carbon dioxide each year. Just to absorb that, not considering the 20.40 tonnes (22.49 tons) the average American creates by burning fuels, requires 7 trees. To handle all the CO₂ requires 95 trees. We have already levelled over half the planet’s forests, even though we have only a minute fraction of the trees we need.

If the concentration reaches 5%, it will kill you. though it forms only 387 parts per million of the atmosphere, it acts like an effective planetary greenhouse. CO₂ is one of the greenhouse gases. When high energy rays hit a molecule of CO₂, it converts them to heat which cannot escape, warming up the earth. The same molecule of CO₂ can keep on converting rays ad infinitum. Because we humans have been burning fossil fuels at an astounding rate, we have hugely increased the amount of CO₂in the air and this powerful warming effect is getting out of hand.

As you have probably noticed if you warm pop or shake it, the CO₂ fizzes out into the air. The same thing happens to CO₂ dissolved in the ocean as global warming heats the water. This creates a vicious circle where the CO₂ released warms the water causing still more CO₂ to bubble out. You have a run-away effect.

carbon neutral
If a business went carbon neutral, they would do all they could to avoid emitting greenhouse gases. However, it would be impossible to eliminate all of them. Simply turning on a light switch uses electricity created by burning natural gas, a process that gives off CO₂. So to offset that, the business plants trees, or pays someone to plant trees. Each tree absorbs CO₂ from the air and captures the carbon, converting it to wood, roots and soil. If they plant enough trees, that offsets their emissions and the net balance of emissions is zero. It is not a matter of planting trees as a virtuous religious act to atone for the sin of emitting. It literally undoes the harm.
carbon sequestration
Capturing CO₂ from a manufacturing process or from the air and locking it away in such a way it can’t act as a greenhouse gas. Trees do this naturally by locking up the carbon in the form of wood. It could also be done by storing the CO₂ underground. It could be done chemically, for example by capturing the carbon as chalk — calcium carbonate.
carbon tax
A carbon tax is a tax on emissions of carbon dioxide ( CO₂ ) and other greenhouse gases. It is a type of pollution tax that both gives incentives to pollute less and helps assign the costs of pollution to the polluters. It may be designed to raise money or it may be revenue neutral, where the monies raied are used to reduce other taxes.
The long term average changes in temperature and precipitation.
climate change
Greenhouse gases emission are heating up the earth. The polar latitudes are most affected. Because of the topography of the continents and the ocean currents, the earth heats unevenly. The uneven heating drives winds and ocean currents. The net effects are complex. Some areas get hotter, some colder, some wetter, some drier. But in general, weather gets more extreme and hotter. There is simply more heat energy available to drive tornadoes, hurricanes and torrential rains. Uninformed people notice some unusually cold weather and presume this is evidence of some flaw in the science of global warming. The term climate change is now being used in preference to global warming because it does not give the mistaken impression to the layman that global warming predicts the world will heat up evenly everywhere, every day.
ecological anorexia
Worry and guilt over the effect of man on the environment that results in overly scrupulous reduction of the ecological footprint such as refusing to heat the home in winter, taking cold baths or stumbling about in the dark. This energy is better spent persuading others to cut their wild excesses.
ecological footprint
Ideally your existence would not damage the planet. Unfortunately, just by being alive most people deteriorate the planet’s ecosystem in many ways. For example: you burn fossil fuels releasing greenhouse gases. The manufacturing processes to produce the goods you consume pollute the air, water and soil. The farming to provide your food contaminates the soil and promotes erosion. The space you live on pushes aside wildlife. You contaminate the rivers and oceans with your waste. Your garbage piles up in enormous heaps. The sum total of this damage is your ecological damage is your footprint. If you live in a developed country, your footprint is perhaps 40 times that of a person living in the third world. You can’t eliminate it, but you can reduce it.
