Climate change and the CofE

Over the last couple of  weeks, the Church of England has made a number of important statements that further demonstrate its commitment to addressing climate change: 98% vote for climate change resolution at BP AGM, (16 April); Welcome for Vatican Statement on Climate Change, (30 April 2015); and National Investing Bodies and transition to a low carbon economy, (30 April) issued in conjunction with the Climate Change Policy of the National Investing Bodies and The Advisory Paper of the Ethical Investment Advisory Group. To these should be added the announcement on 12 December that following its purchase of a forestry portfolio from UPM Tilhill, the Church Commissioners are now the largest private commercial forestry investor in the UK.


These initiatives by the Church Commissioners are one aspect of the CofE’s institutional involvement with environmental issues; the Church is also involved in the management of its own “carbon footprint”; and its opinions are becoming increasingly influential in areas beyond its direct control. The document Church and Earth[1] traces the engagement of the CofE in the environmental agenda from the 1978 Lambeth Conference[2] to the establishment of carbon reduction targets within the Shrinking the Footprint initiative for the period 2009 to 2016: in line with government commitments, the Church is committed to a carbon reduction target of 80% by 2050, with an interim target of 42% by 2020.

In September last year, the Bishop of Salisbury, the Rt Revd Nicholas Holtam, succeeded the Bishop of London as the Church of England’s lead bishop for Environmental Affairs. This role includes: working with the Mission and Public Affairs department of the Archbishops’ Council and also with the Cathedral and Church Buildings Division on the Church of England’s Shrinking the Footprint campaign; and chairing the new Working Group on the Environment established by General Synod in February 2014. We commented on the Working Group in relation to the Church’s national carbon reduction programme in our post The Church and the Environment and noted that whilst Shrinking the Footprint had been promoted on a ‘top down’ basis[3], the delivery of its targets is primarily a regional and local issue; whereas the Group’s role is to “monitor, facilitate co-ordination and promote the responses of all parts of the Church of England to environmental challenges”, what is required is an organizational infrastructure that sets SMART targets[4] for each diocese and other relevant parts of the Church, and ensures that these are met. Incorporation of energy audits and target setting as part of the mandatory quinquennial inspection of church buildings[5] would be a welcome, if modest, start.

There was criticism from certain quarters, here, here, and elsewhere, when in welcoming the statement on climate change of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, Bishop Holtam stated “Climate change is the greatest moral challenge of our day, for people of all faiths and people of no faith”. However, the bishop as no more than reiterating the statement of made by a group of Anglican bishops from the Anglican Communion in The World is Our Host[7], which stated:

“We call upon political, economic, social and religious leaders in our various constituencies to address the climate change crisis as the most urgent moral issue of our day”.

It is uncertain whether some of the criticism is based upon the issue of climate change per se or by its prioritization as the most urgent moral issue. On the latter point the Vatican statement was more nuanced:

“In the face of the emergencies of human-induced climate change, social exclusion, and extreme poverty, we join together to declare that: Human-induced climate-change is a scientific reality, and its decisive mitigation is a moral and religious imperative for humanity”.

Nevertheless, climate change is becoming a major issue for most faith groups and their involvement is likely to provoke comment from both sides of the argument particularly in the run up to the climate summit in Paris (COP21), 30 November to 11 December this year, and the expected Papal encyclical in June or July.

Future developments

The Catholic Herald this week carried the headline “A third of Catholics in England and Wales will become ‘more green’ if Pope speaks out on climate change”: a Cafod[6]/YouGov poll found that a third of Catholics (33%) said that if Pope Francis makes an official statement on climate change, they’re likely to alter their lifestyle choices as a result, such as seeking to drive less or to recycle more; also seven out of 10 Catholics (72%) say they are concerned that the world’s poorest people are being impacted by climate change, and more than three quarters (76%) say they feel a moral obligation as Catholics to protect these people.

Within the Church of England, an early (2006) estimate of its carbon footprint suggested that people-related sources of carbon emissions, [travel, procurement, waste and membership of congregations], exceeded those from its buildings, [churches, clergy houses, schools and colleges, cathedrals and chapter properties, Archbishops’ palaces and other see houses and Church House and the diocesan offices], by a factor of three. The latter have been subject to greater scrutiny and revision in the Energy Audit Reportfor the period 2012/13; this highlights the need for congregations to be provided with action plans based on their energy use and building specifics in order to make the most of the practice of energy monitoring and actively highlight where reductions can be made. The relative size of the contribution from people-related sources identified in the 2006 estimates, flaky though they seem to be[8], is important since a relatively small improvement in the energy performance of the faithful could result in significant overall reduction.

Added urgency for a positive outcome from the COP 21 talks in Paris has come from a paper by Nicholas Stern and others[9] which calls for countries to raise ambition of intended emissions reductions to narrow gap with pathway for 2 degree limit. Climate change seems set to remain a significant issue on the agenda of the CofE and other faith groups for the remainder of the year, and beyond.

[1] Pages 14 and 15.

[2] The 1978 Lambeth Conference passed resolutions calling for fresh approaches to economic well-being and livelihood and for a move away from wasteful forms of growth.

[3] ‘a cross-divisional campaign involving both the Cathedral and Church Buildings Division and Mission and Public Affairs’, ‘aimed at helping the Church’s 44 dioceses and 16,200 churches reduce their carbon footprint’.

[4] Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-bound.

[5] Under section 1, Inspection of Churches Measure, 1955.

[6] To which was added the footnote: “Our churches must immediately engage national policy makers as each nation prepares commitments for presentation at the forthcoming Paris Climate Talks, Nov 30 – Dec 7, 2015”.

[7] CAFOD is the official aid agency of the Catholic Church in England and Wales and part of Caritas International.

[8] This appears to be too large to represent the annual emissions resulting from all paid CoF clergy combined with the annual emissions from weekly church attendance of the congregations, but too small to represent the annual emissions of regular church attendees.

[2] Rodney Boyd, Nicholas Stern and Bob Ward, “What will global annual emissions of greenhouse gases be in 2030, and will they be consistent with avoiding global warming of more than 2°C?”,  [2015], Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment and the ESRC Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy at London School of Economics and Political Science.

[Links updated 11 May 2020

Cite this article as: David Pocklington, "Climate change and the CofE" in Law & Religion UK, 8 May 2015,

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