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General Synod digest: target of net zero carbon set for 2030

21 February 2020

Madeleine DaviesHattie Williams, Adam Becket, and Tim Wyatt report from the General Synod in London


Christian members of Extinction Rebellion hold a climate vigil takes place outside Church House, Westminster, on Wednesday morning

Christian members of Extinction Rebellion hold a climate vigil takes place outside Church House, Westminster, on Wednesday morning

THE General Synod voted on Wed­nes­day afternoon for an amended motion setting a 2030 target for net zero carbon emissions by the Church of England.

The Bishop of Salisbury, the Rt Revd Nicholas Holtam, introduced the motion on the “climate emer­gency and carbon reduction target”, which, he said, addressed a “funda­mental injustice”. “There is now no serious doubt that climate change is happening and that people are caus­ing climate change,” he said. The world was heading towards an in­­crease in global temperatures to 3°, far beyond the 1.5° degrees needed to limit the destruction. In this con­text, the Church needed to rethink its spirituality of creation. Incre­mental change was not sufficient.

The C of E had just launched a Lent campaign on caring for cre­ation, and 50,000 booklets for adults and children had been sold. Climate change would also be a pillar of the Lambeth Conference agenda. He also hoped that parishes would take part in the Season of Creation, with a Climate Sunday on 6 Septem­ber.

“A crisis is both a judgement and an opportunity,” Bishop Holtam said. The Church needed to pick up the pace by setting a target date of net zero carbon emissions by 2045. The National Investing Bodies were al­­ready leading the world in respons­ible investment and there were al­­ready other good initiatives, such as Living Churchyards and Caring for God’s Acre, as well as Eco-Church and Eco-Dioceses. But only seven per cent of 16,000 churches were engaged with the Eco-Church programme, he said. If the C of E was a firm in which the Church invested, those making the investment would have serious questions whether and how the Church of England was aligning itself with the Paris climate agreement, “let alone hoping to move faster”.

The year 2045 was five years ahead of both the Paris agreement and the Church’s previous goal, although Bishop Holtam acknow­ledged that some did not think that it was ambitious enough. He pro­posed three-yearly follow-up reports to the Synod on progress towards the target, starting in 2022; and the new energy-footprint tool to measure emissions accurately was a good start for taking this goal more seriously. “The aim is not to use our buildings less, but to heat them dif­fer­ently and use them better.” This was an evangelistic imperative: if the C of E did not do the Fifth Mark of Mission, then the other four would be “meaningless”.

In a maiden speech, the Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Revd Graham Usher, said that this debate was not a luxury: it was an “imperative” in the mission of the Church. He spoke of the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. “We face a crisis of bio­diversity.” There needed to be a “hope-filled ecology of wonder and gratitude”. He was giving every con­firmation candidate a hazel tree to plant, and urged the Synod to sup­port this motion.

Bill Seddon (St Albans) urged the Synod to vote for the motion, as it was: a good mix of the prophetic and the reasonable. As a member of the Pensions Board, he had seen the work that it had done to de­carbon­ise. The Synod should not be dis­tracted by the National Investing Bodies’ absence from the motion.

Prudence Dailey (Oxford) said that if the Paris objectives were met, there would be a reduction of 0.3 per cent in global temperatures by 2100. But the climate impact of the West was dwarfed by China and India. These measures were like taking water out of the ocean with a pipette, and this money would be taken out of parish budgets that could be used for mission. The only way to solve the climate crisis was through scientific advancement, she said.

The Prolocutor of the Northern Province, the Revd Chris Newlands (Blackburn), said that this was a re­­sponsibility for everyone. The target was ambitious and achievable, but the Church should be working on reducing its emissions year on year.

geoff crawford/church timesSophie Mitchell (Youth Council) speaks in the climate debate on Wednesday

The Second Church Estates Commissioner, Andrew Selous MP, in his maiden speech, paid tribute to his predecessor, Dame Caroline Spelman, and said that he had been a green Conservative before it was fashionable. Those who had led the world into the Industrial Revolution now had a duty to lead it towards a sustainable future. He expressed delight that the Church Commis­sioners had joined the net-zero initiative last month. He praised examples of dioceses’ leading on environmental issues.

The Dean of Southwark, the Very Revd Andrew Nunn (Southern Deans), moved his amendment, to include cathedrals: “There’s a lot to do, there’s a lot to address,” he said.

The Revd Bill Braviner (Durham) said that the issue was becoming more urgent every day: those who could go faster should go faster, but the variety of contexts and buildings should be appreciated, and all parts of the churches should be included. He asked whether it was possible for a lot of resources to be put into this.

Dean Nunn’s amendment was carried.

John Spence (Archbishops’ Coun­cil) said that his initial reaction to this motion had been hostile, as the Church was struggling, but then he had come to the realisation that at the current rate it would be a struggle to reach net zero by 2050, let alone making it any earlier. He said that his amend­ment was partly stating the urgency of the change needed, but also recognising that this move would need to be underpinned by some resource. There had to be a basis of evidence for what needed to be done; guidance on what had to be done; and an evaluation of where the gaps were. “It is the time to move from ambition to action, from as­­pira­tion to achievement.”