grain alcohol. This is the clear liquid in booze that gets you drunk. It also makes an excellent fuel. It can be mixed with gasoline. It can be created by fermenting and distilling corn (basically legal moonshine). The catch is the process returns only a fraction more energy that it takes to grow the corn and process it. It would not be economically feasible at all were in not for the farm subsidies to grow the corn. As the price of oil rises, so will the price of ethanol since it requires so much gasoline to run a modern farm and so much oil-based fertiliser. Unfortunately, when you burn ethanol, it releases the CO₂ that the corn captured from the air while it was growing.
factory farm
to come
free range eggs
free range eggs are eggs from chickens that are permitted to run around outside. This is the Canadian term.
free run eggs
free run eggs are eggs from chickens kept in cages where they have enough room to turn around. Ordinary eggs come from chickens caged so tightly they can’t even turn around. This is the Canadian term.
fossil fuel
Refers to oil, coal and natural gas. These are all fuels that are the fossilised remains of ancient plants and animals. Those plants captured the energy of the sun. It took about 300 years of sunlight to create the fuel we humans burn in a year. We releasing 300 years worth of CO₂ sequestered in that fuel into the air each year.
global warming
is the increase in the average measured temperature of the earth’s near-surface air and oceans since the mid-twentieth century and its projected continuation. Even the skeptics admit that global warming is real. They contend that man’s activity has nothing to do with it. In the last century the earth has warmed 0.74°C (1.33°F). This is an average. Some parts of the earth have warmed much more than that and others less. The poles have warmed most. Of course, on a daily basis, there are larger weather fluctuations. The term climate change is now preferred given that the changes are not evenly distributed. Some spots get warmer, some colder, some hotter, some dryer, with more extreme weather in general, since there is more solar energy being absorbed into the atmosphere because of the greenhouse gas effect.
Humanity is conducting an unintended, uncontrolled, globally pervasive experiment whose ultimate consequences could be second only to global nuclear war.
~ Environment Canada (1971 age:46) (The Canadian equivalent of the EPA)
greenhouse gas
A gas that traps heat by converting high energy radiation hitting the earth into heat. Carbon dioxide, CO₂ is a major gas, but there are others even more potent. Methane is 25 times as potent. Nitrous oxide ( N₂O) is 296 times as potent. It is thus important to consider all the greenhouse gases, not just CO₂.
Gore, Al
to come
to come
Hydrogen is a flammable, odourless gas that is lighter than air — which is why it was originally used in dirigibles. When it burns, the product is safe, clean water. It burns with an almost invisible hot flame. Hydrogen is not an alternative energy source, since there is no way to mine or collect hydrogen. You have to make it out of water using energy derived from some conventional source. It is a way of transporting energy — of making it portable. You can think of it having a function similar to a battery. Electricity is a convenient form of energy for stationary uses, where you can run a wire to the energy consuming device. Hydrogen is useful for powering something that moves, like a car or bus, or perhaps even in future, a laptop computer. It is difficult to pipe around the way you can natural gas because it bores into the metal of the pipes and makes them brittle.
ice cores
In Greenland we can drill down 680,000 layers of snow, each representing the snow for one year.
IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change). Its scientists survey the research and write reports on climate change. The panel was established in 1988 by the WMO (World Meteorological Organisation) and the UNEP (United Nations Environment Program), two organisations of the United Nations.
An international agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 80+ countries have now ratified the Protocol, including 18 industrialised countries (the fifteen member states of the European Union EU plus the Czech Republic, Norway and Romania), Japan, Russia, China, India, Canada and New Zealand.

Under George Herbert Walker Bush, the USA signed the Kyoto treaty on 1992-12-06. It ratified it in 1992-10-15. It came into effect on 1994-03-21. Under George Walker Bush, the USA reneged on the agreement in 2001.

There are only three other countries refusing to ratify the treaty: Australia, Monaco and Liechtenstein.

Even though Canada and the USA whine piteously about he difficulty of implementing Kyoto it is just a tiny step toward what is required.

