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Green hill far away

21 February 2020

QUITE literally, the General Synod saw it coming. As members entered Church House, Westminster, on Wednesday of last week, they passed the banner (click here to see it) proclaiming that achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2045 was not soon enough. The briefing paper for the debate had not held back, either: “The urgency and significance of climate change and the degradation of the environment cannot be over-estimated.” It was, none the less, a surprise when the Synod followed the lead proposed by Canon Martin Gainsborough of Bristol diocese, which has already pledged to be carbon-neutral by 2030. The Bishop of Salisbury, used to badgering his fellow Anglicans to take climate change seriously, was clearly discountenanced.

The 2045 target proposed by the Mission and Public Affairs Council was backed by reasoned argument. A year-after-year reduction in emissions of 11 per cent seemed challenging but achievable. The new target requires a reduction of 30 per cent by this time next year, followed by 30 per cent of the remainder by 2022, i.e. a cut by more than 50 per cent overall within the next two years. Thereafter, the actual amount lessens even though the percentage reduction remains the same, but by then the pips will be squeaking. In practice, the Church’s journey to net zero emissions is not going to resemble any smooth curved graph, steep at the start then levelling out at the bottom. Think hill rather than children’s slide. So much is going to depend on the development of greener energy supplies, cheaper and more efficient means of heating and insulation, and a Government that is prepared to shoulder some of the cost. In fact, lobbying the Government for more radical action is the Church’s best first move. The newer, scarier target can be used as an example to others, but only for so long as the Church’s efforts convince others of its possibility.

There is another calculation, as imprecise as all the others. At the same time as paying for measures to reduce its carbon footprint, the Church will have to find unknown sums to repair the damage caused by the deteriorating climate. This week’s weather has delivered another cluster of flood and storm-damaged buildings. How long will it be before the Church’s main insurers declare that, like lead-theft, storm damage is too widespread for them to underwrite, leaving vulnerable churches with impossible bills to pay? As was said in last week’s debate, the effects of climate change are with us already, and no longer merely in parts of the globe which Westerners have ignored for too long, to their shame. The cost of doing nothing is finally ap­­pear­­­­ing on the balance sheet. Sadly, the present generation is having to cope with the consequences of past inaction at the same time as investing in the measures needed to prevent further disasters. There are many stories to tell of excellent environ­mental initiatives, but it is as well to recognise the sober truths about the future that we face.

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