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General Synod digest: members confirm commitment to being net-zero by 2030

15 July 2022
Sam Atkins/Church Times

Climate activists disrupt a debate on Ukraine last Friday

Climate activists disrupt a debate on Ukraine last Friday

Net-zero roadmap

A ROUTEMAP to reach net zero carbon emissions across the whole Church by 2030 has been approved by the General Synod, after the debate was interrupted by climate activists calling for fossil-fuel disinvestment.

Introducing his motion, the Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Revd Graham Usher, the lead bishop for the environment, reminded members of the previous Synod’s support in 2020 for an amended motion to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2030, years earlier than the original plan (News, 14 February 2020). The document Routemap to Net Zero Carbon by 2030, would help the Church to achieve this ambitious goal, he said.

Every month of delay in cutting emissions would lead to suffering and death for both our “human neighbours and the rest of God’s creation”, Bishop Usher continued. Hitting net zero was a central part of the Church’s call to be stewards of creation, he said. The Routemap was pragmatic and step-by-step — a voluntary guide rather than top-down order. If hitting net zero was a list of ten things, eight of them would be straightforward, he reassured the Synod. Furthermore, the Church Commissioners had pledged £190 million to help dioceses and churches to make the changes needed to bring emissions down, he reported.

Bishop Usher recounted the remarks of a young woman from KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, who had written to him this week. She had urged the C of E to cut emissions urgently, as climate change was already causing flooding in her homeland. Concluding, Bishop Usher played a video for the Synod, which featured a series of stories from different dioceses, churches, and schools that were already taking steps to reduce their carbon footprint, including the installation of new heating systems, solar panels, and heat pumps.

The Church needed to “scale up and speed up” in this crucial decade, he said.

Canon Martin Gainsborough (Bristol), who had introduced the amendment that brought forward the net zero target to 2030 (from 2050), praised the Routemap. The Church, he suggested, was “slowly and reluctantly” coming around to the amended target. The target was within reach, even if the road was difficult.

The Revd Dr Che Seabourne (Leeds) admitted that he was sometimes a climate hypocrite, driving to meetings rather than taking the bus, staying too long in the shower and leaving lights on. But irrespective of individual failings, he continued, there was a collective responsibility on everyone to act. On top of net zero, he urged all church institutions to disinvest fully from fossil fuels as well. He urged the Synod to vote for the Routemap motion in its strongest form.

Sam Atkins/Church TimesThe Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Revd Graham Usher, who is the lead bishop for the environment

The Revd Sonia Barron (Lincoln) also backed the motion, speaking of her responsibility to act on behalf of her Christian brothers and sisters in other nations already facing climate catastrophe. She praised resources from the environmental charity A Rocha, which all churches could adopt, she said. Climate action was not a fringe interest, she argued, but central to Christian discipleship.

Clive Scowen (London) then moved his first amendment, which sought to maximise support by changing the wording to “generally endorse” the Routemap. His hope was that this would allow people who had some objections to parts of the document to still vote for it.

Bishop Usher resisted this amendment, urging the Synod not to waste time on minor semantic amendments, but to return to the substantive debate on net zero. He warned that young people were frustrated at how the Church constantly “watered down” its commitments.

Gavin Drake (Southwell & Nottingham) opposed the amendment. If the Church of England did not hit net zero by 2030, it would have been seen to have failed, he said.

Roy Faulkner (Leicester) said that the 2030 target was “naïve virtue-signalling” and that the money spent on it could be directed to funding more priests. He also suggested that poverty would increase if emissions were cut too severely, causing an economic collapse.

The Revd Graham Hamilton (Exeter) supported the amendment, and endorsing Mr Scowen’s fears that, without it, the whole motion and Routemap might stumble. He also raised concerns about adding environmental justice and theology to selection criteria for ordination.

Carl Hughes (Southwark), citing the opinion of the diocesan environmental officer, backed the amendment for similar reasons. The C of E’s emissions amounted to approximately 0.04 per cent of the UK’s total footprint, he noted. Furthermore, the largest emitters in the Church were individual churches and schools, which were not under the control of dioceses, and thus could be only encouraged to cut carbon. “We need to be realistic that we may not be able to eliminate all forms of emissions in the current timeframe,” he concluded.

The amendment was lost.

Mr Scowen then proposed a second amendment, to replace the word “structures” with “buildings and operations”, clarifying where the motion was calling on dioceses to cut emissions.

Bishop Usher again resisted for the same reasons. “Structures” was much broader than just buildings and operations, he said.

Luke Appleton (Exeter) argued that more specificity was helpful.

The Dean of Southwark, the Very Revd Andrew Nunn (Southern Deans), resisted the amendment, describing the broader term “structures” as the ideal word.

The Revd Martin Poole (Chichester) also opposed for the same reason.

This amendment was lost.

Continuing the debate on the main motion, the Bishop of Oxford, Dr Steven Croft, welcomed the routemap as the best way to take action on the climate emergency in the limited time left. The UK’s Committee on Climate Change suggested that 60 per cent of the change required was from individuals, especially in the areas of transport and buildings.

The Revd Ruth Newton (Leeds) described the 2030-target vote in 2020 as “unexpected and prophetic”. Christians could not be part of the Body of Christ and do nothing in the face of climate suffering endured by other believers around the world, she said. She praised the Routemap for offering not only ways to decarbonise the Church, but also to equip Anglicans to be environmental activists.

Prudence Dailey (Oxford) noted how life had been improved “immeasurably” by the fossil fuel-driven Industrial Revolution. She asked whether a cost-benefit analysis had been done of the routemap. What effect on global temperatures would the Church’s hitting net zero in 2030 have, she asked. The problem would be solved only by technological advances, she argued.

John Spence (Archbishops’ Council), who chairs the finance committee, said that he had been angered by the amended target in 2020, because he had worried that it was financially unattainable. He warned that it would take time to mobilise the new money released by the Commissioners, and called for patience.

Fiona Norris (Salisbury) said that the costs of meeting the 2030 target were difficult to predict, and that solar-panel costs had plummeted in recent years. The savings from decarbonisation were higher than ever before, and delaying action could in fact cost more rather than less.

Before a final vote on the motion could be called, protesters from Christian Climate Action came on to the floor of the chamber and unfurling a large banner demanding “Churches Divest Now”. The sitting was briefly adjourned while they were removed.

The motion was then clearly carried:


That this Synod, having recognised that the global climate emergency is a crisis for God’s creation, and a fundamental injustice, and following General Synod’s motion passed in February 2020 to plan to reach net zero carbon by 2030:

a) endorse the “Routemap to Net Zero Carbon by 2030” (GS 2258);

b) request every Diocesan Synod to debate the Routemap as it applies to their structures, parishes and BMOs, and to agree a feasible programme of action towards achieving net zero carbon by 2030;

c) request high energy users within the Church (every cathedral, TEI, school, office and the top 20% of energy-consuming churches) to similarly draw up a programme of action, with a clear time frame, based on the Routemap; and

d) call on the Environment staff team to report back to Synod on progress against the Routemap in 2025, 2028 and 2031, and for reports on the Church’s carbon emissions every year.

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