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Church Commissioners’ portfolio ‘absorbs more greenhouse gases than it emits’

05 July 2023

Research published on sustainability of Commissioners’ £2.5 billion of real assets

Church Commissioners

An image from the report

An image from the report

THE forestry portfolio of the Church Commissioners is offsetting the vast carbon emissions of their land assets — but more work is needed to improve overall sustainability in the long term, new research suggests.

In the report Our Approach to Sustainability for Real Assets, published on Tuesday, the Commissioners estimate that their real assets portfolio is worth more than £2.5 billion. Most of this is land (60 per cent) and the remainder is built environment and infrastructure (40 per cent). This includes farmland, forestry, and glebe land and commercial and residential properties respectively.

The report, which assesses the environmental impact of this portfolio over the past two years, explains: “Land and buildings are significant contributors to global emissions with the built environment estimated to comprise 30% of global emissions and farming in the UK contributing around 10% of total UK emissions. At the same time, Real Assets can help mitigate the risks of climate change through carbon sequestration and renewable energy, as well as provide for critical needs of society, including housing, care, nature protection and food production.

“Although we cannot achieve these objectives on our own, the role we play to support climate resilience and adaptation, as land and building owners, is significant.”

The Commissioners estimate that their investments in land and built environments are “absorbing or avoiding more greenhouse gases than they are emitting”.

Farmland — all 82,000 acres of it — is the biggest carbon emitter: 112,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide in the two years to 2022, when this research was conducted. Dairy farming was the largest relative contributor due to methane emissions from cows.

Church CommissionersAn image from the report

The Commissioners’ forestry portfolio was estimated to have absorbed 116,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide in the same period. “This includes the benefit of carbon stored in harvested wood products that was estimated to be a discounted 89,000 [tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent] (as wood, especially in construction, continues to store carbon post harvesting),” the report says. “The level of net sequestration is expected to increase as planted trees absorb more carbon.”

On these forestry assets — 92,000 acres, most of which is in the United States (just one quarter is in the UK) — the Commissioners write that “100% of our forests are now certified as sustainable. We have planted more than 12 million trees in the past five years, while doubling the area of native woodland across our forests in the UK.”

Achieving a fully sustainable farming portfolio is an ongoing challenge the report suggests. In 2022, the Asset Management team had visited half its 136 equipped farms in the portfolio to “meet our farming tenants and discuss their businesses, environmental aspirations and identify potential future initiatives”.

Land for future development was emitting a comparatively modest 100 tonnes of CO2. Earlier this year — and again in this report — the Commissioners state that they have set aside development land to build 30,000 homes of which 9000 are to be affordable (News, 13 April).

The report also claims that the Commissioners’ “infrastructure investments, that predominantly focus on green energy, are helping to avoid emissions. We emphasise this is an estimate and a starting point. It does not diminish our focus on reducing emissions across our portfolio.” The Commissioners had invested more than £250 million in green infrastructure or social impact initiatives, the report says.

Despite the offsets, the Commissioners write: “We recognise, nonetheless, we have high levels of emissions overall, especially from farming, and need to play an active role in reducing these.”

Challenges and questions remain on improving the sustainability of these portfolios, such as balancing food production and biodiversity; how to handle data collection, legal and contractual rights; charitable status and obligations of the Commissioners under its missional constitution; and “how close can we get to net zero farming?”

The Commissioners emphasise: “None of this represents a barrier to progressing sustainable stewardship of the Real Assets portfolio. To the contrary, a big part of our approach is embracing and finding solutions to such challenges and hurdles.”

The report lists a series of “next steps” to improve the sustainability of real assets. This includes continuing sustainable timber production; advancing renewable energy developments; carbon sequestration; and planting new woodlands.

The Commissioners also intend to “advocate best practice projects in areas such as carbon accounting” and to “plant two diverse, new woodlands” in Scotland and Wales. They were exploring opportunities for mitigation banking in Georgia to restore streams and wetlands.

The Commissioners’ Head of Sustainability for Real Assets, Paul Jaffe, said: “We recognise the importance of sustainability in our Real Assets portfolio — both for the portfolio itself, and also as a representation of who we are as responsible investors. This report demonstrates our approach to sustainability and shows how that translates into action on the ground.”

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