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20 September 2022: Operation Noah today released a report that makes recommendations on ways to reduce and store carbon emissions to one of the country’s largest landowners, the Church of England, which owns approximately 0.5% of the UK’s land. The report is also relevant to other UK Churches and Christian groups, estimated to own another 0.5% of the UK’s land.
The 16-page report – Church Land and the Climate Crisis: A Call to Action – concludes that land owned by the Church of England is currently contributing to the climate and biodiversity emergencies ‘in terms of greenhouse gas emissions and limiting biodiversity within monoculture tree plantations and non-regenerative agriculture.’
While the Church of England has adopted a 2030 Net Zero target, its landholdings are outside the scope of the target. Yet this report finds that agricultural land owned by the CofE is likely to create more greenhouse gas emissions than all CofE church buildings combined; however, it adds, ‘there is also scope for considerable improvement if rapid and radical action is taken.’
The report specifically recommends a programme of tree growing, peat restoration, and providing better support and strategies to those who farm Church-owned land in order to reduce agricultural emissions and store more carbon. The CofE’s landholdings include:
The report makes the point that ‘owning land brings responsibilities for the emissions related to its use, but also offers a potential way of contributing to the reduction of overall greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere. If landowners protect the natural carbon sinks on their land, or extend them, some land has the potential to produce net negative emissions.’ Woodlands, peatlands, grasslands and salt marshes are all carbon sinks if protected or restored.
One recommendation the report makes is to grow more trees as part of agroforestry projects (which involves growing suitable trees alongside crops) and within hedges and margins, providing shelter belts and wildlife habitats. Additionally, ‘if grassland and meadows are managed to leave root systems undisturbed, this allows carbon to be stored underground. This requires choosing less disruptive farming techniques and the use of cover crops, such as nitrogen fixing clover and vetch, to reduce soil runoff and the amount of fertiliser needed.’
The report says, ‘throughout history, people of faith have recognised the splendour of the natural world and what it reveals to us about the one who created it.’ From St Francis of Assisi, ‘who saw God reflected in nature’, to the Church of England, which ‘recognised care of creation as the Fifth Mark of Mission in 1990’, the Church must ‘demonstrate leadership in supporting a fair and fast transition away from investment in and use of fossil fuels, reducing emissions in all sectors of Church life and promoting sustainable choices and low-consumption lifestyles.’
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has said that for the world to limit global heating to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and avoid the worst impacts of the climate crisis, global greenhouse gas emissions must be nearly halved by 2030. This will involve a rapid reduction in fossil fuel emissions – the driving cause of global heating – but also increased nature-based solutions in order to remove carbon already present in the atmosphere.
Operation Noah will hold a 20 September webinar examining the report’s findings with a panel that includes report author Sharon Hall, Campaign Officer at Operation Noah; Andy Lester, Head of Conservation at A Rocha UK; Hannah Malcolm, a CofE ordinand, theologian and Operation Noah trustee; and Alan Radbourne from the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology.
Endorsements for the report, Church Land and the Climate Crisis: A Call to Action:
Guy Shrubsole, environmental campaigner and author of Who Owns England?: ‘This is a crucial report on the new frontline in the fight against climate breakdown: how we use our land. The Church, as a major UK landowner, has a great responsibility to steward its landholdings well and should be leading the way in repairing damaged carbon sinks, expanding habitats and restoring nature. Yet, at present, it is failing to do so. That’s why it’s so uplifting to see Operation Noah’s new campaign on Church land, with its calls on the Church of England to grow more trees, restore peat bogs and support its tenant farmers to transition to net zero.’
Andy Lester, Head of Conservation, A Rocha UK: ‘This report outlines the critical role the Church must play if we are to confront and mitigate the impacts of climate on people and nature. As one of the largest UK landowners, the responsibility of the Church to engage with the issues and come up with inspired and creative solutions is immediate and immense. My hope is that this report will go some way to address the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead and inspire a new generation of church leaders to take action for people, for climate and for nature.’
Hannah Malcolm, Church of England ordinand, theologian and Operation Noah trustee: ‘In this report, we offer a brief introduction to the scope of the Church of England’s current land holdings and propose some opportunities for action. We want to offer a contribution to ongoing conversations about the gift and role of the Church in England, not only for our worshipping communities, but for all those whom we are called to serve.’