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‘Eco-Jargon’ could be damaging climate change efforts

New research has revealed that a quarter of Brits use environment-related jargon despite not knowing what the terms mean.

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

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

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. 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 and understood by the public.

This will in turn help motivate consumers to make environmentally friendly changes at home, such as getting a smart meter installed, which could all add up to a big difference.

The survey also found that 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. Overall, 24 per cent of those surveyed have used a term without fully understanding what it means.

The word that 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.

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 the removal 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’.

The research also revealed that 79 per cent of people think there is lots of jargon related to sustainability and being environmentally green. Two thirds (66 per cent) say 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. Overall, 81 per cent of those surveyed think it's important for people in general to be more aware of environmental terms.

Smart Energy GB has teamed up with Professor Paul Ekins, Professor of Resources and Environmental Policy at the UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources, to explain what some of the most commonly used eco-jargon actually means.

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.

“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, which make doing your bit for the planet very simple.

“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.”

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.

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.

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.

*Terms people are least likely to understand:

Greenwashing 46%        
Biomass 38%        
Net zero 32%        
Regenerative 28%        
Offsetting carbon 26%        
Carbon neutral 22%        
Carbon footprint 21%        
Microplastics 18%        
Biodegradable 16%        
Sustainability 14%        


Notes to editors

About the polling

OnePoll surveyed 2000 UK Adults from 13th October to 15th October 2021. The survey was conducted online via the OnePoll website, polling our panel who are paid to participate in surveys. Respondents were targeted on a nationally representative basis for age, gender and region.

About the report

Smart Energy GB commissioned The Behavioural Architects to conduct both secondary and primary research to update current understanding of the drivers of the intention-action gap for energy-efficiency behaviours, and opportunities to minimise it. The research investigated eight in-home energy-efficiency behaviours, covering: knowledge & understanding of these behaviours, ease of adoption and the perceived personal benefits beyond broader environmental benefits. The research comprised in-depth 2 hour paired interviews with 30 people from 30th Jul - 12th Aug.

About smart meters and the rollout

Smart meters are the next generation of digital gas and electricity meters, providing automatic meter readings and near-real time energy use information for households.

Smart meters and the information they provide will help Britain to achieve net zero by allowing for better management of energy demand and supply, providing people with the visibility needed to reduce their usage, and making the best and most efficient use of wind and solar power. Innovative technology and services enabled by smart metering is pivotal in allowing our country to decarbonise and have more electric vehicles.

Smart meters are available from energy suppliers at no extra cost, and the accompanying in-home display shows energy use in pounds and pence. 25.2 million smart meters have already been installed across Britain.

About Smart Energy GB

Smart Energy GB is the not-for-profit, government-backed campaign helping everyone in Britain to understand the importance of smart meters and their benefits to people and the environment. Our national campaign is reaching homes and microbusinesses across England, Scotland and Wales. For more information visit 

Smart Energy GB media contacts For more information including interview requests, case studies of smart meter users, infographics, photography and video content please contact [email protected]; 07921 458 041