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Faith groups were sidelined at COP26, says Bishop of Norwich

19 November 2021

All the pledges made in Glasgow have to become actions with detailed and strategic plans

Albin Hillert

Final protests take place in Glasgow as COPO26 came to an end

Final protests take place in Glasgow as COPO26 came to an end

THE Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Revd Graham Usher, has criticised the Government for its lack of engagement with faith groups at the COP26 climate summit and urged it to make climate change a priority over the coming year.

Bishop Usher, who is the lead bishop on the environment, was at the UN talks in Glasgow which ended on Saturday, when countries had agreed to phase down coal use, end fossil-fuel subsidies, and come back next year to strengthen their commitments. But the promised financial support for poor and vulnerable nations remained lacking.

Bishop Usher said on Tuesday evening: “There was a powerful sense of solidarity across the faith groups and denominations at COP26. All faith traditions value the sanctity of creation, and before the summit many of us met at the Vatican to present our call to COP26 President Alok Sharma, where there was probably 85 per cent of the world’s population represented.

“In Glasgow, it was disappointing to see no space for faith groups at the summit. The Anglican Communion delegation struggled to find spaces to meet. It was a great shame the British Government didn’t put more emphasis on the role of faith communities.”

Bishop Usher applauded the efforts of Mr Sharma, however. He said: “I want to praise the commitment of Alok Sharma and his team, who have worked incredibly hard. The UK has the presidency of the COP for the next 12 months, and I would like to see them making use of this in the lead up to COP27 in Egypt.”

He said that COP26 had helped align nearly all the world’s countries in the same direction, but that they needed to move with much greater urgency. “All the pledges made in Glasgow have to become actions with detailed and strategic plans. It is only then we will know if COP26 has had a material impact.”

Bishop Usher also hailed the Church of England’s 2030 net-zero target (News, 14 February 2020), and urged people to work towards achieving it. “We’ve got to get out own house in order if we’re going to encourage others,” he said. “We need local and galvanised support to make this part of our life as a Christian community, to care for creation and for some of the world’s poorest people.”

The Archbishop of Canterbury, who met leaders in Glasgow, including President Wavel Ramkalawan of the Seychelles, who is also an Anglican priest, said that the key to dealing with the fear of climate change was to take action. “For those for whom climate change is already a matter of life and death, and who are working tirelessly to mitigate and adapt, I recognise that any outcome will feel gut-wrenching if it falls short of what science tells us is needed now.”

He continued: “It is not declarations themselves that will save the future of the planet; it is the actions that arise from them, the changes that are inspired and the progress we make from now on towards our climate goals. God calls us not to be afraid — not because climate change isn’t a cause for fear, but because we are invited to move beyond that fear into action.”

The sense that Christians need to do more to tackle climate change was reflected in a recent survey conducted by the Evangelical Alliance, which found that 84 per cent of church leaders did not believe that their church was doing enough. While most of the 907 respondents agreed that the Church had an important part to play, 79 per cent agreed that it should be doing more.

The Evangelical Alliance has produced a series of resources to help churches to respond to the climate crisis. Its advocacy coordinator, Jo Evans, said: “We believe these resources can equip and empower the UK church to make practical changes and contributions to a climate change response, whilst keeping our eyes firmly fixed on Jesus. By understanding creation care as a gospel issue, we have an opportunity to be good stewards of God’s creation, love our neighbours and tell others about our creator God.”

The chief executive of the Christian conservation charity A Rocha, Andy Atkins, said that the Church had a crucial part to play in building the momentum created by COP26. Mr Atkins also chairs the body promoting Climate Sunday, when more than 2300 UK churches hold climate-themed services. The fact that the COP26 outcome had requested countries to come back to the table with upgraded plans for tackling the crisis was hugely significant, he said.

“Civil society has less than a year to put much greater pressure on governments to up their commitments and take real action to deliver on their words. That’s the political and scientific reality that COP26 gives us.

“Yes, there’s been an agreement to phase down coal. But we need to get off all fossil fuels if we’re going to keep temperatures to 1.5ºC. If the UK Government celebrates the decision on coal but goes ahead with its plans to open the new Cambo oil field off Shetland, it would be a complete disaster. In fact, it would be morally wrong for the Government to do that.”

