IN PROSPECT, 2020 was going to be a year in which the Church of England would be part of a well-planned series of events to focus action on addressing the environmental crisis that the world faces. Our reasonable expectations included a motion about the environment at the General Synod in February; the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book, Saying Yes to Life, by Ruth Valerio; the Lambeth Conference, at which the environment was to be one of the themes; the Season of Creation from 1 September to 4 October; and significant faith involvement around CoP26, the UN climate-change conference in Glasgow in late November.
As the former Precentor in Salisbury used to say before big cathedral services, it can’t go wrong, but it can go differently.
In February, the General Synod voted for an amendment that has committed the Church of England to net zero carbon emissions by 2030. The roadmap will be much the same as we were working on for 2045, but the ambition and pace are very different. Having consulted with every diocese, we should be able to agree a definition of net zero at the Synod in November, and a ten-year plan is taking shape.
There is a significant problem: the proposal for 2030 was never costed; but, given the pace of change globally, the figures would not have been realistic in any event. As Greta Thunburg said, “Avoiding climate breakdown will require cathedral thinking. We must lay the foundation while we may not know exactly how to build the ceiling.”
Having been careful to agree our goals, we also need to be careful to avoid being divided by tactics. Some of the activities of Extinction Rebellion have strained relationships, but there is a collective recognition of the scale of the problem that we are facing. Both Sir David Attenborough’s programme about extinction and the Prince of Wales’s call for swift action in response to the climate crisis, which, he says, will dwarf the impact of coronavirus, have received widespread support. Most people in the UK now believe that there is a climate emergency.
There are some significant signs of hope. The enforced change of lifestyle has given some significant environmental gains through an enforced “Jubilee for the Earth”, because of reduced travel and a new focus on where we live. The cautionary note is that this scale of change is what would be needed year on year to achieve net zero by 2050.
TECHNOLOGY is helping. Who, ten years ago, would have believed it possible that the UK’s generation of renewables would be up 32 per cent, year on year, as biomass, wind, and solar set new generation records in the glorious second quarter of 2020? At one point this year, renewable electricity sources were providing almost 70 per cent of Britain’s electricity.
The Government’s commitment to Build Back Better, through and beyond the pandemic, by developing the green economy, is good news. So was the UK Climate Assembly, meeting over a series of weekends in Birmingham earlier this year, which brought together a representative group of 108 citizens and provided them with the space to understand, discuss, and prioritise actions that the UK should take in response to climate change. Their report sets out the policies needed to achieve net zero by 2050. It will inform the debate on the Environment Bill currently going through Parliament and setting a framework for the next 25 years.
I love the insights of Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si’: On care for our common home. The “eco” of ecumenism, economy, and ecology are interlinked. The science, economics, and politics are important, and shape the policies, but the care of creation is not just a technical fix. There are moral issues here about how we live together in our common home which are about public policy and personal lifestyles.
The faith communities have something particular to say about environmental justice, when the carbon footprint of the richest one per cent is equivalent to that of the poorest 50 per cent. We want to live more justly and lightly on the earth.
Our other specialism, as people with faith, is spirituality. It is what connects belief and values with action. Faith brings the motivation and ambition to care for God’s wonderful creation. For Anglicans, this is the Fifth Mark of Mission. In truth, the Fifth Mark got added to the earlier four because they didn’t make sense without it. How do we proclaim the gospel, baptise new believers, respond to human need, and seek to transform unjust society without striving to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth?
If we human beings have been given dominion over creation, it has to be seen as Christlike service and exercised for the love of that which is good in and of itself. The 17th-century priest and poet Thomas Traherne wrote: “Your enjoyment of the world is never right, till every morning you awake in Heaven; see yourself in your Father’s Palace; and look upon the skies, the earth, and air as Celestial Joys” (Meditation 28).
SPEAKING in September, Pope Francis addressed the two related themes of the pandemic and the environment. To emerge from a pandemic, he suggested, we needed to look after and care for each other, especially the poor and most vulnerable; and we must extend this care to our common home — to the earth, and to every creature.
He also argued that the best antidote against this misuse of our common home was contemplation: “If someone has not learned to stop and admire something beautiful, we should not be surprised if he or she treats everything as an object to be used and abused without scruple.” To discover the true value of creation, “We need to be silent, we need to listen, and we need to contemplate. . . Contemplating and caring: these are two attitudes that show the way to correct and rebalance our relationship as human beings with creation.”
Prayer and service: it’s where we Christians can make a difference.
The Rt Revd Nicholas Holtam is the Bishop of Salisbury and the Church of England’s lead bishop for the environment.