Sustainable Development Glossary

Anthropogenic – defined as ‘Having its origin in the activities of man.’ It is often used when discussing the causes of climate change – greenhouse gas emissions caused by human activites are anthropogenic causes.

Biocapacity – Biocapacity refers to the capacity of a given biologically productive area to generate an on-going supply of renewable resources and to absorb its wastes. Unsustainability occurs when an area’s ecological footprint exceeds its biocapacity.

Carbon dioxide emissions – Carbon dioxide emissions is the term used to describe the release of carbon into the atmosphere. Carbon is one of the most abundant greenhouse gases in the atmosphere today. Anthropogenic (human caused) carbon dioxide emissions stem from the burning of fossil fuels, gas flaring and the production of cement. Carbon dioxide is primarily used by plants in their photosynthetic processes. Carbon can remain in the earth’s atmosphere for about a hundred years.

Climate – Climate can be defined as the characteristic weather conditions of a country or region.

Climate Change – Climate Change is a change in the statistical distribution of weather over periods of time that range from decades to millions of years.

Climatic variables – Climate variables are factors which affect the characteristic weather conditions of a country or region. These factors include the variation of temperature, humidity, precipitation, wind, sunshine hours, cloud cover, visibility etc.

Consumerism – Consumerism refers to the increase in the consumption of goods. The Oxford English Dictionary provides this definition “emphasis on or preoccupation with the acquisition of consumer goods”.

Deforestation – Deforestation is the removal of a forest, or stand of trees, and the uncovered land put to a non-forest use.

Ecological Crisis – An ecological crisis occurs when the environment of a species (or a population) changes in a way that threatens its survival.

Economic Crisis – An economic crisis is a severe downturn, or recession, in the economy. It may involve decreases in production, investment, employment and household incomes.

Ecosystem – An ecosystem is a biological environment consisting of all the organisms living in a particular area, as well as all the nonliving, physical components of the environment with which the organisms interact, such as air, soil, water, and sunlight.

Environmental Degradation – Environmental degradation is an adverse change or disturbance to the environment. Examples include the depletion of resources such as air, water and soil, the destruction of ecosystems and the extinction of wildlife.

Ethical principles – Ethical principles promote moral values such as trust, truth, fairness and kindness. There is not one consistent set of principles, they are frequently vaguely defined and open to interpretation.

First World – The First World is a term used to generalise countries that have advanced economies and very high Human Development Indices. These countries are mostly found in North America, Western Europe, Australia and Japan.

Fossil Fuel – Fossil fuels are hydrocarbons. They are formed from the remains of dead plants and animals that have been exposed to heat and pressure in the earth’s crust over hundreds of millions of years. Examples include coal, oil and natural gas.

Global Warming – Global warming is the increase of atmospheric temperatures on earth.

Greenhouse gas emissions – Greenhouse gases are gases in an atmosphere that absorb and emit radiation within the thermal infrared range. The main greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere are water vapour, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and ozone. These gases are present in the atmosphere as a result of natural and anthropogenic (human) processes.

Industrialisation – Industrialisation is a process of social change and economic development that is closely related with technological innovation and large-scale production.

Industrialised countries – Industrialised countries are countries that have advanced economies, technology and very high Human Development Indices.

Non-renewable source – Energy sources are considered non-renewable if they cannot be replenished (made again) in a short period of time. These resources often exist in a fixed amount. Examples include oil, coal, natural gas and uranium.

Polluter Pays Principle – The Polluter Pays Principle is an environmental policy principle that requires that the costs of pollution be borne by those who cause it. (

Precipitation – The condensation of moisture from water vapour in the atmosphere, examples include rain, snow and dew.

Renewable energy source – Energy sources are considered renewable if they can be replenished (made again) in a short period of time. Examples include solar, wind, biomass and hydro (water).

Urban sprawl – The physical growth and spread of cities.

Water Footprinting – The water footprint is an indicator of water use that looks at both direct and indirect water use of a consumer or producer. The water footprint of an individual, community or business is defined as the total volume of freshwater that is used to produce the goods and services consumed by the individual or community or produced by the business. (