“Net zero” in 2030 – a courageous decision?

 “[T]o reach 2020 without a way to ascertain progress towards our public targets [for carbon reduction] would entail a risk to the Church’s reputation, potentially even to the reputation of the Gospel”

London/Truro DSM on Environmental Programmes, GS2094A

In 2009, the document Church and Earth noted that the Church of England had been engaged in the environmental agenda since the 1978 Lambeth Conference; from the 2006 the Shrinking the Footprint initiative it had sought to reduce its carbon emissions by 80% by 2050, with an interim target of 42% by 2020 in line with government commitments at the time. It was against this background that the statement in the London/Truro DSM was made in 2018, citing criticism in L&RUK here and here (both posted in 2015 and apparently still applicable in 2018) that the Church “makes no reference to how much savings (of energy and carbon emissions) have been made to date”.

On 12 February 2020, General Synod 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”. On this decision, the Bishop of Manchester commented [emphasis added]:

“Whatever ones views on the urgency of the climate crisis, it felt unsatisfactory that this was achieved through an amendment [from 2045 to 2030 as the target year] which was decided after less than ten minutes debate, by a majority of 15, with a turnout that meant fewer than a third of Synod members voted in favour of it. Many, I suspect, were caught in the tea room, not having expected a close vote. 2030 maybe the right year, but the process felt flawed.”

Timeline of events

Since setting the “net zero” target in February 2020, there have been a number of important developments.

  • 12 February 2020General Synod’s amended resolution committing it to work towards reducing its GHG emissions to net zero by 2030, was reviewed in our post Towards net zero carbon for churches; this considered the subsequent advice on 28 April 2020 on the Church’s document The practical path to net zero carbon for churches, which has been  added to the Advice and guidance for church buildings pages on the ChurchCare section of the CofE web site.
  • April 2020. The Church’s Energy Footprint Tool became available in April 2020 for the collection and collation of 2019 data from churches’ utility bills; the tool was closed in October 2020 and the findings reported in early 2021 in the confusingly titled Energy Footprint Tool 2019: Results and understanding concerning the carbon footprint for church energy use.
  • 15 June 2020. The Consultation – A national definition of “net zero carbon” for the Church of England, and our approach to measuring it, was launched in June 2020; its findings were reported to General Synod held on 23-24 November 2020. The paper Rising to the Challenge: reaching Net Zero by 2030, GS Misc 1262 (“Rising to the Challenge”) updated members with the progress made since February, though the paper itself was not discussed.
  • 12 February 2021, in One year on: Church moves forward on carbon reduction target, the Church of England reported the first findings from a nationwide study on the impacts of the carbon reduction programme on the Church of England, a year after the vote in General Synod committing it to “net-zero carbon emissions by 2030”.
  • 24 February 2021. Rt Rev Graham Usher, Bishop of Norwich, accepted the invitation of the Archbishops of Canterbury and York to lead the Church of England’s Environment Programme with a charge “to lead bold, deliberate, collaborative action across the Church to tackle the grave existential crises of climate change and biodiversity loss”. Commenting on his appointment, Bishop Graham said “[c]ourageous decision-making is needed to tackle climate change“.
  • 14 March 2021. Oxford Diocesan Synod agreed to a wide-ranging plan of practical action, prayer and advocacy, including a move towards a net-zero target of “year-on-year reductions consonant with at least reaching 70% cuts by 2030 and net zero by 2035, or as soon thereafter as is possible“.
  • 5 April 2021. Launch of new EcoHub by Diocese of Oxford.
  • 15 September 2021, The Right Worshipful Morag Ellis QC, Dean of the Arches and Auditor is scheduled to deliver a lecture to the Ecclesiastical Law Society, “Clean and green – law and the carbon neutral Church.”
  • 4 November 2021, The lecture by Morag Ellis was repeated on 4 November 2021 during the UK’s hosting of COP26 in Glasgow. A recording is available here. Some revisions have been made, and the lecture is accompanied by responses from: The Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Revd Graham Usher; The Worshipful Philip Petchey, Chancellor of Southwark; and The Ven Stephen Taylor, former Archdeacon of Maidstone and acting Diocesan Secretary of Canterbury

Definition and Scope of Net Zero

Assessments of the achievement of targetted reductions in carbon emissions are dependent upon the definition and scope of “net zero”. Rising to the Challenge: reaching Net Zero by 2030, GS Misc 1262 states:

“[4]. The definition can be found in full in the two pages of Appendix 1…The focus is primarily on our “scope 1” and “scope 2” emissions as defined by: electricity, gas and oil used in our buildings, work related travel, and those elements where we either directly control the emissions or where we have significant influence over them.”

