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Guarded welcome for Church’s plan for reducing carbon emissions

01 July 2022

Document sets out ways to reach target by 2030 deadline

Diocese of Sheffield

THE Church of England’s new plan for reducing carbon emissions to net zero by 2030 has been welcomed by environmental experts. But questions have been raised about the omission of the Church Commissioners’ land and fossil-fuel holdings.

In the past three months, there have been devastating floods in Bangladesh, and scorching heatwaves in Europe and South Asia. In the Horn of Africa, a prolonged drought has left millions on the brink of famine.

The document Routemap to Net Zero Carbon by 2030 sets out a plan for the Church to reduce its emissions and prevent its activities’ contributing to the climate crisis by the end of the decade. The document sets out a vision: “We see a future in 2030 where the buildings of the Church will be warm, bright and welcoming, powered by renewable energy and using low or zero carbon technologies for heat and light.

“Energy consumption for the Church as a whole will have fallen, on-site renewable energy generation will have increased, travel will be by low carbon means and carbon emissions will be less than 10% of those now, offset in verified schemes.”

The plan involves churches’ using less energy as well as cleaner sources, and highlights “quick wins”, such as reducing energy demand, tackling damp, fixing broken windows, preventing heat loss, and improving energy efficiency by replacing light bulbs with LEDs. The document also encourages forward planning for bigger projects, such as solar panels and heat pumps. The plan says: “We recognise the vital importance of decarbonising heat since any new oil/gas boiler installed now will outlast 2030.”

Reducing unnecessary travel and encouraging sustainable transport will also help to reduce the Church’s carbon footprint, it says. The Routemap identifies a “travel hierarchy (from best to worst)” to encourage less polluting choices: walking, cycling, public transport, shared journeys, electric cars, fuel-efficient cars, less efficient cars, ferries, flights.

A senior associate at the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit, Richard Black, was impressed by the plan. He said: “The Routemap is a beautifully pragmatic document, showing both why and how the Church is going to reach net zero by 2030. It demystifies the process into straightforward, sensible steps that anyone can identify with, and shows how, in many cases, these will bring added benefits in the form of lower energy bills or reduced air pollution. It is also sound scientifically, in limiting the use of offsets to a maximum of ten per cent.

“I see this not only as a potent road map for the Church, but also as a model that other bodies could use for planning their own routes to net zero. It need not be a hard journey, and this shows us exactly the kinds of practical steps that can get us there.”

Diocese of SheffieldA dog walks in the garden at Bishopscroft, Sheffield, on Saturday of last week, during a party hosted by the Bishop, Dr Pete Wilcox, with the theme “creation care, eco-church, and upcycling”

The chief executive of A Rocha UK, Andy Atkins, was also supportive. “It is great that the Church of England have produced a route map; it’s likely to help other denominations also looking to step up action on climate change. We are all in uncharted territory, and no doubt they will learn as they go. We look forward to working with them to support through EcoChurch and A Rocha UK’s other programmes.”

There has been criticism, however, of the exclusion of the land and investment portfolio of the Church Commissioners, including shares in fossil-fuel companies, from the strategy. There will also be a review in 2025 to decide whether other church land will be included in the net-zero target.

The author and campaigner Guy Shrubsole described this as “hugely disappointing”. He said: “That’s about 105,000 acres of Commissioner land in England out of the picture to help the Church reach net zero by 2030, leaving dioceses having to rely on their much smaller and more scattered estates, plus the comparatively tiny amounts of land owned by cathedrals and to be found in churchyards.

“If the Church of England is to reach net zero by 2030, the idea that you can twiddle your thumbs for half a decade before deciding whether to start fixing your biggest natural-carbon sinks is utterly bizarre.

“The emphasis seems, as ever, to be on the small stuff: managing churchyards rather than restoring nature over the vast areas of land owned by the Commissioners. It’s like obsessing about changing light bulbs whilst ignoring Shell drilling for oil.

“What’s happening to the 5000 acres of degraded peat the Commissioners own in the Fens, leaking carbon into the air at an alarming rate? There’s no mention of peat at all. What’s being done to support church farm tenants to increase the amounts of scrub and trees on their farms, providing fruit and shelter for livestock alongside huge co-benefits for biodiversity and climate? The Routemap is silent on this.”

Diocese of SheffieldUpcycled items on sale

He is also critical of the document’s statement that it is not reasonable to include landholdings in the target where “Church organisations do not have the ability to directly change the management of it”. Mr Shrubsole said: “This is mere buck-passing. Church organisations are the landlords of this land, write the tenancy agreements, and revise tenancies when they come up for renewal, as the Routemap itself states. They have great sway over what their tenants can and cannot do, including whether they are supported in applying for grants for woodland creation, wood pasture, and peat restoration.”

The Routemap will be put to the General Synod when it meets in York next week. Alongside the strategy, an online resource hub includes case studies and videos showing practical action that already being taken in churches, cathedrals, schools, and clergy housing.

The Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Revd Graham Usher, who is the lead bishop for the environment, said: “There is no question that achieving net zero carbon by 2030 is an almighty challenge, but this detailed Routemap, that has been developed in partnership across the whole Church, sets out a practical and pragmatic way to making this a reality.

“This is a crucial decade for the planet, and I want to approach the challenge of net zero carbon with a hope-filled realism that we can achieve this together.”

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