Churches that had signed up to Climate Sunday were also informing their communities about the issue, and writing to MPs, he said.

The moment had come for the Church of England to rethink its atttempt to engage with fossil-fuel companies on reducing their emissions before disinvesting from them. “When you’re facing an emergency, you don’t mess around,” he said. “Any organisation or denomination that has any interests in fossil fuels needs to get off them as fast as it can.

“In light of the COP decision, and the latest science, the C of E needs to reconsider whether its current approach is working. We’re more likely to build the pressure on governments if whole sections of society, like churches, make it clear we are getting out of fossil fuels.”

James Morgan, the secretary of Durham diocese, which annouced its disinvestment from fossil fuels on Saturday, said: “As we have heard from COP26, we are facing a climate emergency, and it’s up to all of us to do what we can to protect this planet for future generations. Where we invest funds as a diocese, we will be making sure they are not invested in companies profiting significantly from the extraction of fossil fuels, whether it be oil, gas, or coal.”

The talks in Glasgow ended on Saturday evening, 24 hours after their scheduled closing time of Friday. The conference president, Alok Sharma, was visibly moved as the intense two weeks of negotiations resulted in a new global agreement.

For the first time, a COP decision explicitly outlined the phasing down of coal and the ending of fossil-fuel subsidies. There were also new commitments to reducing methane, a potent greenhouse gas, tackling deforestation, and ending the financing of overseas coal-production.

Developing countries and campaigners were unhappy, however, at the lack of financial and other support pledged by rich countries to those on the front line of the crisis. In particular, developed countries failed to deliver on their promise of providing $100 billion in climate finance, and no new fund was created to pay for the permanent loss and damage caused by climate change.

The world is currently experiencing 1.1ºC of global heating above pre-industrial levels, and the 2015 Paris Agreement set out the goal of limiting this to 1.5ºC — a level that, scientists have warned, will still cause much suffering to some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in the world.

Before COP, current policies meant that the world was heading for global heating of 2.7ºC by the end of the century. This has now been lowered to 2.4ºC, the latest projections from researchers at Climate Action Tracker suggest.

Dr Ruth Valerio, who is director of advocacy and influencing at Tearfund, said: “Despite some steps forward, the world is on track for 2.4ºC of global heating — subjecting millions more people to extreme heat and dangerous weather. The climate crisis is here, and people are already suffering.”

A Kenyan flower farmer, Mary Kinyua, who heads Fairtrade’s COP26 delegation, said: “It is hard to understand why the prospect of a 2.4º temperature rise has not driven world governments to deliver on the promises made in Paris. It is hard to understand why the climate finance promise of $100 billion per year is still outstanding. It is painful to see that no commitment at all has been made to pay for the unavoidable loss and damage faced by our communities.”

It is hoped that the next COP meeting, held on African soil, will reflect better the needs of those experiencing the effects of climate change.

Christian Aid’s senior Africa-policy adviser, from Kenya, Joab Okanda, said: “All eyes now turn to COP27 in Africa, which needs to do much more to put the priorities of the global south above those of the rich world and corporate profits. Hopefully, a COP led by an African nation can better prioritise the needs of those who live and experience the devastating impacts of the climate crisis every day.”

On Wednesday, a Christian climate activist from Bristol, Dr Ben Buse, was sentenced to four months in prison for blocking the M25 as part of the Insulate Britain campaign (News, 24 September). Before the hearing, he said: “We have waited too long to act on cold homes, and it cannot be a choice between going cold or destroying the planet.

“I hope and pray for much good to come out of the COP26 climate conference, but at the same time we must hold our government to account on the holes in its carbon-dioxide reduction plans and its failures to meet targets on low carbon homes as documented by the climate change committee.”

Dr Buse, who is 36, is also a member of Christian Climate Action. He continued: “As we prepare to go to prison, others will step forward to demand government action. As humans, how do we live right with one another and the earth? How do we prevent harm to lives and all life forms, acting on the timescale required?”

Read Bishop Usher’s online comment article on COP26 here

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