It might take another 30 Kyotos over the next century to cut global warming down to size.
~ Jerry Mahlman (1940-02-21 age:78) director of the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory at Princeton, Science Magazine
methane molecule
methane molecule
Methane CH₄ is fart gas. It is a greenhouse gas 25 times as potent as CO₂. Globally livestock account for 18% of the greenhouse gas emissions. In impure form, used as a fuel, it is called natural gas, a cute euphemism. It can be harvested from decomposing manure or vegetation piles and burned as fuel to form CO₂, a much less problematic greenhouse case.
Wood alcohol or rubbing alcohol. It is created by fermenting and distilling wood. It poisonous if taken internally. Like ethanol it is a fine fuel that can be mixed with gasoline. It shares much the same drawbacks of ethanol. The advantage is you can use waste wood chips that might otherwise just be discarded or burned.
la Niña
The opposite phase of the el Niño current. el Niña is the normal cold phase of the waters off Peru.
el Niño
Every three to seven years a great puddle of warm water from Indonesia moves over to Peru. Oddly this causes extreme weather events world wide. These are superimposed on the background effect of global warming. Ignorant lay people believe the scientists must be wrong because the el Niño cycles mask the background steady warming.
A colourless, odourless, relatively inert gas that forms 80% of the atmosphere, in other words air. Plants need nitrogen to grow, but only a few of them are able to take it directly from the air and even the legumes do it with help from symbiotic bacteria. So farmers give their crops nitrogen in the form of animal manure or chemical fertilisers such as ammonium nitrate (which happens to be explosive and beloved of terrorists as a cheap and easy-to-get). The catch is the process to create artificial nitrogen fertilisers requires oil, whose price is skyrocketing. The price of oil is putting is jeopardy the whole green revolution which is based on genetically modified plants that require huge amounts of oil-based fertilisers.
nitrous oxide
nitrous oxide molecule
nitrous oxide molecule
Nitrous oxide ( N₂O ) is 296 times as potent a greenhouse gas as CO₂. It is used as a propellent in canned whipped cream. The world’s agrifuel corporations plan to triple the amount of nitrogen entering the world’s soil, a process which releases N₂O. Even as it is, almost half of greenhouse gases come from agricultural monoculture and its attendant long distance transportation and fertiliser production.
This is often just a marketing buzzword with no meaning. But properly it means food grown without chemical pesticides or chemical fertilizers.
aka O₃. An energetic form of oxygen O₂. It is formed when a spark passes though the air. If you have every played with an electric toy train you will recognise the thunderstorm smell. High in the atmosphere is shields us from deadly UV radiation. Near the ground, it is a pollutant that comes from car exhausts, irritating the lungs.
ozone layer
A thin layer of ozone high in the atmosphere that prevents high energy UV radiation from getting to earth. Without it all plants and animals would die. That is why the planet was able to get together back in 1987 and sign he Montréal Protocol to agree to cut CFC production in half. CFCs are chemicals that destroy the ozone layer. In 1996 the Copenhagen agreement instituted a complete ban. This success gives reason to hope something similar can be done for greenhouse gas emissions.
Polychlorinated biphenyls. PCBs are very stable, synthetic oils that don’t break down, even at very high temperature. This made them popular to use in high voltage transformers. Unfortunately, they are highly toxic to fish and birds. Further, they concentrate in the food chain. A beluga whale accumulates so much PCB from eating PCB-contaminated fish, its corpse must be treated as toxic waste. Circa 1979, I worked at BC Hydro Research labs. One project was developing a way to destroy stocks of unwanted PCBs. We discovered that you could break them down by cooking them in pressure vessel with molten sodium, a rather dramatic reagent.
peak oil
to come
A chemical used to kill species that eat human crops. It may work by interfering with its nervous or reproductive system, perhaps by simulating one of its hormones. The catch is such chemical agents nearly always harm other species besides the intended target, such as beneficial insects, frogs, fish, whales, man… Because most pesticides are made from crude oil, the cost is increasing dramatically giving extra inducement to use organic means of pest control.
PPM (Parts Per Million), a measure of concentration, usually of some toxic substance. Laws are often framed say that effluents are permitted to contain some maximum amount of various pollutants each measured in ppm.
to come
to come
Suzuki, David
Dr. Suzuki started his career as a popular professor of genetics at UBC. He became the host of the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) ’s long running science show, the Nature of Things. He successfully lead the concern for greater care with genetic experimentation. His interests broadened to protection of the environment, protection of endangered species and global warming. He is Canada’s best known most respected scientist. He has a reputation in Canada akin to Einstein’s in the rest of the world. He even shows up frequently in caricature in comic sketches to represent the scientist or environmentalist. Through long practice explaining science to a mass audience he has become the leader in explaining global climate change to Canadians.
water molecule
water molecule
Chemically, water is H₂O. A water molecule has an oxygen atom in the middle flanked by two hydrogen atoms at 104.45 degree angle. Whenever hydrogen burns, you get pure water.

