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Glossary of Sustainability Terms

Common sustainability terms.

Carbon Cycle

Concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are naturally regulated by numerous processes collectively known as the “carbon cycle”. The movement (“flux”) of carbon between the atmosphere and the land and oceans is dominated by natural processes, such as plant photosynthesis. While these natural processes absorb some of the net 6.1 billion metric tons of anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions produced each year, an estimated 3.2 billion metric tons is added to the atmosphere annually. The Earth’s positive imbalance between emissions and absorption results in the continuing growth in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. more info

Carbon Footprint

A measure of the amount of greenhouse gases emitted because of one’s activities. These can be tracked at global, state, or local levels as well as by companies and individuals. For greenhouse gases other than carbon, the effect of the emissions is translated into a measure called a “carbon equivalent”. A “carbon footprint” includes all the greenhouse gases. more info

Climate Change

Any significant change in measures of climate (such as temperature, precipitation or wind) lasting for an extended period (decades or longer). During the past century humans have substantially added to the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels such as coal, natural gas, oil, and gasoline to power our cars, factories, utilities, and appliances. The added gases — primarily carbon dioxide and methane — are enhancing the natural greenhouse effect, and likely contributing to an increase in global average temperature and related climate changes. more info

Green Building

Green or sustainable building is the practice of creating healthier and more resource-efficient models of construction, renovation, operation, maintenance and demolition. Elements of green building include: energy efficiency and renewable energy; water stewardship; environmentally preferable building materials and specifications; waste reduction; toxics; indoor environment; and smart growth and sustainable development. more info

Greenhouse Gas Inventory

An accounting of the amount of greenhouse gases emitted to or removed from the atmosphere over a specific period of time (e.g., one year). A greenhouse gas inventory also provides information on the activities that cause emissions and removals, as well as background on the methods used to make the calculations.

Numerous metrics are available to measure greenhouse gas emisions. For local governments the key measures are energy use, fuel use and solid waste disposed. Energy Star and other organizations provide tools to develop a baseline and track progress. more info

Greenhouse Gases

Many chemical compounds found in the Earth’s atmosphere act as “greenhouse gases,” which allow sunlight to enter the atmosphere freely. When sunlight strikes the Earth’s surface, some of it is reflected back towards space as infrared radiation (heat). Greenhouse gases absorb this infrared radiation and trap the heat in the atmosphere. Over time, the amount of energy sent from the sun to the Earth’s surface should be about the same as the amount of energy radiated back into space, leaving the temperature of the Earth’s surface roughly constant. 

Some greenhouse gases occur in nature (water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide), while others are exclusively human-made (like gases used for aerosols). The principal greenhouse gases that enter the atmosphere because of human activities are:carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O) and fluorinated gases. more info more info


The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System™ is the nationally accepted benchmark for design, construction, and operation of high performance green buildings. more info

Renewable Energy

Energy from a non-nuclear source that is in constant supply over time; in contrast, the supply of fossil energy sources such as oil, natural gas, or coal is limited. There are five principal renewable sources of energy: the sun, the wind, flowing water, biomass, and heat from within the earth. more info


Meeting today’s needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.

Sustainable Development

Meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs; in other words, ensuring that today's growth does not jeopardize the growth possibilities of future generations. Sustainable development comprises three elements - economic, social and environmental.

Triple Bottom Line

Measuring the economic, social and environmental performance of a project, aiming for synergy among these three aspects rather than compromise or ‘trade-offs’ between them.



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