However, the scope, as defined in Appendix 1, does not quite align with the “practical path” outlined in Appendix 3, or indeed with the definitions in the Green-house Gas (GHG) Protocol which adds little to the application of the definition, Table IFurthermore, Appendix 1 states: “all the emissions from major building projects (new builds and extensions, major reorderings, solar panel installations, major new heating or lighting systems)” currently fall within the post-2030 phases”. The fact that these are “to be specifically reviewed in 2022, with the potential to bring them into scope of the 2030 target, only after consultation, and if feasible methodologies have been developed” tends to confuse matters further.

To these issues must now be added the commitment of the Oxford Diocese, “at least reaching 70% cuts by 2030 and net zero by 2035, or as soon thereafter as is possible. This was “formulated in conjunction with experts from the national Church and business, local charities, the academic community, and other professionals working in the areas involved”. This should hardly be a surprise to any professional who has experience in delivering environmental targets such as these; on the contrary, it would be a surprise if other dioceses (or the national church) did not reach a similar conclusion having undertaken the necessary background work. It also raises questions on the status of the “national” definition of net zero, and General Synod procedures to impose such a target on the Church.

Role of the consistory courts

The importance of the faculty jurisdiction is identified in Appendix 3 – A practical path to “net zero carbon” for our churches of GS Misc 1262 (though, confusingly, it is not headed as Appendix 3); this notes, [emphasis added]:

Many of the suggestions below require faculty; please seek input early on. If the church interior is of historic, artistic, architectural or artistic interest, seek professional & DAC advice first, before making changes; stabilising the environment for these interiors is important to minimise cycles of treatment, with their inherent carbon cost.”

The article by Jaqueline Humphreys, The Role of the Faculty System in Achieving Net-Zero Carbon Emissions by 2030. (2021) 23 Ecc LJ 50–66, notes that “as it presently stands the faculty system is not set up with carbon reduction in mind because it significantly pre-dates the recent widespread realisation of the urgency of the climate crisis”.

She provides an assessment of the Care of Churches and Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction Measure 2018 (‘the 2018 Measure’) and the Faculty Jurisdiction Rules 2015 (as amended by the Faculty Jurisdiction (Amendment) Rules 2019) (‘the 2015 Rules’) to identify: “what works well”, (which parts of this legal framework can already facilitate the necessary changes); “what is problematic”, (which parts are preventing or discouraging such change); and “proposals for change”, (what revision to the legislation is required for this part of the legal framework of the Church of England to support the ambitious but essential target of net-zero carbon emissions within the next ten years”.

She concludes, inter alia,

  • Change is necessary to the legislation supra if the Church of England is to have the best chance of achieving the ambition to be a net-zero carbon emitter by 2030.
  • Some changes, such as the items to be included in Lists A and B, are matters of detail; others are ‘big picture’ changes, such as the proposals that all involved in functions of care and conservation of churches have regard to the zero-carbon commitment and that chancellors similarly must have regard to carbon emissions when determining petitions. In both cases, the extent to which the faculty process encourages or restricts the necessary changes will be essential to the achievement of net-zero carbon by 2030.
  • the faculty system alone is not sufficient to bring about the wider changes required for the Church of England to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2030, even of those items clearly in scope to be assessed. Many of the Church’s buildings, notably cathedrals, schools, clergy housing and diocesan offices, which include some of the Church’s highest emitters, are outside the faculty jurisdiction.
  • [I]f the Church of England wishes to have expertise and credibility in contributing to change in those other areas where it is but one stakeholder among many when it comes to regulation, getting its own house in order by revising the faculty system to properly take into account the need to reduce carbon emissions is essential.

Implicit in this last point is the requirement for professional expertise of those within the Church and the bodies advising it in this area in the various facets of carbon reduction techniques and technology – areas highlighted in the paper where relevant competence in not available such as within the DACs, those conducting quinquennial inspections, Churchwardens and PCCs.

