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Environmental Challenge Diocesan Synod report 2012

This page reproduces the progress report of the Head of Environmental Challenge to Diocesan Synod on 17 July 2012.

Synod report, 17 July 2012

There are times when hope seems to fade that humankind will make any serious effort to grapple with the problems we face for our environment – which is God’s creation, but abused and exploited by us. Yet it is at such times that a fresh glimmer of light begins to shine, encouraging us to persevere.

Make no mistake, the challenges to the environment and sustainability worldwide remain acute.

Probably the most severe, climate change – which may soon begin a frightening acceleration – places us all in grave peril.

Peak stuff

However there are some places (the UK among them) where improvement is being registered, even though the trend is still negative worldwide. While there are other indicators on which some progress is being made across the world as a whole.

An interesting paper entitled Peak Stuff, by Chris Goodall (also the author of ‘Ten Technologies to Save the Planet’), shows how in the UK we may have begun to detach consumption from economic growth. Chris Goodall’s paper was expounded in a recent ‘Just Share’ lecture by the respected environmentalist and author Mark Lynas, at St Mary-le-Bow.

Since Prof Tim Jackson’s powerful thesis ‘Prosperity without Growth’, it has become conventional green wisdom that growth per se is not sustainable. Increasingly this is being questioned (though the addiction of the political and economic elites to growth at any cost, as the one and only ‘sustainable’ paradigm, remains deeply suspect).


So it appears that in the UK we are not after all consuming more and more to feed our inexorable appetite for goods and comforts. Or are we? More likely we do still crave our shiny new toys but they are smaller with less metal and plastic in them, and we can procure them more efficiently. Even, it would seem, after outsourcing their production to the Far East.

Most strikingly perhaps, the UK’s carbon emissions have generally been falling during the period since about 1973! Our energy use has been falling too. Appliances of all kinds have become more efficient. The relative emissions per unit of energy have plummeted – mainly due to the replacement of coal and coal gas with natural gas. And of course, UK based industry has declined (though not as much as is often claimed).

Our use of energy is probably still growing in some areas – eg domestic electricity use, as the Energy-Saving Trust’s most recent report Powering the Nation has analysed in fascinating detail.


So we can’t afford to relax our efforts one little bit (unless there is an oxymoron in making an effort to save energy).

We have much, much further to go.

The UK’s average carbon footprint per head may have fallen below 10 tonnes per annum. It still needs to fall to 2 tonnes at most by 2050, and after that still further – even down to ½ tonne or less by the late 21st Century!

Pulling with the tide?

Still it’s good to know that perhaps we may, after all, in the UK, in some sense, be pulling with the tide not against it!

Above all, we must not lose sight of the moral and spiritual imperative to ‘live more lightly on the earth’. We must remain focussed on the demands of justice in an increasingly unequal world.

What do we mean by ‘living more lightly’? Here are some headlines:

  • Dr Chris Smith reckons the Earth is getting about 50,000 tonnes lighter a year;
  • British people are on average nearly three stone (19 kg) heavier than 50 years ago;
  • The human population’s weight has been estimated at 316 million tons!

The quest for more

But clearly we are not speaking of mere avoir-dupois.

As the Bishop of London has written:

“… Robert Skidelsky, the economic historian, and his son Edward, an academic philosopher, argue that the problem of the non fulfilment of Keynes’s second prophecy [that we would learn to use our extra leisure to live ‘wisely and agreeably and well’], is material insatiability. The incessant quest for more and more – higher incomes, faster growth – is robbing us of the good life rather than helping us attain it.

“The success of the first prophecy (a four to eightfold increase in the standard of living) contributed to the power and plausibility of the old narrative which saw happiness as a by-product of a project of growth without limit with no end in view beyond the process itself. The vastly increased wealth in the world has lifted millions out of demeaning poverty and should not be despised. There is still very much to do in liberating the poor of the world from toil and scarcity and a large part of the complexity of the theme … of ‘global responsibility and environmental sustainability’ flows from the need to balance over consumption in one part of the world and chronic poverty in other parts.

“We have reached a point in the over-consuming part of the world where the excessive focus on more and more has numbed our awareness of what else beyond material satisfaction is necessary for us to lead valuable lives. This in turn has undermined the possibility of the shift in behaviour that is necessary if we are to share the fruits of the earth more equitably.”

Brighter picture

The picture for our churches holds out a similar message of profound challenge, admixed with some encouragement.

The Bishop in his Maundy Sunday sermon highlighted our work on energy-saving as one of the highlights of the last 5 years.

Our report Brighter picture of church energy use shows how we may – just – be on track to achieve our interim target of 20.12% savings in emissions from churches by this year (we’ll know next year when we analyse the figures from Parish Annual Returns which are collected in arrears).

Progress on our clergy housing – as we move towards 100% coverage of home energy reports and resulting small scale improvements – also looks promising.

Broader picture

It is good to be able to hold onto such hopeful signs locally – as far as they go – as we widen our gaze to take in the efforts of the leaders of nations whenever they gather to deliberate on a sustainable future for our world as a whole.

This broader picture, I am afraid, is less than inspiring.


Let us cite two such occasions in the recent past – the first being the UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio De Janeiro from 20th to 22nd June.

