Climate Terms and Tools
Facilities face many challenges related to climate change, including reducing emissions, adapting to new conditions, and increasing resilience. This page serves as a primer for building personnel who are new to the topic or looking for additional resources.
Understanding climate change's unique vocabulary is the first step. The definitions below have been compiled by federal experts in the field.
|Climate||Climate is a description of an area's average weather conditions and the extent to which those conditions vary over long time intervals, generally decades or centuries.|
|Weather||The meteorological conditions at a specific location in an immediate or near-term time horizon (hours, days, or a week). Rain, snow, wind, hurricanes, and tornadoes can be considered weather events.|
|Climate Change||The long-term change in average and expected weather patterns, and particularly the warming of the planet. Some examples of the impacts of warming temperatures are rising sea levels, ice melt and shifts in plant blooming times.|
|Climate Literacy||The understanding of an individual’s and organization’s influence on climate and climate’s influence on an organization and society. It supports individuals and organizations in making informed decisions, plan approaches, and implement solutions to climate adaptation or mitigation.|
|Climate Mitigation||Activities, investments, and projects intended to reduce the GHG emissions and ultimate impacts of human activity on the planet’s atmosphere, physical processes, and biosphere. Synonymous with GHG reduction. Decarbonization is a strategy that is part of broader climate mitigation efforts.|
|Greenhouse Gases (GHG)||Gases that trap heat in the atmosphere. These include: Carbon dioxide (CO2); Methane (CH4); Nitrous Oxide (N2O); Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs); Perfluorocarbons (PFCs); Sulphur Hexafluoride (SF6) and Nitrogen Trifluoride (NF3). See GHG graphic below.|
|Climate Adaptation||Actions that address the adjustment in natural or human systems in anticipation of or response to a changing environment in a way that effectively uses beneficial opportunities or reduces negative effects. Some examples include hardening infrastructure (e.g., building sea walls and raising roads), utilizing the natural environment to protect assets and people (e.g., expanding coastal wetlands to absorb the impacts of sea level rise), building preparedness (e.g., ensuring supply chains will endure the changes), and capitalizing on new opportunities (e.g., sales of sustainable and resilient goods and services).|
|Climate Hazards||Hazards that can include (but are not limited to) extreme temperatures, drought, heavy rainfall, flooding, wildfires, coastal storms, etc.|
|Climate Risk||Refers to the potential negative impacts of climate change on an organization. This can include physical risks, which can be acute (e.g., extreme weather events like hurricanes, fires, and floods) or chronic (e.g., long-term changes and variability in precipitation, temperature, or sea-level).|
|Supply Chain Climate Risk||Expected climate or weather-related risks (e.g., extreme heat waves, tropical storms and hurricanes, wildfires, etc.) that can significantly impact the availability, cost, speed, responsiveness, and quality of a product or service’s manufacture, processing and distribution.|
|Climate-Related Financial Risk||Risks from climate change that could impact the financial stability of an organization and/or the greater financial system and economy. This includes risk related to the physical impacts of climate change and the transition to a low-carbon economy.|
|Resilience||The capacity and ability to anticipate, prepare for, and adapt to changing conditions and withstand, respond to, and recover rapidly from disruptions.|
|Decarbonization||Decarbonization is the process of reducing the amount of GHG emissions from design, construction activities, and building operations. In buildings, decarbonization and GHG mitigation actions include: energy efficiency, fuel switching, demand response, demand flexibility, renewables deployment/purchase, and refrigerant leaks prevention (e.g., HFC fugitive emissions). It also includes awareness of the embodied carbon of materials and exploring opportunities to sequester carbon through natural means in the soil and trees.|
|Grid-interactive Efficient Building (GEB)||GEB is an energy efficient building with smart technologies characterized by the active use of distributed energy resources (DERs) to optimize energy use for grid services, occupant needs and preferences, and cost reductions in a continuous and integrated way. GEB builds on the well-established discipline of energy efficiency by adding strategies and technologies to also manage peak demand and coordinate buildings’ electrical loads, taking into account peak usage hours, renewable generation, storage options, and resiliency needs as appropriate.|
|Renewable Electricity||As defined in 42 U.S.C. § 15852(b), renewable electricity is electric energy generated from solar, wind, biomass, landfill gas, ocean (including tidal, wave, current, and thermal), geothermal, municipal solid waste, or new hydroelectric generation capacity achieved from increased efficiency or additions of new capacity at an existing hydroelectric project. For hydroelectric, "new" means placed in service after Jan. 1, 1999, consistent with the definition of new hydroelectric generation capacity in section 2852 of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2007 as amended by section 2842 of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2010 (10 U.S.C. § 2911(e)).|
|Carbon Pollution-free Electricity||A formal definition is expected to be forthcoming in the latter part of 2021 from the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ).|
|Embodied Carbon||Embodied Carbon refers to the greenhouse gas emissions resulting from the mining, harvesting, processing, manufacturing, transportation, and installation of materials.|
|ESPC||Energy Savings Performance Contract - Authorized by the Energy Policy Act of 1992, these contracts are a partnership between an agency and an energy services company that allow federal agencies to procure energy savings and facility improvements with little to no up-front capital costs or special appropriations from Congress. Energy services company improvements are paid over a contractual term as a share of the energy or water cost savings realized.|
|UESC||Utility Energy Service Contract - Authorized by the Energy Policy Act of 1992, these contracts are a partnership between an agency and a utility that allows federal agencies to procure energy savings and facility improvements with little to no up-front capital costs or special appropriations from Congress. The utility is paid over a contractual term as a share of the energy or water cost savings realized.|
|NDER||National Deep Energy Retrofit - A GSA program using ESPCs to achieve significant energy reductions, with a goal of over 50%; it has doubled the average energy reduction for GSA compared to the government-wide average.|
Greenhouse Gas Accounting
There are a variety of GHG accounting protocols available for reporting emissions, such as the World Resources Institute (WRI) and World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) GHG Protocol Corporate Standard.