Recent considerations in the consistory courts

There have been a number of relevant considerations in the consistory courts over the past year or so; these involve both List A and List B issues, and “big picture” items:

  • Re St. Michael & All Angels Blackheath Park [2020] ECC Swk 1, [reviewed here], concerned the installation of start-of-the-art floodlighting, the determination of which preceded the General Synod resolution. (22 January 2020).
  • Re St. Paul Addlestone [2020] ECC Gui 1, [reviewed here], a successful application to install solar panels on the roof of an unlisted Victorian Church, the parish argued that the justification for the application was not only to save money by generating part of their own electricity but also expressly ‘to champion the environmental benefits of green sustainable power within the local community
  • Re St. Mark Mitcham [2020] ECC Swk 5 [reviewed here] considered the replacement of an existing gas fuelled heating system in the light of the Church’s “net zero”  commitment. The court made reference to there earlier judgment Re St. Michael & All Angels Blackheath Park. [This was reviewed in Carbon neutrality and the consistory courts], (15 November 2020).
  • Re St. Mary Oxted [2021] ECC Swk 1. Involved the replacement of an existing boiler where although there was a technically feasible “green” alternative, the running costs of which were considered to be prohibitively high, [This was reviewed in Call for C of E guidance on achievement of “net zero” GHG emissions] (16 February 2021).
  • Re St. John the Evangelist Donisthorpe [2021] ECC Lei 1. The Chancellor granted a faculty for substantial internal reordering including a new heating system based on an oil-fired boiler. The parish had “diligently investigated many alternative systems of heating” and engaged a specialist heating consultant during the process of preparing the Petition. However, “[u]ltimately it is cost that has forced the Petitioners’ hand in relation to the heating system to be used.” (27 February 2021).

In Re St. Mary Oxted, Chancellor Philip Petchey made two important observations in granting a faculty [emphasis added]

“[7] However I do remain concerned. Obviously one does hope that greener solutions will become available over time but, as the Petitioners fairly accept, they would not be looking to replace a boiler that is installed in 2021 until 2035 at the earliest. It would be open to me to refuse to grant a faculty, recognising, of course, that this would not necessarily lead to the adoption of a green solution. It could be argued that an additional cost of £6,200 per year should not be regarded as cost prohibitive.

“[8]. … It would be unfortunate if in seeking to achieve carbon neutrality, the parish reduced its support for mission. As I have explained, it is my view that decisions about carbon neutrality should be taken at parish level and that it is not for Chancellors to seek to impose solutions through the clumsy mechanism of refusing otherwise acceptable proposals… .

The subsequent judgment Re St. John the Evangelist Donisthorpe further emphasizes this point, and should be a wake-up call to those working to achieve net zero emissions. As we have noted earlier in relation to Re St. Mark, Mitcham, issues such as these are unlikely to be unique, and similar balancing exercises will be necessary in the future; the justification for similar replacements will become more difficult as 2030 approaches, and a strict application of the 2030 target will be problematic. This is not aided by the uncertainty in the definition of “net zero” and by the decision of the Oxford Diocese to depart from the letter, if not the sprit of the Synod Resolution which:

“[called] upon all parts of the Church of England, including parishes, BMOs, education institutions, dioceses, cathedrals and the NCIs, 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.”


It is evident that a substantial amount of work has taken place since the Synod motion on 12 February 2020, encouraged by the demanding target. However, there remains a substantial task ahead: the definition of “net zero” needs to be revisited, and commitment secured from all dioceses to reduction of their carbon emissions. Also to be addressed is the external verification of targets, methodology and reporting, which are necessary for the credibility of the scheme to external stakeholders.

Recent judgments in the consistory courts have addressed the principle of net zero emissions, but to date have not sought recourse to the above definition. As Chancellor Philip Petchey stated in February 2021 in concluding Re St. Mary Oxted:

“[8]. …it does seem that, absent new technology coming to the rescue, the effect of a whole series of decisions like the one in the present case is likely to lead to the 2030 target being missed. I consider that this should be addressed in the guidance given to parishes by the National Church about the achievement of carbon neutrality and how they should address competing priorities in the formulation of their budgets.”

