Towards net zero carbon for churches

On 12 February this year, the General Synod of the Church of England passed an amended resolution committing it to work towards reducing its GHG emissions to net zero by 2030 – a more demanding target than that of the initial motion which was “to reach net zero emissions by 2045 at the latest”. This was followed on 28 April 2020 when new advice on The practical path to net zero carbon for churches was added to the Advice and guidance for church buildings pages on the ChurchCare section of the CofE web site.

This post gives a brief background to monitoring by the Church of England of its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, a summary and analysis of the new guidance note, and comments on its implementation.


The Church of England has been engaged in the reduction of the carbon footprint since 2005, and the strengths and weaknesses of its approach become evident from papers for the proposed London/Truro Diocesan Synod Motion (DSM) presented to General Synod in July 2018. This was detailed in GS 2094A – Environmental Programmes and in a Background Note from the Secretary General in GS 2094B – Environment Programmes. The former highlighted the initiatives which had been taken in this period (ref.1), and suggested that the Church was not then in a position “to set an unequivocal path to the measurement of its own emissions on a national basis by 2020”. It commented:

“The audits in 2007 and 2012/13 were performed on different bases, and they were several years apart. To make a proper assessment of the trend, figures are needed on the same basis each year. Reports need to demonstrate progress towards our ambitious targets. Any level of ambition requires measurement and verification to sustain credibility”.

The lack of progress on monitoring is evident from the 2018 Background Note and events leading to the “cheap and cheerful” Energy Footprint Tool launched in January 2020. The Background Note suggested that the early reduction target “was put in place with the best intentions at the time, it was instigated without a full understanding of the resource implications and diffuse nature of the Church of England as an institution”. Furthermore, the Church’s Environment Group had concluded that the limited resources available were best used in promoting a diverse range of actions “so that every church has an opportunity to engage – from churchyard biodiversity and community food-growing projects to renewable energy and political climate campaigning”.

No vote was taken on the proposed London/Truro Diocesan Synod Motion in July 2018, and the debate was adjourned until the sessions in London in February 2019. Despite the delay, there were a number of important developments since the July debate. These were summarized in a revised Diocesan Synod Motion, GS Misc 1212, and an updated Background Paper, GS 2094 Revised. The motion debated on 22 February 2019 included: a plan of action; measuring and reporting progress; and every diocese to have an environment programme headed by a member of the Bishop’s staff team. Significantly, only modest extra funding was required to achieve these objectives, and although the London/Truro estimates were queried, they were nevertheless small in relation to other CofE budgetary items, (Archbishops’ Council Annual Report 2018).

The motion was given overwhelming support and was passed with 279 in favour, 3 against with 4 recorded abstentions. In response to Synod’s call  for a means of measuring the Church’s carbon footprint, the Research and Statistics Team created an Energy Footprint Tool which was launched on 24 January 2020 ahead of the “zero emissions debate” (ref. 2).

New guidance note

The new advice states:

“The recommendations in this short guidance note aim to summarise how churches can reduce their energy use and associated carbon emissions. They are based on the findings of our church energy audit programme and input from of a range of professionals in the field. It offers a ‘practical path’ to net zero carbon, setting out where most churches should start, and more advanced projects for churches who use more energy”.

The two-page note A practical path to “net zero carbon” for our churches (“the Guidance Note”) provides recommendations which are aimed to help churches reduce their energy use and associated carbon emissions. These are “based on the findings of the church energy audit programme and input from of a range of professionals in the field”. The main headings for this staged approach are listed below [italicized emphasis added, emboldening as in the original]:

A. Where do we start? These are actions that nearly all churches can benefit from, even low occupancy churches used only on a Sunday. They are relatively easy, with relatively fast pay back. They are a good place for churches to start, when trying to move towards ‘net zero’. [This includes a reference to the Energy Footprint Tool].

B. Where do we go next? These are actions with a reasonably fast pay back for a church with medium energy usage, used a few times a week. Perhaps half of churches should consider them. Most actions cost more than the ones above, and/or require more time and thought. Some require some specialist advice and/or installers. They are often good next steps for those churches with the time and resources to move on further towards ‘net zero’. [The undefined term “QI” is “Quinquennial inspection”, obvs]

C. Getting to zero: These are bigger, more complex, projects, which only busy churches with high energy use are likely to consider. They could reduce energy use significantly, but require substantial work (which itself has a carbon cost) and have a longer payback. They all require professional advice, including input from your DAC.

D. “Only if….”: These are actions you would do at specific times (such as when reordering is happening) or in very specific circumstances. Nearly all require professional advice, including input from your DAC.

E. By exception: These actions are often mentioned in this context, but are generally not recommended, because of the risk of harm to the fabric, energy used, and/or the cost.

Under each of these headings are areas for attention: the building itself; heating and lighting; people and policies; offsetting;  and church grounds.


The Guidance Note raises a number of questions: How should the “net-zero by 2030” be viewed?; To what extent does it progress General Synod’s February commitment? and; What will be the take-up within the Church? The commitment of General Synod was announced in a Press Release entitled General Synod sets 2030 Net Zero carbon target? Headline writers and many in the Church appeared to have taken this at face value, quoting the Bishop of Salisbury, The Rt Rev Nick Holtam, the Church of England’s lead bishop on Environmental Affairs, who said: “Synod has set an ambitious target for the whole Church of England to respond to the urgency of the Climate Crisis”.

However, the “menu options” within the Guidance Note have an implicit expectation that “net zero” is not a goal for the whole of the Church of England by 2030; only actions under sections A and B are applicable to most churches. The critical the actions relating to “Getting to zero” under C are “bigger, more complex, projects, which only busy churches with high energy use are likely to consider”; those under D are applicable to specific times in the management of church buildings; and those “By Exception” under E are “generally not recommended because of the risk of harm to the fabric, energy used, and/or the cost”.

Nevertheless, the Guidance Note is consistent with the text of the agreed motion which called upon “all parts of the Church of England, including parishes, BMOs [Bishop Mission Orders], education institutions, dioceses, cathedrals, and the NCIs [National Church Institutions], to work to achieve year-on-year reductions in emissions and urgently examine what would be required to reach net zero emissions by 2030 in order that a plan of action can be drawn up to achieve that target.


The new guidance is a welcome development which should set the Church of England back on track on measuring and reducing its energy consumption, following earlier initiatives. However, the achievement of carbon reduction targets requires “buy-in” throughout the parishes and dioceses, a prerequisite of which is the dissemination of the new guidance. To date, the new advice has not widely promoted by the Church.


[1]. These included:

[2]. The easy-to-use Energy Footprint Tool informs a church of its “carbon footprint”, based on the energy used for heating and lighting. This tool  is available to all Church of England churches using the Online Parish Returns System.

David Pocklington

Cite this article as: David Pocklington, "Towards net zero carbon for churches" in Law & Religion UK, 12 May 2020,

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