These are the top 10 environmental terms that people are least likely to understand

A quarter of Brits admit they use environment-related jargon despite not knowing what the terms mean, research has revealed.

The likes of greenwashing, carbon neutral and net zero have entered the lexicon in recent years as society looks towards an eco-friendlier future.

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But there is confusion over the now commonly used words - with a survey of 2,000 UK adults finding 41 per cent have pretended to know what someone meant by a particular environmental term to appear 'with it' or avoid having to ask.

Where someone has heard an eco-term they didn't understand, 16 per cent pretended they knew what they were talking about, while 27 per cent glossed over it.

Just half (49 per cent) would ask for clarification.

The research was commissioned by Smart Energy GB, the campaign helping the public understand the benefits of smart meters.

The organisation has recently released a report which makes recommendations for a broad range of organisations, including government and businesses, on how to communicate with the public about climate change.

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One of the key recommendations in the ‘Tackling Climate Change from Home: How to Turn Good Intentions into Positive Actions’ report, is to make sure that any communications reflect language already used by the public.

This will in turn help motivate consumers to make environmentally friendly changes at home, such as getting a smart meter installed.

Overall, 24 per cent of those surveyed have used a term without fully understanding what it means.

Confusing jargon

The word Brits are most confused about is ‘greenwashing’, which is where statements, often by large companies about their positive environmental performance, are either misleading or unsubstantiated by evidence.

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This is followed by biomass - the mass of living (or recently harvested) organisms that is grown or used for fuel - and net zero, where emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs) to the atmosphere are balanced by removals of GHGs from it.

Despite regularly being mentioned by governments, campaigners, and the media, 26 per cent don’t understand the phrase ‘carbon offsetting’, while 22 per cent are confused by the term ‘carbon neutral’.

Smart Energy GB has teamed up with author and broadcaster Simon Reeve to clearly explain the most misunderstood eco jargon, and to remind people that despite the complex language often used, there are lots of simple ways to help the planet, including getting a smart meter installed.

The presenter, with the help of Professor Paul Ekins, Professor of Resources and Environmental Policy at the UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources, has created a short jargon-busting video.

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Simon Reeve said: “The world is facing a climate crisis and we’re all keen to find ways to live a more sustainable lifestyle.

“But we are regularly hearing new words and phrases and it can be confusing, so we thought it would be helpful to explain what some of them mean.

“Whatever the complicated jargon suggests, helping the planet doesn’t need to be confusing.

"There are easy things we can all do, such as requesting a smart meter installation and using it to manage our energy use, which make doing your bit for the planet very simple.”

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Education on eco-terms

It follows research which revealed 79 per cent think there is lots of jargon related to sustainability and being environmentally green.

But more than half (54 per cent) would like to be more educated on sustainability and the jargon related to it.

Two thirds (66 per cent) said the environmental jargon used by the media, politicians and businesses is confusing.

And 59 per cent care about the environment but 'switch off' when people start using sustainability buzzwords

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Overall, 81 per cent of those surveyed via OnePoll think it's important for people in general to be more aware of environmental terms.

Iagan MacNeil, Smart Energy GB, said: “The nation is overwhelmingly on-board with moving towards a greener future – whether it’s by washing clothes at 30 degrees, or having a smart meter installed and using it to identify ways to reduce their energy use.

“But it is clear the public has been bombarded with a whole new range of words and phrases which not everyone is familiar with, and some are afraid to ask.

“Today we’re reminding government and businesses that the easier it is to understand what is needed, the more likely people are to take action.”

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Smart Energy GB has also created a quiz to see how clued-up readers are on eco-jargon.



1. Greenwashing

2. Biomass

3. Net zero

4. Regenerative

5. Offsetting carbon

6. Carbon neutral

7. Carbon footprint

8. Microplastics

9. Biodegradable

10. Sustainability

ECO TERMS EXPLAINED - by Professor Paul Ekins


These are statements, often made by large companies, about their environmental actions that are either misleading or not backed up by evidence.


This is a condition in which emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs) to the atmosphere are balanced by removals of GHGs from it. It's a term routinely used by countries and, increasingly, companies, that set ‘net zero’ as a target at some future date.


This is the mass of living (or recently harvested) organisms, plants or animals. Some biomass is used as, or grown to be used as, fuel, often to replace fossil fuels.


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This is an activity or organisation that has no net emissions of greenhouse gases


This is when individuals or businesses try to balance emissions of greenhouse gases from their activities, with the removal of an equivalent amount of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. An example is growing trees, which take carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.


This means activities that restore the environment, especially in respect of agriculture that improves the soil and increases biodiversity.


This is the measure of carbon emissions associated with the consumption of goods and services by a person, organisation or country.


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If something is biodegradable then it is capable of being decomposed into harmless substances through normal natural processes. However a lack of air can slow the process and produce methane, a greenhouse gas.


This is the ability of some process, organisation or condition to continue into the long term.


These are tiny plastic particles in the environment. Plastics don’t decompose, but instead break up into these tiny pieces, which accumulate in the environment and end up in the food chain after being eaten by organisms.

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