It sounds a bit odd that scientists are concerned about running out of water when most of the planet in covered in it and when there are just as many water molecules as there ever were on planet earth. What they mean is we are running out of clean, fresh water. Even though rains continuously replenish the clean water supply, we have polluted the rivers, lakes and streams making them unsuitable for drinking or agriculture. Further, we are rapidly draining the underground aquifers which took eons to fill.

When you save water, you are not only conserving clean water, you are conserving the energy needed to pump filter and treat it and the energy to heat or cool it.

In the home, you use the most water with your toilet, your shower and your laundry. Measures such as refusing to serve water in restaurants are mere tokens.

To improve your toilet, get a premium toilet with a #1 small and #2 big flush handle. A low-cost solution is to avoid flushing for a #1. Consider putting a brick in the tank. Consider getting a modern toilet that uses less water with more pressure. If you don’t have a sewer hookup, you might consider a composting toilet. These are expensive but, to my surprise, don’t stink.

You can install a low flow shower head that gives you good pressure with low flow. Consider turning off the shower when you soap up. A valve that lets you cut the water flow on and off without changing the temperature will make it much more comfortable to do this. If you like to take 14+ minute showers, you are better off to take a bath if you have an old style shower head. You can soak as long as you want without using any extra water. A bathtub holds about 189.27 litres (¼ cubic yard). If you like shorter showers, or if you have a modern shower head, showers are more efficient than baths.

The flows from energy-efficient showerheads range from as low as 3.80 litres/minute (1 US gallons/minute) up to 9½ litres/minute (2.51 US gallons/minute), with the most common around 5 litres/minute (1.32 US gallons/minute). These compare to older units at around 14 litres/minute (3.70 US gallons/minute).

Modern front-loading washers use much less water than the older tub designs.

When you are shopping, reduce meat consumption, using it more as a condiment. 453.59 grams (1 lb) of beef requires an input of approximately 9.46 cubic metres (12.38 cubic yards) of water (50 bathtubs full), whereas a pound of soy requires 946.35 litres (1.24 cubic yards) of water and a pound of wheat only 94.64 litres (3.34 cubic feet). With the water used to produce a single hamburger, you could take a luxurious shower every day for two and a half weeks. So reducing meat consumption is by far the most effective way to conserve water.

The short term, day to day changes in temperature and precipitation at a particular location.
VAT (Value Added Tax). A layered tax that works like Canada’s GST (Goods and Services Tax). Consider a carbon tax on the manufacture of an office chair. When you buy a chair, you pay a tax on the total amount of carbon ( CO₂ equivalent greenhouse gas) released in the creating of the chair, including mining the metal, transporting it etc. This encourages you to buy chairs that are efficiently manufactured and to avoid buying items altogether that do a great deal of damage in their manufacture. Consider one of the middlemen in the process, the company that assembles the chair. They have to pay a tax on the metal they buy. They will tend to buy metals created in a carbon-friendly way. They have to charge a tax to the retailer, which will be based partly on how much greenhouse gas they released in the manufacturing process. So they have an incentive to keep emissions low.

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