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Opinion: Net Zero should be an urgent priority, not a political football

20 September 2023

Don’t despair about the climate crisis — act together to bring change, argues Graham Usher


Climate campaigners from CAFOD, Christian Climate Action, and other groups unveil a “blue plaque” outside the London offices of Shell, last Friday

Climate campaigners from CAFOD, Christian Climate Action, and other groups unveil a “blue plaque” outside the London offices of Shell, last Friday

“But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (Amos 5.24)

THIS cry from the Prophet Amos, almost 3000 years ago, still needs to be spoken in our world today. During the Season of Creation, will we heed this call to join the river of justice and peace, to pursue climate and ecological justice, and to speak out with and for communities most impacted by climate change and the loss of biodiversity?

This season offers an opportunity to pray and respond together to the cry of creation, as Christians around the world unite to listen and care for our common home. The season began on 1 September, the World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation, and ends on 4 October, the feast of St Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of ecology. The theme this year is “Let justice and peace flow”.

Just as tributaries come together to form a mighty river, every person, family or Christian community can be part of this great movement.

This is also the season for celebrating Harvest Festival in many churches. As we give thanks for God’s gift of the fruit of the earth, so this can be a time to renew our commitment to caring for the earth.

The ill-health of our common home is all too apparent in our daily news bulletins. This year has seen weeks of record-breaking heat, coinciding with deadly storms. July was the hottest month ever recorded, with the global average temperature reaching 16.95°C, some 0.33°C higher than the previous record set in 2019.

The weeks-long heatwaves and record-breaking temperatures fuelled deadly wildfires. At least 115 people died in Hawaii owing to wildfires in August. Other countries were simultaneously deluged with rain. Health officials sounded alarms from North America to Europe and Asia. New data is showing that the Arctic ice-sheet is thinning twice as fast as previously thought. We continue to see fewer insects.

More than three billion people worldwide now live in places that are vulnerable to climate breakdown. As things get worse, there will be more human misery, compounded by violence, war, and migration.

“The extreme weather which has affected many millions of people in July is unfortunately the harsh reality of climate change and a foretaste of the future,” the World Meteorological Organization secretary-general, Professor Petteri Taalas, said. “Action on climate change is no longer a luxury but a must.”

The Pope added his voice at the end of his Angelus message to crowds in St Peter’s Square, in July, saying: “Please, I renew my appeal to world leaders to do something more concrete to limit polluting emissions. It is an urgent challenge, it cannot be postponed, it concerns everyone. Let us protect our common home.”

The need to act is urgent, but not too late. Scientists from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a “final warning” on the climate crisis in a report earlier this year. We can act to limit carbon emissions, but we must do it now.

YET, it appears that our political leaders lack the will to enact change, and that Net Zero is being used as a political football in advance of the next General Election.

Last month, when wildfires were in the news, the Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, committed to granting more than 100 licences for North Sea oil and gas extraction. The Prime Minister has announced a delay to some of the Government’s biggest Net Zero commitments, including the ban on new petrol and diesel cars, and phasing out gas boilers. In May, Sir Keir Starmer committed to halt new oil and gas exploration in the North Sea; however, Labour has since confirmed that it would not revoke the subsequent licences announced by Mr Sunak.

If the politicians want any environmental credibility, at home and on the world stage, it is time to take action now, not delay and procrastinate, storing up even more problems for future generations. How short-sighted. Our Christian calling to seek justice for our neighbour means we need to do all we can to try to turn the tide.

Our motivation for action and engagement is one that is deeply rooted in justice for humanity and the whole of creation. There is a hunger and thirst for righteousness in the Kingdom of God. It is this hunger and thirst that drives us to care for human beings, made in the image of God, who are suffering, and will suffer, owing to climate change. It is this hunger and thirst that drives us to care about the whole diversity of creation with which we share our single island planet home. Nature flourishes when humans adopt a more responsible attitude towards it, and human flourishing depends upon nature flourishing.

I believe that, together, we can find solutions, and be exemplars of low-carbon and high-biodiversity living. I believe that we all have a part to play in caring for the web of creation, and seeking justice for the world’s poorest people who are least able to adapt to, or mitigate, the impacts of climate change.

THE Church of England has a target to reach net zero by 2030. I would encourage all our congregations to sign up to the A Rocha UK scheme “Eco-Church”. It helps churches reduce their carbon emissions by enabling us to reflect on all aspects of our life: worship and teaching, managing buildings, managing land, community and global engagement, and lifestyle.

Welling up from our prayer, many of us will want to take time during this Season of Creation to ask our elected representatives to fulfil their promises. These include funds promised at global meetings for the most vulnerable communities, and commitments to halt biodiversity loss and to nurture its recovery.

There is always the temptation simply to despair. Perhaps our biggest task as Christians is to keep hope-filled realism alive. This hears the cry of the poor and the groaning of creation. But it also hears, sees, smells, touches, and tastes the wonder of God’s world, as the Psalmists did in speaking of “the heavens are telling the glory of God and the firmament proclaims his handiwork” (Psalm 19.1).

To be re-inspired by the wonder of creation leads us, with a thankful heart, to seek actions that give hope shape. If the resurrection teaches us anything, it is that hope can emerge from the darkest places of desolation where all is uncertain.

Responding to the climate and biodiversity emergencies is not an optional interest for the ministry of the Church: it is an imperative for the mission of God’s Church.


The Rt Revd Graham Usher is the Bishop of Norwich and lead bishop for the environment.

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