For federal agencies, see the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) GHG Guidance and the Federal Comprehensive Annual Energy Reporting Requirements from the Department of Energy's Federal Energy Management Program (FEMP).
For accounting purposes, GHGs are divided into 3 standard categories, or "scopes":
- Scope 1 Direct (Onsite) Emissions
- Stationary fuel combustion – boilers, emergency generators, on-site heat and power production
- Mobile combustion – vehicles and mobile equipment
- Fugitive emissions – refrigerants, on-site landfills and wastewater treatment, electrical equipment/switchgears
- Process emissions – cement production
- Scope 2 Indirect Emissions
- Electricity – U.S. EPA eGRID provides emission factors to convert electric energy purchases into GHG emissions
- Purchased steam, hot water, and chilled water – depends on provider fuel use
- Combined Heat and Power
- Scope 3 Indirect Emissions
- Transmission and Distribution (T&D) – losses from off-site purchases of electricity, steam, hot water, and chilled water
- Business travel – ground transportation and air travel
- Commuter travel
- Contracted wastewater – wastewater treatment plants and septic
- Contracted waste – landfill emissions and incineration
Source: U.S. EPA
How to Calculate Emissions
Step 1: Calculate the emissions from each GHGActivity x Emission Factor (Tons GHG/activity unit) = Emissions (Tons GHG)
Activities such as burning fossil fuels release several types of gases into the atmosphere. The amount of each gas released per unit of the activity (e.g., ton of coal burned) is referred to as an "emission factor". These can be calculated from direct measurement, measured carbon or energy content of the fuel, or based on the chemical formula. See the EPA GHG Emission Factors Hub for an "easy-to-use set of default emission factors".
Step 2: Calculate CO2 equivalents (CO2e) for each GHG and sum overall emissionsEmissions x Global Warming Potential (GWP) = Total Emissions (Tons CO2e)
Each protocol will have recommended factors for global warming potential in order to convert all emissions into a single unit (CO2e) that can be summed across all GHG. The table below includes several common values.
|Carbon dioxide (CO2)||1||Mobile and stationary combustion|
|Methane (CH4)||25||Coal mining, fuel combustion, landfills, wastewater treatment|
|Nitrous Oxide (N2O)||298||Fuel combustion, fertilizers|
|Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs)||12-14,800||Refrigerants, fire suppressants, various manufacturing processes|
|Perfluorocarbons (PFCs)||7,390-12,200||Electrical equipment, various manufacturing processes, refrigerants, medicine|
|Sulfur Hexafluoride (SF6)||22,800||Electrical equipment, various manufacturing processes, tracer in air modeling, medicine|
|Nitrogen Trifluoride (NF3)||17,200||Industrial processes, primarily produced in the manufacture of semiconductors and LCD (Liquid Crystal Display) panels, and certain types of solar panels and chemical lasers|
For further information, see the following federal government resources:
- NOAA Climate.gov | What is Climate Science Literacy?
- GlobalChange.gov | Webinars
- YouTube USGCRP | Impacts, Risks, and Adaptation in a Changing Climate: An Overview of NCA4
- GlobalChange.gov | Fourth National Climate Assessment
- FEMP Energy.gov | Process for Procuring a Federal Utility Energy Service Contract
- FEMP Energy.gov | Utility Program and Utility Energy Service Contracts for Federal Agencies
For information on federal government GHG emissions, see the Department of Energy's Federal Facility Reporting Requirements and Performance Data and these datasets from the Comprehensive Annual Energy Data and Sustainability Performance report:
Climate change refers to significant and lasting alteration of climatic patterns (e.g., temperature, precipitation, wind). It may result from: natural factors, such as changes in the sun's intensity or slow changes in the Earth's orbit around the sun; natural processes within the climate system (e.g. changes in ocean circulation); and human activities that change the atmosphere's composition (e.g., through burning fossil fuels) and the land surface (e.g., deforestation, reforestation, urbanization, desertification). During the 20th century, human activities released large amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouses gasses into the atmosphere, resulting in an increase in the rate of climate change.