This lesson was adapted from the following video. You can follow me on YouTube for more video lessons on vocabulary, grammar, and IELTS advice.
IELTS and the Environment
Before we look at any specific vocabulary for talking about the environment, we should begin by looking at how this topic may arise and what exactly we mean by “environment.”
The word “environment” can actually mean “the surroundings or conditions in which a person, animal, or plant lives,” but today we are looking at one specific meaning of this word, which refers to the natural world. When we talk about the environment this way, it is important to say “the” before it – ie “the environment.” That’s because we view it as one thing. We also use it as an adjective – “environmental” and adverb “environmentally.”
So how does this relate to IELTS?
Well, IELTS covers various topics but all of them relate to everyday life and are things that regular people should be able to discuss. Sadly, in recent years, the environment has been very badly damaged and so it is something of concern for all people. Thus, it is common to see IELTS questions about things that damage the environment or how to save it from further destruction.
You might read about environmental problems in the reading test, hear about them in parts three or four of the listening test, be asked about them in part three of the speaking test, or have to write about them in task 2 of the writing test.
In other words, the environment is a topic that could pop up almost anywhere, and so you’d better be ready for it. Now, let’s look at some vocabulary that could help you to give better answers. We will divide it into three parts:
- vocabulary about the natural environment,
- environmental problems
- solutions to those problems.
Vocabulary about the Natural Environment
Let’s start by learning some language to describe the natural environment. We will look at this before we get into human impacts on it.
To talk about the natural environment, we should be familiar with words related to the different parts of our world. At the most basic level, you should know terms like “sea,” “ocean,” “mountains,” “jungles,” “rainforest,” and so on. You could benefit from noting specific parts of the world like the Arctic and Antarctica, as well as the Amazon and Sahara. It is better if you know a little more than this, though, and are able to talk about the wildlife of these places and their importance to the world
When it comes to seas and oceans, we might want to refer to the “sea life” that inhabits it, including fish, sharks, and whales. It would be useful to know what a “coral reef” is – that is, a diverse ecosystem home to vast numbers of marine animals.
The word I just used there – “marine” – means something that lives underwater. I also mentioned “ecosystem,” and this is useful not just for describing life underwater, but anywhere on earth. “Ecosystem” is a great IELTS word and it means “a biological community of interacting organisms and their physical environment.”
Out of the water, we have forests and rainforests. The latter is tropical and the former is not. You should know their importance in providing a habitat for animals and turning carbon dioxide into oxygen. That word, “habitat,” basically means the place where something lives. We don’t really use it for humans, but rather we talk about an animal’s habitat being its natural home.
There are obviously many more words you could learn to talk about the natural environment, but given the type of questions you will encounter in IELTS, it is better that we move on to look at some problems instead. You can always look at an atlas or encyclopaedia if you want to know more vocab about the natural world.
You might try reading the National Geographic website.
Sadly, when it comes to environmental problems, there is much to talk about. I’m going to try to focus on some of the biggest problems, exploring vocabulary related to these issues. For each of them, you can also Google the main term and then read news articles to learn more words and phrases.
First of all, let’s start with the obvious one: “climate change.” This is also known as “global warming,” but that is a problematic term because not all places are actually getting hotter. It is worth being able to say a little about the causes and effects of climate change. For example:
- Climate change is caused by many factors such as air pollution and the loss of forests and coral reefs, and it has massive potential ramifications, such as sea level rises and desertification. Ultimately, this could lead to the extinction of humanity and the destruction of our world.
The word “ramifications” basically means the same as “consequences” but is a little more serious. You can see I have referred to “sea level rises” and “desertification.” You probably know the former but the latter means that more areas of land will turn to desert.
The word “extinction” here is very important and moves us on from the topic of climate change to other environmental issues. Around the world, numerous species go extinct every day because of human activities: poaching, overfishing, habitat destruction, toxic waste, and more.
Poaching refers to illegal hunting. Overfishing is of course fishing too much. We mentioned habitat earlier, and habitat destruction refers to these natural places being destroyed, say by deforestation, which is the cutting down of many trees. Then of course we have toxic waste and other forms of poison that damage ecosystems.
That brings us to pollution, of which there are many kinds. We have mentioned toxic waste, which could broadly be categorised as industrial pollution. This often goes into waterways, becoming water pollution. There is also air pollution, which comes from factories and also vehicle emissions. The word “emission” comes from the verb “emit,” and here refers to gases that are produced by cars and other vehicles. When talking about these things, you should be able to mention the results, like damaging marine or river ecosystems and causing acid rain. Then there are the respiratory problems air pollution causes humans.
Pollution also includes the waste that people create. This is known as garbage, rubbish, litter, junk, and more. I assume that everyone watching this knows the word “plastic” and the fact that plastic waste is among the worst there is. But why? It takes a long time to “decompose” and when it breaks down it can form “microplastics” that create new problems. In the seas, they enter the “food chain” and can build up in larger animals, ultimately poisoning them and even affecting humans.
Solutions to Problems
We were just talking about waste, which brings us to our final section, which is solutions to the problems we have discussed. When it comes to household waste, the obvious solution is to “recycle” as much as possible, but there is a common expression that ranks this as the third important of three Rs: reduce, reuse, recycle. Reducing the amount of waste we produce is the most important thing that we can do. Reusing it is the next best way of lowering our impact, and recycling is the third.
On the individual level, you might also want to mention actions that people can try to reduce their contributions to climate change, such as using public transport or cycling instead of driving to work. You may want to talk about switching to electric vehicles instead of ones that use petrol. We can avoid unnecessary packing, turn off electrical equipment when we’re not using it, and compost our biodegradable waste.
But perhaps the biggest solutions are not in the hands of regular people but instead companies and politicians. Here, you might want to talk about “environmental regulations” and talk about “legislation” or “policies” that could be enacted. This is a vast area with numerous possibilities, but you don’t need to get too specific.
Here is a sentence from an IELTS writing question about the environment:
- Governments should outright ban the expansion of fossil fuel acquisition and instead invest in renewable or at least more responsible sources of energy.
We can see that it makes a reasonable suggestion for what governments should do, and it raises an important issue, which is the banning of fossil fuels and the promotion of renewable energy sources. What do we mean by “renewable”? Well, this means sources of energy that are not going to run out. Here: is another example from that same essay:
- Beyond that, it is simply inexcusable to continue down this path of fossil fuel usage because there are so many better alternatives now. Solar, wind, hydropower, nuclear, and thermal energy are all becoming cheaper, safer, and better than traditional methods, and these do not damage the environment in the same way. To continue destroying the planet when these alternative sources of energy exist is deeply irresponsible.
It mentions a few sources that are preferrable to fossil fuels. Knowing these and being able to say a little about them will really help you.
There is a pretty high chance that you will encounter some sort of reference to the environment in the IELTS exam, so you should be prepared for it. We have learned words and phrases today that will help you to give better answers, but you should do more. Read articles, listen to podcasts, and watch videos about the environment. This is the best way to learn vocabulary and also to pick up ideas that you can use in your essays. Do this, and you’ll be on track for a better score in your next IELTS test.