No-one disputes the Christian imperative to care for the environment: the stewardship of creation is a matter of generational justice and moral responsibility. In the vast web of nature and the intricate tapestry of life, all creatures have a purpose, and ours is to honour God in sharing love and singing canticles which remind us of our place in the cosmos: ‘All Creatures of our God and King / Life up your voice and with us sing…‘
Amidst all the floods and flames currently afflicting the world, attention has turned to global warming. You may demur at the phenomenon, or at least the notion of anthropological causation, but carbon dioxide is deemed to be the cause of the warming, and a ‘climate emergency‘ has been declared by the UK Government, which has pledged reach zero-carbon emissions by 2050. The financial cost to individuals through taxation and domestic modification has not really been calculated, not least because the politics of the ‘climate emergency’ deems all such costs to be insignificant compared to the existential one posed by global warming. One estimate places UK carbon-neutrality by 2050 at £1trillion. If that burden is to fall on the UK taxpayer (as it surely will), what will be the cost to the Church of England’s worshipping community of its 2030 target ?
The Church of England’s fervent contribution to carbon neutrality is to beat the Government to it. It is the General Synod which has set a target of 2030 for all of its buildings (some 16,000 churches and cathedrals, along with many more thousands of schools, vicarages, community halls, offices, palaces…), and they set this target without having any idea of what the church’s current carbon footprint is, which seems to be a little unwise (to put it politely). But Synod is a law-making body, and the law must be obeyed.
Heating a church building is expensive – anything from £20,000-£80,000pa. This is also likely to be the most significant element of its carbon footprint. Other sources of carbon would include lighting, boiling the kettle to make teas and coffees, burning candles and incense… all those things that make worship and fellowship uplifting and edifying.
It is possible, of course, to put solar panels on a church roof, bung Celotex in the belfry, and affix a wind turbine to the spire in order to offset the kettle and candles, but doing these sorts of calculations are going to drive someone on the Parish Council up the wall. The cost of carbon neutrality per diocese has been estimated by one vicar:
Shouldn’t this sort of analysis have preceded Synod’s 2030 target? How is a parish with 10-15 regular worshippers (and can’t even support a full-time vicar) going to raise an additional £160 per week? Are churches going to deduct the extra cost from their ‘parish share’? Are the wealthy churches in London and Oxford going to have to subsidise (even further) the poorer ones in Bradford and Manchester?
Who is going to pay to install thousands of new boilers in all the vicarages? Who is going to buy electric cars for all clergy and staff? What is the penalty to be for a diocese or parish which breaches Synod’s target? Who would ultimately be liable? Whose job is it to worry about all this?
It is important to save the bees, of course, but if the harvest is plentiful and the labourers are already too few, what are the implications of carbon-neutrality for the essential soul-saving mission of the Church?
What would Jesus say? Render unto Gaia?