Rio+20 (as it is known) was not exactly a failure – yet the best it could deliver was an anodyne litany of generalities, with no ‘SMART’ objectives attached to any of them.

Here are some excerpts from the Rio Outcome Document:

"Eradicating poverty is the greatest global challenge facing the world today."

"We also reaffirm the need to achieve sustainable development by promoting sustained, inclusive and equitable economic growth."

"We recognize that fundamental changes in the way societies consume and produce are indispensable for achieving global sustainable development."

"We reaffirm our commitments regarding the right of everyone to have access to safe, sufficient and nutritious food."

"We recognize that water is at the core of sustainable development as it is closely linked to a number of key global challenges. We therefore reiterate the importance of integrating water in sustainable development and underline the critical importance of water and sanitation within the three dimensions of sustainable development."

"We commit to systematically consider population trends and projections in our national, rural and urban development strategies and policies."

"We recognize that, if they are well planned and developed, including through integrated planning and management approaches, cities can promote economically, socially and environmentally sustainable societies."

"We reaffirm that climate change is one of the greatest challenges of our time, and we express profound alarm that emissions of greenhouse gases continue to rise globally."

"We recognize the critical role that energy plays in the development process…"

"We stress the importance of the conservation and sustainable use of the oceans and seas and of their resources."

"We highlight the social, economic and environmental benefits of forests to people."

"We reaffirm the intrinsic value of biological diversity, as well as the ecological, genetic, social, economic, scientific, educational, cultural, recreational and aesthetic values of biological diversity."

"We reaffirm our commitments to the right to education…"

"We resolve to unlock the potential of women…"

"We call for disaster risk reduction and the building of resilience to disasters to be addressed with a renewed sense of urgency…"

It’s mostly all there – sort of. Unfortunately there is a sense of unreality around such platitudes. We have heard the same sentiments before, but they have not been matched by delivery. Are we in danger of speaking peace where there is no peace, filling pots with holes in them?

Sustainable development plans

Nations are now to produce sustainable development plans in 3 years – yet some of the richest and most powerful (and also the fastest developing) are already resisting any development of hard targets upon the ‘Durban platform’ since the last UN Conference on Climate Change.

2015 is the next key deadline – it is perilously late.

Meanwhile, the G20 (the second occasion just referred to), which could wield such influence, is sadly preoccupied with the travails of the Euro.

Progress and challenges

Not all is so disappointing – there have been worldwide gains since 1972 and 1992, eg on acid rain, on the ozone hole. Even on some of the Millennium Development Goals.

Challenges which remain include on energy demand, population pressure, poverty, food and water, and environmental threats especially climate change – as we have noted.

I made a tick list of environmental stresses for our new web page An interconnected world, before Rio, before seeing its text even in draft. Of the 12 indicators I set out, I might now rate them as:

  • Critical: None quite yet (if we’re lucky)
  • Extreme: At least one (de-glaciation)
  • Severe: Two (global warming and climate change; food and water availability and quality)
  • Significant: (Seven others)
  • Mild, neutral or improving: (The remaining two).

This is a personal assessment, while intended to reflect a degree of consensus. A survey of environmental concerns and our responses to them can also be read at Caring for Creation. We have taken pains to be up to date with the latest science. Be assured, and be prepared to assure others, we know what we are talking about when diagnosing the problems we face, and prescribing our own contribution towards the necessary remedies. There is little room for complacency.


So what have we been doing, as the Church in London in partnership with others at home and overseas, to ‘rise to the level of events’ (a Churchillian phrase)?

ALMA’s latest newsletter (also see ALMA and the Environment) speaks of St Bernard Mizeki Church near Maputo in Mozambique, beside the Infulene valley, which grows most of the vegetables for the city. The Infulene channel retains stagnant water, becoming a source of mosquitoes and malaria, and associated with cholera during the rainy season. The big market of T3 generates problems of waste management and homelessness. A new church building is under construction, which it is hoped to use not only for services, but also for projects responding to the challenges of the area.

Stephanie Hubbard will join me on the platform, briefly to survey the involvement of Christian Aid, another of our key partnerships, in lightening the burdens of our fellow human beings, children of the same Maker, around the globe.

Tearfund also is engaged with many of our parishes and churches. Its latest newsletter calls attention to the drought and famine in the Sahel of Sub-Saharan Africa. And see Common Cause.

The home front

We have been active on the home front too. Two years ago when Synod established the Diocesan Environmental Policy, it noted a report on Work so Far. That’s as it was then. And we have continued to make steady progress.

Highlights include our Route 2050 long-term plan, launched in May 2011 by the Bishop in St Peter’s Eaton Square.

And the completion of the award winning new parsonage at St John Wembley, our first zero-carbon house. And the RIBA award winning extension to St Paul Hammersmith, with its energy piles and green roof.

A revised version of our Environmental work so far report is attached.

Encouragement and realism

Let’s be encouraged then, while remaining realistic. Let’s all accept the challenge to persevere, every parish and every church member cooperating to fulfil the Fifth Mark of Mission: ‘To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation, and sustain and renew the life of the earth.’

FOUND UNDER : Shrinking the Footprint
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