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Three opportunities to discuss climate change at General Synod

26 June 2023

Alamy

A Volkswagen production plant in Zwickau, Germany. The Pensions Board holds shares in the company

A Volkswagen production plant in Zwickau, Germany. The Pensions Board holds shares in the company

CLIMATE change could potentially have three outings at the meeting of the General Synod in York, if contingency business linking it with biodiversity is also taken.

First, there will be a presentation on Saturday morning by the National Investing Bodies (NIB), with an opportunity for questions. Their report on the July 2018 motion on climate change (GS2302) reiterates that fossil-fuel companies’ targets need to be aligned with the Paris Agreement in the short, medium, and long term to be credible, and that no fossil-fuel company has met the 2023 hurdles to tackling them.

Events have overtaken parts of the report, in which the lead bishop for the environment, the Bishop of Norwich, Rt Revd Graham Usher, describes excluding companies from investment as “the right next step for companies whose approach to fossil fuels no longer aligns with the Church’s and the NIBs’ values to seek justice for people and all creation.”

This is the path followed by the Church Commissioners and the Church of England Pensions Board: they announced last week the removal of Shell, BP, and other oil and gas firms from their investment portfolios, following “not just the science but our faith”, the Archbishop of Canterbury said (News, 22 June). The First Church Estates Commissioner, Alan Smith, said that the decision was “also fundamentally about a hard-headed decision that protects our assets”.

The report charts the achievements to date, including public disinvestment from 49 companies that failed to meet interim climate hurdles throughout 2020, 2021, and 2022. It details how they have responded to Climate Action 100+ (CA100+), on which the Church Commissioners have engaged with Bayer and ExonMobil, and supported multiple engagements with fossil-fuel, utilities, and chemical companies.

The Pensions Board is leading on engagements with Volkswagen, Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Renault, Anglo American and National Grid, and is a member of the engagement group with other companies in the mining, utilities, industrials, and transportation sectors.

Churches, charities, and local authorities who manage CBF funds are reported as engaging with Rio Tinto, Unilever, and companies in the utilities, consumer, and food and beverage sectors.

The report says: “When a company strengthens its climate targets, it is difficult to attribute this change directly to engagement by a single organisation.

“But the improvements across the CA100+ focus companies show that our efforts have been a significant part of the change in ambition of high-emitting companies to align with the Paris Agreement.” A table detailing the Transition Pathway Initiative’s (TPI’s) assessment of Paris alignment by oil and gas companies in the short, medium, and long term shows that none of them passed the 2023 hurdle.

A section on low-carbon investments details the Commissioners’ investment In specialist funds focusing on renewables and energy efficiency, tree-planting, wind farms, and net-zero homes.

The report concludes: “We have engaged with intent and commitment and achieved significant outcomes as a result. We have built TPI and other accountability tools that are used by the wider market, and we have led the process to create the global standard for what it means to be credibly aligned to net zero for the oil and gas sector. We have used our voice and driven change.”

“Our long term objectives to steward the assets entrusted to us on behalf of our beneficiaries and members requires us to remain a committed and active voice in global investor efforts to address climate change and related financial risks. While that voice will not be present at the AGMs of oil and gas companies, it will be in the sectors that demand energy and in public advocacy for policy and regulation to achieve the goals of the Paris agreement.”

It concludes: “Climate change remains an urgent systemic risk. In the context of our distinct investment objectives and regulatory regimes, each of the NIBs will continue to address climate change through advocacy, partnerships, and portfolio investments. We do so, inspired by the 4th and 5th marks of mission and our Christian calling.”

The report sets out in an appendix how each of the bodies believes it can influence outcomes by aligning processes, engaging actively, and investing in climate solutions.

Motion on climate emergency. On Sunday afternoon, the Bishop of Reading, the Rt Revd Olivia Graham, is due to move a motion on behalf of the Oxford diocesan synod, “Responding to the Climate Emergency”. It asks the Church to consider its investments, policies, and procedures; training for lay and ordained people; prayer and advocacy; and central support for reducing carbon emissions.

It dates back to March 2020, a history that has necessitated an explanatory note, in a separate Synod paper, from the Secretary-General, William Nye. He writes that, because it has taken until this Synod for the motion to be allocated time on the agenda, some parts of it have already started to be implemented.

The motion might appear on Sunday in a different form, but is “a reminder of the commitments of General Synod already made and outlining some new and some existing ways we must all work together to see our commitment through.”

The Oxford paper charts what the diocese has done since March 2020 towards its 2035 net-zero target, including auditing 85 per cent of its vicarages, all its schools, and more than one quarter of its churches. As a first step towards decarbonisation, it has committed to spend £10 million on environmental works to improve the carbon footprint of vicarages and to care for its clergy.

It acknowledges that the diocese’s relative wealth has enabled it to move “fast and quite far”, but also that “there is much more to be done to ensure ambition is matched with action, and strategies become reality.”

It identifies formal ministerial training as one key avenue, and advocates embedding creation care “within our overall approach to Christian formation and discipleship, and signposting or facilitating opportunities for training and capacity building for all”.

It touches on responding as Christians through prayer, advocacy, and action, and emphasises, as a particular focus, “the need to stand alongside people who have done least to cause the climate crisis but are deeply affected by its impact”.

But the scale of challenge remains enormous, it says, noting that “historic church buildings, many of which are listed and or in conservation areas, offer unique complexities that mean the transition from fossil fuels must be bespoke for each structure.”

It calls on the Government for a review of the planning process, which would involve gathering evidence about how the law is being applied on the ground, “to better understand whether the climate emergency is being given due weight in planning decisions involving renewable technologies and other sustainability measures”.

It concludes: “The task is both large and increasingly urgent. We are encouraged by the progress that is being made but there is much more still to do, and we must work together united in purpose and conviction to bring about change.”

Biodiversity in contingency business. A “Land and Nature” motion is included in contingency business in case space in the timetable opens up. It is intended to bring biodiversity up the agenda of the C of E’s overall environment programme, “so that it is given equal consideration with net zero, recognising the need to respond urgently to the ecological crisis, in line with the global scientific consensus that the climate change and biodiversity loss crises are intricately linked and with our desire to care for creation”.

Biodiversity loss and climate change are both driven by human economic activities and mutually reinforce each other: “Neither will be successfully resolved unless both are tackled together,” it says.

The paper outlines the three categories of land held or managed at parish level, diocesan glebe, and the national and international holdings of the Church Commissioners. It also makes reference to cathedrals among other church properties that have land, together with TIEs and NCI offices.

“This motion is designed to complement the developing net zero world that has already been agreed by Synod and which dioceses are beginning to implement,” it concludes.

“The timing in July will seek to embed biodiversity as part of diocesan environment work as they grow their plans, supported by guidance that would be published shortly on managing Glebe land for nature.

“It would also build on the public on the policy/public interest generated about the subject through the People’s Plan for Nature and the BBC Wild Isles series.”

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