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Church and Earth: Half way!

Posted in: News
Date posted: 2 June 2013

Now that a fresh sense of urgency about climate action is imperative, it is worth the Church taking stock as to how things are going, says Operation Noah Board member David Atkinson, in an article for Church Times.

Full text of article

‘The environmental challenges facing humanity in the 21st century are immense: the most urgent and pressing is climate change.’ (Church and Earth)

The world has just passed the symbolic and ominous figure of 400 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This is half way between the 350ppm that is thought ‘safe’, and the 450ppm widely regarded as a threshold for dangerous climate change. That should set alarm bells ringing even louder, and provoke action to prevent climate disruption wrecking the lives of the world’s most disadvantaged communities. To put that figure in context, for the last few hundreds of thousands of years, CO2 concentration has been going up and down between about 180 and about 280 ppm. For the period of human civilisation it has been remarkably stable, until the industrial revolution and especially the last 50 years, when it has been rising. It is now 40% higher than at any time in the last few million years, and going up. This is an extremely rapid rate of change for the planet to adjust to. Changing the atmosphere at this rate inevitably causes instability in the climate, and many more severe weather events. Unless it is stabilised this could do devastating damage to the world our grandchildren will live in. What will they say to us, if we do nothing to try to avert it?

We are also half way between 2009 and 2016. Those were the start and end dates for ‘The Church of England’s Seven Year Plan on Climate Change and the Environment’. They were published in one of the most exciting, and yet probably least well-known CofE Reports, Church and Earth. Commissioned by the Bishop of London, overseen by a steering group drawn from within and outside the Church, and endorsed by the House of Bishops, the report complements the CofE Shrinking the Footprint campaign and provides a strategic vision for dioceses, parishes and church partnerships.

Extensively researched and drafted by Ian Christie, a Fellow of the Centre for Environmental Strategy at the University of Surrey, and edited by London Diocese’s Brian Cuthbertson, Church and Earth is a beautifully produced document, providing practical recommendations and case studies of action. It provides a summary of most of the decisions about environment from the General Synod, not least the Church’s commitment to Shrinking the Footprint, and charts a way ahead. Some dioceses have used it as the basis for their own environment policies.

Solar System

Now we are half way through the seven-year period, and especially now that a fresh sense of urgency about climate action is imperative, it is worth the Church taking stock as to how things are going. What progress has been made in shrinking our ecological and carbon footprint, and embodying the gospel messages of responsible cherishing of God’s earth, and concern for the poorest people in God’s world?

Church and Earth takes the urgency seriously, but does not dwell on doom and fear. On the contrary, it celebrates the many exciting projects that are underway in many dioceses, and documents progress up to 2009. From the Devon Christian Climate Change Coalition in Exeter Diocese, to solar power in use in St James’ Piccadilly and an ‘eco-church’ in Addington, the report surveys many local projects and initiatives. Rooted in the biblical and theological basis for action, and seeing responsible engagement with the environment as a key mark of the Church’s mission, Church and Earth draws on lectures and talks from Archbishop Rowan, Archbishop Sentamu, the Bishop of Liverpool and the Bishop of London, to make a strong case for saying ‘good ecology is not an optional extra but a matter of justice. It is therefore central to what it means to be a Christian.’

The report lays out proposals and challenges for future action. It looks at buildings and assets, partnerships with civic groups and other faiths, work with schools and young people, lifestyles, pastoral and community work, media and advocacy, celebration and worship. Shrinking the Footprint continues its vital work of measuring and monitoring the carbon footprint of the Church’s total building stock, and looks to further work covering water and biodiversity, transport, waste, land and food. Links are well established with various environment agencies and Christian groups such as A Rocha and Operation Noah as well as the development agencies. Ideas for a code for sustainable churches, tree-planting projects, new action on waste and recycling, the perils of fuel poverty, the greening of cathedrals and retreat houses all get a mention. The Church will continue to monitor and influence the companies in which it invests.

Then, in a very pertinent suggestion in the light of recent news about ‘unburnable fuel reserves’, the report suggests that the Church should work by 2020 towards dis-investment from fossil fuel extraction and supply companies. The aim would be a portfolio that is carbon-neutral, while offering maximal return for minimal environmental and social impacts. A Bishops’ Environment Panel has been established, a network of Diocesan Environment Officers is in place and a Climate Justice Fund is supported. Dioceses are encouraged to become Fair Trade partners, and clergy and lay training needs to be improved. All this and considerably more.

The report concludes that, though the environmental challenges facing humanity are immense, and climate change the most pressing, the scale of the challenge demands that actors across civil society play a full part, not only in demanding action from government and business, but also in living out the values and lifestyle changes that will enable a sustainable world for all. Church and Earth affirms that the Church and its partners and allies have a vital role to play. ‘The service of Christians and others of faith and goodwill can contribute positively to the resources and energy of human beings around the world, to mitigate climate change, adapt to it, safeguard the poor and vulnerable, and conserve life’s richness for the benefit of all.’ It ends with a note of hope in God and trust in God’s commitment to the creation and to humanity, and by saying, ‘The Church of England has pledged itself to playing its full part in this great work before us all.’

At this half-way stage in the Seven Year Plan, it would be good for all of us to renew that pledge, at personal, parochial, diocesan and national church level. The Shrinking the Footprint campaign is encouraging new auditing of energy-saving measures by churches. The national church needs to take more of a lead in monitoring this Seven Year Plan. What about a stocktaking debate at Diocesan Synod? Or at General Synod? This agenda is actually hugely more important than many of the things that occupy synodical time! This report offers a rich set of projects and statements of intent on which to build.

David Atkinson

(A somewhat shorter version of this article appeared in the Church Times on 31 May 2013)

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