Recap of our recent ‘Church Land and the Climate Crisis’ webinar

Posted in: Blog, Events, News
Date posted: 26 October 2022

On Tuesday 20 September, Operation Noah hosted a webinar on our new report, Church Land and the Climate Crisis: A Call to Action.

Our report, which makes specific recommendations to the Church of England – one of the UK’s largest landowners – suggests 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.’

Our webinar speakers included Hannah Malcolm, a Church of England ordinand, theologian and Operation Noah trustee; Andy Lester, Head of Conservation at A Rocha UK; Alan Radbourne from the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology; and Sharon Hall, Campaign Officer at Operation Noah. Holly-Anna Petersen, an Operation Noah trustee, chaired the online event.

Watch the webinar here.

Hannah Malcolm opened our webinar and discussion of the report – which focuses on Church of England land but is applicable to all Christian landowners – by giving the historical and missional context for Anglican landholdings before exploring different ways to use the land.

Hannah said that as ‘access to healthy land increasingly becomes a matter of survival…the Church in many places holds the keys of life and death.’

While she acknowledged that the picture might seem less dramatic in the Church of England, ‘nevertheless, our land, and how we think about it, is vital for our work. So why does land matter for the mission of the Church?’

For Hannah, the answer is as simple as the fact that the majority of the Church’s work takes place on Church-owned land, and that this land also helps fund the Church’s mission. ‘Land, and what we do with it, is a question for all aspects of the Church community,’ Hannah said.

Hannah then shared what kind of land the Church of England owned; the CofE’s landholdings include:

  • 98,000 acres of rural/ strategic land owned by Church Commissioners
  • 70,000 acres owned by CofE dioceses (known as ‘glebe land’) 
  • 31,000 acres of Church Commissioners’ UK forestry investments 
  • Smaller areas of land owned by individual CofE churches 
  • 500,000+ acres of mineral rights

But what should the Church of England do with this land?

‘Should we sell what we have and give it to the poor? Should we save for the future? Should we rewild? Should we build new communities? Now each of these suggestions contains real merit, argued from different corners, and of course, they’re not mutually exclusive,’ Hannah said.

‘Given the portfolio of land the Church owns, it’s likely going to be a mixture of these things…and I think we can take heart that this work will have real significance,’ Hannah said. ‘One of the things about land is that transformation of even relatively small areas can have significant impact on the lives of the creatures, both human and non-human, who live on it or near it. So with this report from Operation Noah, we’re looking to join in this conversation with the national Church.’

Andy Lester from A Rocha UK spoke after Hannah Malcolm and gave a sobering assessment of the ecological challenges we face, including the rate of species loss, but also offered solutions and ended on a note of hope.

‘So let me challenge you with three things that we know are definitely going to happen and will influence the UK’s ecology over the next 30 years…the science is pretty strong. The first is we are going, in (most of ) our lifetimes, to see the complete melting of the Greenland ice sheet. The impact that will have, through decrease in salinisation of our oceans and seas, will have profound, and, as yet, not fully quantified impacts on our native flora and fauna, particularly on our forests.’ 

‘The second is that 1.5°C (global warming above pre-industrial levels) is not possible…I, as a scientist, do not believe that is anymore a possibility. I still believe we can keep under 2°, which would be good news indeed, but the data indicates that we are too late to keep under 1.5°C.’ 

‘And the third factor is that we are going to see the sorts of changes that will render some areas of the country just not suitable for native tree-planting as we know it. So the plantings of beech and oak and elm and ash and aspens and maples – trees that have been a familiar part of our landscape over the last 500 years – will no longer be familiar in the areas they are currently.’ 

Andy finished with three things he wanted the nearly 100 people who joined the webinar on 20 September to take with them:

‘The first is new species. The days of traditional conservation have to come to an end. We have to think about species we can import from Mediterranean areas across Southern Britain, or the artificial movement of species northwards to recolonise areas where other trees will be retreating. We have to be very, very radical in the way we do conservation.’ 

‘The second is all about opening up new areas of land. And, as Hannah indicated, the Church owns a large amount of land, from glebe land all the way through to our cathedrals all the way through to…forestry land. And there’s an enormous opportunity to look at the nation as a whole and ask the question, what can we do as a Church to reforest our nation in a way that inspires community, restores nature, reduces the climate-carbon issue and ultimately brings hope and life to our nation. I believe that our Church can really do that.’ 

‘The third is all about…trying to get inspiring new ideas from inspiring new people who are coming up with incredible creativity…vertical gardens, tropical mulching in the South Coast of England, olive groves, truffle plantations – all sorts of creative and imaginative projects that are involving plants in a whole different way…things can be done differently, but it takes creativity, it takes radical imagination.’

Alan Radbourne of the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology gave a short pre-recorded talk on agricultural land and the movement to ‘shift towards sustainable land-management techniques while maintaining or even increasing our food and energy sufficiency as a nation.’ 

‘Although there are many challenges to do this,’ Alan said, ‘there are some really excellent examples of this happening. And then when you link that to the Church (of England) having a significant landholding, with much of this being agricultural land that can include prime agricultural land, the real food-producing stuff, the grade one and grade two lands. So that means being this major landholder in the UK, the Church has a real key role in supporting and enabling this sustainable agricultural transition.’ 

Alan continued: ‘The process is not easy, and is complicated by many factors, for example, government payment schemes, tenancy agreements, the role of land agents – yet as the landowner, there is a responsibility, and I would even say a theological mandate, to find ways to support this transition towards sustainable agriculture. And I should say as well that I have seen a growing desire within the Church and its people to make this change and to see how its landholdings can be a blessing to our nation.’ 

‘This change doesn’t have to be groundbreaking,’ Alan said. ‘In many instances, it can be simple, small alterations in approach and management that can make a big difference, around fuel use or the use of land in certain ways…for example, incorporating more trees and hedges into the margins of a farming system, reduced tillage methods, or reducing fertilister or pesticide use, are all beneficial steps for the whole farm system.’ 

‘From history we can see that when the Church catches a vision for change and engages its people and resources in it, it can make a lasting positive impact.’

Finally, Operation Noah’s Sharon Hall, who wrote the land-use report, spoke after the recorded video address from Alan Radbourne. Sharon said that agricultural land was an important focus of the report and something that presented both challenges and opportunities for the Church of England.

‘A lot of the (Church of England’s) land is agricultural land…there are some complicated issues, where land is actually worked by tenants (and) there may be limited control in terms of some of the choices that are made. And also there’s this key term of “trade-offs”…some actions which might be considered great for absorbing carbon dioxide might not be so great for biodiversity.’

‘And then different priorities that the Church has; clearly there’s an aim to be raising funds – which are then used for Church mission – so we don’t want to be against the Church making money off land, but it needs to be balanced with consideration for what’s good for communities, what’s good for nature, what’s good for the climate.’

The three main recommendations made in Operation Noah’s church land-use report are around growing more trees, protecting and restoring peatland and reducing farm emissions, Sharon said.

Watch the full land-use webinar, including a Question and Answer session with the panellists, by clicking this link.

Bookmark and Share

Registered charity number 1138101