AS PRESIDENT BIDEN hosted a two-day world leaders’ summit, which began on Thursday, announcing a new national plan to tackle climate change under the Paris climate accord, it has emerged that the Church Commissioners have opted out of a decision last year by the General Synod, calling on the Church to reduce its carbon emissions to net zero by 2030 (News, 14 February 2020).
The motion in the Synod covered “all parts of the Church of England”, including the National Church Institutions (NCIs), of which the Commissioners are one.
Among the Commissioners’ £8.7-billion-worth of assets are nearly 100,000 acres of forestry holdings, which could contribute as a carbon sink in this equation; but they have argued that a target of net zero by 2050 is “more realistic” for their investment portfolio.
A spokesperson for the Commissioners said: “As an asset owner with holdings across all aspects of the global economy, the Church Commissioners do not have direct operational control of the assets in their portfolio. Therefore, their journey to net zero is reliant on influencing change in the economy and policy environment as a whole, rather than implementing carbon-saving measures themselves.
“The Commissioners focus on using their influence as a responsible investor to engage companies and policy makers on setting and supporting net zero targets, thus bringing more constituents of their portfolio on to the same decarbonisation pathway.”
The Commissioners this week announced that they intended to reduce the carbon intensity of their investment portfolio by 25 per cent from 2019 levels by 2025, describing this as “a realistic goal”.
In January, they joined the UN-convened Asset Owner Alliance (AOA), which has a formal commitment to reaching net greenhouse-gas emissions by 2050.
Campaigners expressed shock at the opt-out from the 2030 target.
Rachel Mander, a member of the Young Christian Climate Network, argued that the Commissioners had swapped “a call for change with a call to gradualism”.
“For those of us who will be in our thirties when the world likely reaches 1.5º warming, it is not just a disappointment but a horror that the Church Commissioners are exempting themselves.”
The Chaplain to the Bishop of Bristol, Canon Martin Gainsborough, who tabled the successful Synod amendment bringing the net-zero target to 2030, said that he understood the balancing act of the Commissioners, “fulfilling their fiduciary duty of supporting the mission of the Church of England with simultaneously working to drive down global carbon emissions”.
None the less, he said, “where the NCIs are engaging with companies and policy-makers to encourage them to extend their decarbonisation targets, it would be good to hear more about the practical difference their engagement is making.
“In sum, transparency is key, and the more ambitious the Church of England can be, the better.”
The Bishop of Manchester, Dr David Walker, who is deputy chairman of the Church Commissioners’ Board of Governors, said this week that it would be “almost impossible” for the Commissioners to ensure that their investment portfolio was carbon-neutral by 2030. He defended their approach of engaging with polluting companies.
“It’s part of our strategy to engage. We do divest from companies that have shown they aren’t engaging. If you look at the leadership we’re showing on climate change, we’re not the laggards, we’re at the leading edge,” he said.
Other long-term investors, some with much bigger portfolios than the Commissioner’s £8-billion fund, have set more ambitious targets: the South Yorkshire Pension Fund seeks to be carbon neutral by 2030; the £55-billion BT Pension Scheme has set a 2035 target; the University of Cambridge plans to have its investments net zero by 2038; and Aviva has set a target date of 2040.
Wolfgang Kuhn, of the campaign group ShareAction, said that Aviva’s commitment “disturbs the convenient consensus that treats 2050 as a God-given deadline that, if met, will solve the climate crisis. . . Aviva makes clear that swifter action is both necessary and possible.”
The Commissioners’ engagement strategy is exemplified by its response to an announcement from Shell, which is holding a non-binding vote by shareholders next month about its energy-transition strategy. The director of ethics and engagement for the Church of England Pensions Board, Adam Matthews, said that they would be backing Shell’s plan: “With this latest important step in Shell’s transition from an oil and gas producer to be an energy company, a multidecadal transition is clearly under way.”
Shell had asked shareholders to vote against a resolution by a group of activist investors, Follow This, which called for more rigorous short-term plans. In an open letter to shareholders, including the Church, the campaign group outlined its criticism of Shell’s plan, saying that the company intended to increase gas production by 20 per cent: “Shell’s emission reduction targets are intensity-based rather than absolute and, despite the need to wind down oil and gas production, the company plans to continue to invest billions of dollars in upstream oil and gas and excludes petrochemicals from its targets.
“Shell plans to increase its gas production significantly, to reach over half of its business by 2030. Shell justifies such high levels of fossil-fuel production betting on an improbable scale-up of carbon capture and storage and use of offsets.”
This message was echoed by the Bright Now campaign manager at Operation Noah, James Buchanan: “There are major issues with Shell’s plans to rely heavily on carbon-offsetting, which is problematic from an environmental and human-rights perspective. These plans are Paris-defiant, not Paris-compliant.”
The World Meteorological Organization, in State of the Global Climate, published on Tuesday, reported that global mean surface temperature was now 1.2ºC above pre-industrial levels of global warming — “dangerously close” to the 1.5ºC target in the Paris Agreement. “We are on the verge of the abyss,” the UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, said on announcing the report’s findings.
The International Energy Agency also warned that it expected emissions to rise at the second-highest rate in history as the world economy rebounded from Covid-19, despite calls for a green recovery. Research from Green New Deal UK this week, however, suggested that a green-stimulus plan could create 1.2 million jobs in the UK in two years, replacing every job lost to the pandemic.
Other parts of the Church are embracing the General Synod’s net-zero motion. The diocese of Manchester, which has Bronze Eco Diocese status, declared a climate emergency at its diocesan synod last month, and has announced plans to deliver year-on-year carbon reductions to reach net zero by 2030. Its priorities also include the use of, and investment in, renewable energy, and for every church to secure eco-church accreditation.
The Bishop of Bolton, the Rt Revd Mark Ashcroft, who is the diocese’s lead for environmental issues, pointed to the UN climate summit, COP26, to be held in the UK in November, as particular reason for UK institutions to act: “I am thrilled that Manchester diocesan synod overwhelmingly supported the far-reaching motion that was put before us on the climate emergency.
“Now the hard work begins to put our words into action, beginning with clear plans, a good understanding of what our carbon footprint actually is, and encouraging all churches, schools, chaplaincies, and other diocesan bodies to join in the journey to net carbon zero. COP26 in Glasgow provides an extra incentive to step up our game on our God-given responsibility to care for the environment.”
At its Governing Body last week, the Church in Wales announced that it would divest from fossil fuels as part of its aim to reach net zero by 2030. The Bishop of St Davids, Dr Joanna Penberthy, said: “Today the Governing Body has joined many others and declared a climate emergency. We have tasked our climate-change champion, Julia Edwards, to prepare us an action plan by April 2022, so we can reach net carbon zero by 2030. The Governing Body began today by reducing our investments in fossil fuels.”
Before the US-hosted world leaders’ summit that began yesterday, designated as Earth Day, more than 100 companies wrote an open letter to President Biden calling on him to set formally a path of achieving net-zero emissions by 2050. The companies ranged from from small enterprises to multinationals, and included McDonalds, Unilever, Nike, and Walmart.
In the UK, the Government announced on Tuesday that it would adopt the recommendations of its formal climate advisers, legislating for a 78-per-cent reduction in emissions by 2035 from 1990 levels. It also confirmed that this figure, in its sixth Carbon Budget to be made law by the end of June, would cover emissions from the aviation and shipping industries.
Greenpeace welcomed the move, but said that it made government plans for more road-building and airport expansion hard to justify. “Targets are much easier to set than they are to meet; so the hard work begins now.”
Joe Ware is Senior Climate Journalist at Christian Aid.
Read more on the C of E and climate change in our feature