Leadership and Ministry invested, sometimes land that is used or leased, vehicles, charities it is responsible for, and so on. In addition, there are national Catholic organisations, charities, universities and the whole body of Religious Orders that are part of the life of the Church. All of these perform a huge variety of valuable functions, using energy and materials, and have a carbon footprint and wider environmental impact. We have, then, quite the responsibility to demonstrate this ‘ecological conversion’ through the significant portfolio of structures we maintain.
The UK government and a whole variety of institutions have set ‘net-zero’ or ‘carbon neutral’ targets or pledges, including the dioceses of Plymouth and Westminster. The differences in terminology will be discussed in upcoming guidance on diocesan carbon accounting, but in a general sense they are both concerned with reducing carbon dioxide emissions and sequestering anything that can’t be reduced into carbon ‘sinks’ like forests. The Guardians of Creation project leans on net-zero terminology, as there is less attention to offsetting to meet targets; a topic which could fill another article by itself!
Carbon emissions are only part of the problem, but the part which is perhaps most immediately addressable and arguably urgent. Achieving net-zero does not mean that we are halting biodiversity loss, and it does not really mean that we are tackling the consumer culture that is the cause of so much social and environmental damage. Regardless, it is a problem that needs addressing, and realistically needs to be done at the same time as addressing the biodiversity and social crisis.
But is it really a problem for the Church?
The Church is a faith institution, so why get involved in the carbon discussion? Both the causes and impacts of climate change are social ones; it is caused by society having its priorities wrong, and the impact is felt by the poorest. These are surely places where the Church is. If carbon dioxide is a primary driver of climate change, and factors under our control are contributing, then we have a role to play.
Sally Axworthy, the former British Ambassador to the Holy See, set out the situation succinctly at a recent Vatican press conference, noting that if the global average temperature does not stop rising and we get an increase over two degrees, we will see more frequent extreme heatwaves, severe droughts across southern Europe, North Africa and the NearEast, whilst northern areas will suffer more f loods. Crop yields are likely to be lower in sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia and Latin America, and rice and wheat will become less nutritious. Parts of the Mediterranean will become desert, part of the tundra will melt, forests will decline and wildfires increase. Sea level will rise, and coral reefs will disappear.2 It is impossible for all this to happen without vulnerable people being affected.
In March 2021, the Vatican issued ‘Pastoral Guidelines on Climate Displaced People’, reflecting the increased concern over people leaving their homes due to natural disaster or changes to their climate. The guidelines point out that globally 145 million people live within a metre above the current sea level, and two thirds of the world’s cities with populations over five million are located in areas at risk of sea level rise.3 The effects of climate change might not be immediately as noticeable in the UK (though they are becoming more evident), but because we share one planet, one atmosphere, one global climate system, reductions in emissions are necessary everywhere.
Recognising our influence
Globally, it is said that around 80 per cent of the world population belongs to a faith group. This is significant. If 80 per cent of the world population is, in theory, morally guided by a belief in something beyond us more significant than market economics, then if the impact of the ecological crisis is really understood this should motivate a large proportion of humanity to act with humanity. Locally, faith networks are also influential. In Salford Diocese alone over 36,000 attend Mass on a weekly basis and 64,000 pupils attend 208 Catholic schools. That is a huge number of people that interact with others from different walks of life on a daily basis to inspire change through their actions.
The Guardians of Creation project
What does net-zero mean for the Church? Can we achieve it? How would we know we had reached it? Can it be done in a way consistent with the teaching of the Church? And, most frequently, ‘the
22 | Pastoral Review Vol 17 Issue 4 | October/November/December 2021