In 2020, the Church of England committed to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2030. The Church in Wales, the Methodist Church, and others, have made similar commitments.
What does Net Zero mean?
We know we need to reduce carbon emissions as far and as fast as possible across every sector of the economy and society to slow climate change and limit its impacts. While the government has the greatest power to drive change, every organisation is responsible for doing what it can and the Church has much to contribute to this task, from demonstrating change in the community to the number of members speaking up for change. At least in the short term though, as the Church of England acknowledges, getting to Net Zero is not simple and could be prohibitively costly for many local churches – for example draughty old churches with small congregations.
If churches, and indeed the country, are to achieve Net Zero, it’s important to understand what exactly it means. The Church of England defines Net Zero Carbon as ‘the reduction as far as possible of all in-scope carbon emissions (from the oil, gas and electricity we use in our buildings and petrol and diesel transport) and the removal of an equivalent amount of carbon from the atmosphere for the remaining in-scope emissions by use of accredited offsetting schemes.’ So far, the Church of England has excluded its land from scope, though this is to be reviewed by 2026. Even so, it’s a massive and ambitious aim, even if they are left with up to 10% of emissions to offset. And offsetting itself is increasingly controversial because of questions about the effectiveness and credibility of some offsetting projects and methods.
What does Net Zero have to do with the Church as the body of Christ?
The Church of England and others have committed to a net zero target in an accelerating climate emergency, which impacts the whole of creation and is especially unjust to the poor and future generations. This is the context in which we live and preach the gospel, and there is a clear link to Christian mission and the Church’s future growth. How can we love our neighbour, care for the poor and encourage new believers if we do not also protect and restore the environment upon which we all ultimately depend?
Since 2016, A Rocha UK’s Eco Church scheme has made significant progress in encouraging local churches to care for creation as a core tenet of faith and to integrate this across every aspect of church life. It has played a significant role in enabling congregations across all denominations to embrace the responsibility of creation care and to see it as an expression of love for God and others, including the natural world.
In Laudato Si, Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical, he invited readers to commit to an ‘ecological conversion’, a transformation of hearts and minds, no less. Eco Church helps churches to enable that transformation and deliver measurable change in a way that is theologically rich and driven from the grassroots. Our ’hearts and minds’ approach makes the sometimes challenging steps towards Net Zero more likely to progress faster, and be sustained, from people’s convictions of what is theologically and morally right and, put simply, from their love of God, each other and creation.
We believe this is a much more effective way to generate enthusiasm and ensure continued progress, and we hope that, as well as delivering carbon reduction, it will contribute to a Church that is more environmentally literate and aware. The Eco Church ethos is to embed creation care, of which carbon reduction is a key but not the only part, into everyday church life. This is what young people, who are the Church’s future, expect.
How can this be achieved in practice?
Caring for creation and reaching Net Zero are something for all of us to play a part in, not as a project to be implemented but as an attitude to life, as part of obedience to and worship of our creator God, including service to others. Though this may take time, it also leads to a deeper focus on our beliefs and values, which is a benefit to the wider mission of the Church. Eco Church provides a comprehensive framework for facilitating local church congregations to do this together. For example:
– Eco Church starts, through worship and teaching, with a recognition of whose world it is and our place in it; and encourages a response embracing joy and lament
-The programme encourages easy wins on carbon reduction: switching to green energy tariffs, upgrading to LED lighting, and using the Eco Church survey as a planning tool for example.
-Eco Church also encourages engagement with other churches of all denominations, our wider communities and political structures.
-The programme encompasses sources of greenhouse gas emissions currently not included in denominations’ own plans (often limited in scope to one or two sources of direct energy usage), preparing the way for additional progress in, for example, personal lifestyle and land management.
-Eco Church is becoming a ‘movement’ of people wanting to effect change, exchanging learning as they go, supporting each other in challenges and celebrating breakthroughs, including reaching the next award level (bronze, silver and gold)
A Rocha UK’s approach to Eco Church is one of facilitating the movement, encouraging a learning community, and ensuring that the programme behind it is dynamic, continuously developing to keep up with the science and options for action. Later this year, for example, we will review the survey to ensure that churches are encouraged to take the most effective carbon-reducing actions now available, and are rewarded for doing so.