An examination of some climate change issues raised at General Synod
Following group work and bible study on the environment on the evening of Sunday 12 July, General Synod devoted the following day to a consideration of these issues as they affect the Church. In the morning it considered the background paper from the Environment Working Group “Combatting Climate Change: The Paris Summit and the Mission of the Church”, GS 2003, and in the afternoon, “Climate Change and Investment Policy”, GS 2004. There was overwhelming support for both, with details of the voting and agreed amendments are here and here, an overview and links to the speeches of Archbishop Welby and the Bishop of Salisbury and Manchester here.
Two amendments to the motion debated in the morning debate were to:
(c) encourage the redirection of resources into other lower carbon energy options;
(f) encourage parishes and dioceses to draw attention to the initiative supported by members of the Faith and Climate network encouraging Christians to pray and fast for climate justice on the first day of each month.
Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS)
Whilst implicit in GS 2003, CCS is specifically mentioned in the National Investing Bodies/Ethical Investment Advisory Group Climate Change Policy and in GS 2004 which states:
“15. The NIBs commit to increase their investments in sectors and activities such as sustainable energy, energy efficiency, carbon capture and storage and adaptation to climate change, where such investments meet their investment risk/return criteria.”
Furthermore, it is the only mitigation technology that is identified in the Synod documentation, a position consistent with the assessment of the International Energy Agency, (IEA), that “CCS can have a unique and vital role to play in the global transition to a sustainable low-carbon economy, in both power generation and industry”. However, it is important to remember that CCS is only an “intermediate technology”, not a long-term solution, since the CO2 it extracts is merely transferred to underground storage.
Furthermore, the technology is at an early stage of development: the 110MW retrofit of SaskPower’s Boundary Dam coal-fired power plant in Saskatchewan, Canada began operation in September, and will trap around 1 million tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) per year, to be injected into nearby oilfields to enhance oil recovery, (EOR). To date this is the only commercially-sized plant and the economics of its operation are reliant on a number of site-specific factors, [David Pocklington, “Important Carbon Capture and Storage Milestone”, (2014) 26 ELM, (5), 192].
Shale gas extraction
Shale gas extraction is better known as “fracking” (i.e. hydraulic fracturing), or in some government circles as “onshore unconventional oil and gas operations.” Like CCS, hydraulic fracturing can be regarded as an intermediate technology, and a “devil’s advocate view” was expressed that:
“Low carbon shale gas, developed by those which General Synod invited to reject, [i.e. Shell and BP], is also capable of delivering safe, secure, long term cleaner energy. Because shale gas is so economic, all other energy prices are driven and held down”.
Whilst the methane gas itself is clearly not “low carbon”, a government report has suggested that shale gas could have a lower carbon footprint when compared to imported liquefied natural gas, LNG. However, the leading firm, Cuadrilla, is reported as saying that it will not bring energy prices down in the UK.
Although reports suggest that shale gas was not included in the measures considered by Synod, the NIB/EIAG Climate Change Policy states:
“4.4.2 … The National Investing Bodies are already exposed to a variety of oil and gas extraction processes (including fracking, coal seam methane, oil sands) through their investments. In addition, the Church Commissioners may be approached about fracking on their land holdings.
4.4.4 Fracking is a particularly controversial form of fossil fuel extraction. If climate change alone is considered, then the gas produced by fracking may well have a part to play in reducing emissions during a period of transition to a lower carbon economy. However, the EIAG recognises that there are many other issues that need to be considered in making decisions about whether or not fracking should proceed. These include environmental impacts (e.g. on water bodies, on land stability), social impacts (e.g. changing local economic patterns) and stakeholder views, in particular those of local communities directly affected by such operations. Some of these issues reflect the relative novelty of fracking as a method of gas extraction. Over time, it is to be expected that increased experience – here in the UK and elsewhere – will give us a better understanding of the risks and benefits of fracking and enable a better informed debate on the investment and the ethical implications of fracking as a method of gas extraction.”
Earlier posts have addressed fracking and the CofE here and here. Whilst decisions on whether to invest in fracking (or CCS) need to be based upon increased experience of the technologies involved, the development of a position and policy on fracking continues to be a priority for the Church, in view of: the potential impact of exploration and extraction operations on a number of parishes; the need to inform local groups, in the light of the growing opposition to the process; and to avoid a repetition of the experience in the Blackburn diocese, [see Michael Robert’s Comments and link to recent exchanges, below].
The Church Times reported that “the encouragement to fast had caused some consternation”, and the motion was amended from “to encourage prayer and fasting” to “to draw attention to the initiative supported by members of the Faith and Climate network encouraging Christians to pray and fast.” In practice, it is doubtful whether the untidy compromise of the revised wording will be viewed any differently from the already non-mandatory, more concise original.
From a public policy perspective I would tend to agree with the Archdeacon of Norwich, the Ven Jan McFarlane, who feared that a commitment to fasting “could set us up for failure. If I were a mischievous journalist, I would wait a month or two, then ring round a selection of bishops and Synod members to check they were fasting.” The Archdeacon feared that it “looks as if we are using fasting to make a political statement” and questioned why this issue had been chosen for a fast, and not human trafficking or domestic abuse.
On this last issue, however, Nicholas Holtam, Bishop of Salisbury and Chair of the Environment Working Group, made the point that:
“[t}here’s been some puzzlement about encouraging prayer and fasting. It’s not just about ‘skipping a sandwich’ but helping those of us who are well fed to notice what means to be hungry and to hunger for justice. What do we want? What does God want for us? How are we going to work for God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven?”
Had the objective been the mitigation of climate change, it would have been appropriate to urge church members to abstain from meat eating on Friday or commit to a reduction in their carbon footprint by 5-10% year-on-year, a suggestion we made in the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders to purchasers of new cars in the late 1990s.
The greater-than-average technical content of this post emphasizes the difference between the “enthusiastic amateur” approach to environmental issues and the political and commercial realities of implementing policy in this area, an approach that the NIBs appear to have grasped. There is therefore a need for experience, either in-house or bought-in, in a number of fields including environmental law, and understanding of the science involved and technological solutions that are being offered.
“To be a truly prophetic voice on climate change, the Church has to assert its authority and recognize the message that remaining invested in fossil fuel companies sends to politicians and the public. It’s a matter of integrity. Pope Francis, who has been a key voice within the faith community on climate change, last week insisted that ‘we can no longer turn our backs on reality’. Perhaps it is time for the Church of England to take heed.”
In his speech, the Rt Rev David Walker, Bishop of Manchester, said:
“Through divestment from such companies, the Commissioners and Pensions Board have sent a prophetic signal…that there is an urgent need to move away from fossil fuels – starting with the dirtiest – and to transition to a low carbon economy.”
Significantly, a tweet on 13 July from Christiana Figueres, the Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, welcomed the call for long-term climate action as “crucial spiritual leadership”, a sentiment echoed in the UN Climate Change Newsroom report of Synod’s debates as “Church of England Issues Strong Call for Long-term Climate Action”.
Whilst I would agree that any environmental initiative should be accompanied by the establishment of SMART targets (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Timely), and this is applicable to divestments as well as reductions in carbon emissions, experience in the establishment of such targets has shown that the demands of campaigning groups (and governments) are often in excess of what is practicably achievable.