Given the Church’s performance in achieving the targets in the Shrinking the Footprint initiative (which committed to a 42% reduction by 2020), and the delays in setting the “net zero by 2030” target, there is little doubt that “courageous decision-making is needed to tackle climate change” and to bring the Church of England back on course in achieving its goals in this area. Followers of Yes Minister will recall that along with “complicated”, “lengthy”, “expensive”, and “controversial”, use of the word “courageous” is said to guarantee the refusal of a proposal. Possibly not what the new lead bishop on the environment meant to imply when taking up the role; however, those with experience in meeting legislative targets for reduction of carbon emissions will agree that all of the other adjectives are correct, as implicitly acknowledged in the considered response of the Oxford Diocese.

David Pocklington

Table I – Definition of “net zero by 2030”

  • Appendix I – National definition of the scope of net zero carbon for the Church of England. Those within  scope for 2030 are: energy use of buildings and all work-related travel, less certain items when excess energy is generated or off-set, and including “100% renewable electricity”.

Items outside the scope include “all the emissions from major building projects (new builds and extensions, major reorderings, solar panel installations, major new heating or lighting systems)”, although these are “to be specifically reviewed in 2022, with the potential to bring them into scope of the 2030 target, only after consultation, and if feasible methodologies have been developed”.

A number of items are specifically excluded from the 2030 target.

  • Appendix 3 –  A practical path to “net zero carbon” for our churches. This is summarized here and under each of the headings, A to E, are areas for attention: the building itself; heating and lighting; people and policies; offsetting;  and church grounds. These “menu options” 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 heading E are “generally not recommended because of the risk of harm to the fabric, energy used, and/or the cost”.
  • Green-house Gas (GHG) Protocolwithin the standard Green-house Gas (GHG) protocol, Scope 1 covers direct emissions from owned or controlled sources; Scope 2 covers indirect emissions from the generation of purchased electricity, steam, heating and cooling consumed by the reporting company; Scope 3 includes all other indirect emissions that occur in a company’s/organization’s value chain

Cite this article as: David Pocklington, "“Net zero” in 2030 – a courageous decision?" in Law & Religion UK, 7 April 2021, https://lawandreligionuk.com/2021/04/07/net-zero-in-2030-a-courageous-decision/

6 thoughts on ““Net zero” in 2030 – a courageous decision?

  1. Conscious that it would cause howls of aesthetic anguish, I have often wondered at the impact that installing solar panels on the south facing roof of every parish church would have. Given that almost every church is built on an East-West axis, the generation potential must be significant.
    If this past year has taught us anything it is surely that, in facing an existential crisis, we need to be prepared for radical actions.

    • In a 2012 post we noted that there was a common perception that church courts are unwilling to grant faculties for solar panels on listed churches. Although there are examples of their installation, I suspect that this is still case . However, the CofE web pages on Renewable Energy contain a number of case studies on their use.

      Since space heating is a significant component of church energy usage, perhaps the retention of pews with appropriate electrical heating might be explored when the creation of a “flexible worship space” is being reviewed in the consistory courts.

  2. It will be interesting to see how this plays out in the Consistory Courts. Chancellor Petchey seems to want to apply a loosely defined policy of net zero across the Church by 2030 to specific instances given that he specifically mentioned that he could reject the Oxted faculty for not being carbon neutral and that £6,200 a year is not cost prohibitive.

    I know that for churches I attend, £6,200 a year would be cost prohibitive, having trouble paying the bills currently. I fear that there may be a case of not getting a good result for want of a perfect result (“no you can’t have the efficient gas boiler because a more expensive, but carbon neutral system exists”).

    The policy is a good idea, but the implementation needs to be nuanced.

    • I read Re St. Mary Oxted [2021] ECC Swk 1 differently. Chancellor Petchey was placed in the position of determining the petition on the basis of the facts before him and the present absence of “guidance given to parishes by the National Church about the achievement of carbon neutrality and how they should address competing priorities in the formulation of their budgets” [8]. The reference to the “additional cost of £6,200 per year” was one of the options he (or any Chancellor in that position) would need to consider when balancing the facts before them, and is an option he did not find persuasive in determining the petition.

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