The Bishop of Manchester, Dr David Walker, who chairs the Ethical Investment Advisory Group, supporting Mr Spence, spoke of the work of the national investment bodies in challenging companies when they did not have the right approach to the climate crisis.

The Archdeacon of Knowsley and Sefton, the Ven. Pete Spiers (Liver­pool), spoke of the unequal spread of historic endowments, and whether these could be spread across the Church to push things forward: “Today is the rainy day.”

Mr Spence’s amendment was carried.

Canon Professor Martin Gainsborough (Bristol) wanted to push the Church harder with the target of 2030, which Bristol diocese had already committed itself to. The seriousness of the situation facing the earth could not be over­stated, he said, especially around the world, away from the UK. There were theological reasons: “faith is risky”, he said. “There are challenges, but let’s not overestimate them.” Canon Gainsborough said that a target of net zero in 2045 was not acceptable: “There is nothing more important than this.”

Canon Sue Booys (Oxford) wel­comed the “good sense” of the motion, but shared Canon Gains­borough’s sense of urgency. Oxford diocese’s environmental task group could lead the way on moving to­­wards net zero. Canon Booys spoke of the use of a ten-year action plan with two yearly targets. Her motion sought an assessment of whether the target year could be brought for­ward. Her amendment was lost.

Canon Gainsborough moved his amendment. Bishop Holtam resisted it. Forcing churches to change now would create resentment in parishes, Bishop Holtam argued. There would be a three-year review already. Twenty-five members stood, so that the amendment could be debated.

The Bishop of Liverpool, the Rt Revd Paul Bayes, said that he would be supporting this amendment, and that the phrase “by 2045 at the latest” in the motion was blurred. He sought a middle way between now and 2045, which meant 2030. Bishop Bayes said that he could see a differ­ence between the way Bishop Holtam spoke of urgency and speed, but then how he resisted the motions. He paid tribute to Bristol, Oxford, and Birmingham, but said that other dioceses should join them in a target of 2030 — not leave it to those who were leaders. He said that he wanted to take this back to Liverpool dioese. Brian Wilson (Southwark) said that the idea of spending historic reserves on eco-friendly actions was incorrect: money should be spent on those who were lost and would go to hell if they don’t believe in gospel.

The Revd Catherine Grylls (Birmingham) wanted to be listening to the Synod livestream in ten years and hear that the Church was net zero; but a 2030 target was just too quick. She urged the Synod to stick to 2045.

Canon Simon Butler (Southwark) had not been going to support the amendment, until he realised that it did not matter that the more ambi­tious target of 2030 might not be met: it would add more energy and engage churches more acutely.

The Gainsborough amendment was carried by 144 to 129, with ten recorded abstentions

Dr John Appleby (New­castle) moved an amendment for all parts of the Church to set appropri­ate milestones for their own pro­gress. Bishop Holtam resisted it, and it fell.

The Revd Zoe Heming (Lichfield) said: “We have been told that our actions are taking water from the sea with a pipette. . . We have the most hopeful image there is of small action leading to big changes.” She encouraged risky action and hope.

Carl Hughes (Southwark) could not support the motion as amended. “It is unrealistic and unsupported by any plans.”

Margaret Swinson (Liver­pool), vice chair of Anglican Consultative Council (ACC), said that its resolu­tions made 2030 very appropriate. “When climate emer­gency strikes our fellow Anglicans, we do exercise mission by issuing responses to human need. The Church needs to look at the world from the point of view of the vulnerable, who are being forced to leave their homes. . . These things are happening to us.”

Sophie Mitchell (C of E Youth Council) quoted Greta Thunberg: “How dare you continue to look away!” and said: “Synod, we know what we need to do: We need to act, and act fast.” The motion was strong because it set clear targets, she said. Responding to the debate, Bishop Holtam said that the Synod would have to work very hard for churches to act on the motion.

The motion as amended was clearly carried. It reads:

That this Synod, recognising that the global climate emergency is a crisis for God’s creation, and a funda­mental injustice, and following the call of the Anglican Communion in ACC Resolutions A17.05 and A17.06: 

(a) call upon all parts of the Church of England, including parishes, BMOs [Bishop’s Mission Orders], education institutions, dioceses, cathedrals, and the NCIs [National Church Institu­tions], to work to achieve year-on-year reductions in emissions and urgently examine what would be re­­quired to reach net zero emissions by 2030 in order that a plan of action can be drawn up to achieve that target;

(b) request reports on progress from the Environment Working Group and the NCI’s every three years be­­ginning in 2022 and;

(c) call on each Diocesan Synod, and cathedral Chapter, to address pro­gress toward net zero emissions every three years.

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