Lightening God’s tread
What can the church do to reduce it’s carbon footprint?
In a report to Synod Standing Committee last November, David Freeman, Chair of the Mid North Coast Presbytery, said, “Travel concerns us greatly, not only as wasted time — for example, seven hours on the notorious Pacific Highway for a 20-minute presentation — but also how can it be done smarter with technology, such as video conferencing and Skype, thus minimising the environmental demand of the church footprint?”
The Rev. Elenie Poulos, National Director of UnitingJustice Australia, also thinks it’s time that the church’s councils thought hard about travel and meetings.
“Some of it — the meetings — we need to do: we are in the relationship business after all and we need to share meals, grasp hands and physically stand next to each in solidarity and friendship.
“But I don’t think we need to do it as much as we think we do. I’m sure we can be more efficient and more focused.”
Ms Poulos said, “We can certainly reorganise some of our business pretty easily around Web 2.0, video-conferencing and so on if we bite the bullet on the necessary building, infrastructure, IT services and software costs.
“It will pay for itself in the long run.”
She said the Assembly office did a carbon audit a few years ago and realised that, without travel, the Assembly had a tiny footprint.
“Travel is, then, the big one for us.”
That point was highlighted by Dr Steve Douglas, a consultant ecologist and researcher in religion and ecology, who prepared a report for the Assembly in response to its carbon audit and the document For the sake of the planet and all its people: A Uniting Church in Australia statement on climate change.
He found that the impacts of the Assembly’s heavy use of air travel were such that they undermined the intent of mission work and church fellowship and the Assembly’s credibility in advocating for carbon pollution abatement within and beyond the church.
He recommended that the Assembly undertake a comprehensive assessment of the extent to which staff needed to fly in order to meet their work objectives.
“The issue is one of distance, not nationality,” he said. “The aim is to minimise if not eliminate air travel or indeed any sort of fossil-fuelled travel.”
He also recommended reducing motor-vehicle related emissions, “Green” purchasing and ethically screened investments.
Dr Douglas said, “The churches have worked out that capitalism is the ecological equivalent of parasitism but at some point they are going to need to move beyond the relatively comfortable game of formulating sensible policy statements that direct others how to do things.
“They need to translate their commendable policies into institutional action — they have to be seen to lead by example.
“Until they are prepared to put eco-justice before the narrowly-perceived interests of the institutional church, there will remain plenty of scope for others to dismiss the church’s progressive policy statements as hollow rhetoric.”
Dr Douglas is keen to point out the contradictions between environmentalist sentiment and policy and the challenge of changing lifestyles.
The issues are similar for Christian denominations, other faiths and organisations in the secular domain, he says.
Dr Douglas and Dr Almut Beringer, from Monash University’s Sustainability Institute, last year submitted a journal article dealing with the question of whether international religious gatherings and academic conferences on pro-environmental themes could be justified given the huge carbon emissions associated with participants’ use of aviation.
Using the 2009 Parliament of World Religions as a case study, they asked how organisers and auditors might thoroughly assess the costs and benefits of such events. They raised the issue of carbon offsets and the fact that most such schemes had ethical and technical limitations, including revegetation-based schemes that took decades to sequester the carbon emitted in a few hours of air travel — they were just too slow.
In November last year a consultation on Poverty, Wealth and Ecology in Europe, organised by the Conference of European Churches and the World Council of Churches in cooperation with churches in Hungary, adopted a “Budapest Call for Climate Justice”.
Some 80 representatives of churches and church-related agencies working on poverty reduction and development discussed the links between the creation and accumulation of wealth on the one hand and ecological damage and poverty on the other.
The group’s final statement says that climate justice and therefore both social and ecological values should be a central goal of policy making.
The EU was asked to live up to its ambitions with regard to reducing greenhouse gas emissions independent of policies by other large economies.
Participants in the consultation called for the joint preparation of a global ecumenical conference to propose a framework and criteria for a new international financial and economic architecture that is based on the principles of economic, social and climate justice.
Dr Douglas responded, “How often do international church organisations fall into the trap of ‘flying around the world to save it’!
“How often do participants instead consider holding a series of regional meetings, which they can attend by using public transport, linked by internet conferencing, rather than doing the tired old thing of sticking everyone in one room?”
He said conferencing software now allowed for nodal and regional conferencing formats and some universities that specialised in distance education already used it to good effect.
“The churches and other faith organisations are only beginning to catch up with the progressive parts of secular society. They still tend to think that they’re on the radical, cutting edge of pushing for eco-justice when, in most cases, they’re at least a decade or more behind the wider movement.”
Of the Catholic Church’s approach to the environment he has said, “The current and past Pope have advocated for a reduction in carbon emissions and consumer lifestyles to minimise impacts on ‘Creation’, particularly on the many poor people who are suffering and are likely to suffer further because of global climate change.
“Such teachings were apparently forgotten by the reportedly 8,000 Australians who flew to Rome for recent Canonisation of Mary MacKillop. A return flight from Melbourne to Rome generates roughly 10.5 tonnes of CO2 equivalent per person — roughly three times the supposedly sustainable three tonne per person annual carbon budget.
“Multiply that by 8,000 and you have a lot of greenhouse gases emitted for a religious ceremony that in part celebrates the worthy deeds of a woman dedicated to serving the human poor.”
But Dr Douglas is no more sympathetic regarding the Uniting Church’s addiction to air travel, questioning a presumption that its activities are of a nature that justifies the carbon emissions associated with staff’s use of aviation; that those works are “special” in a religious sense and thus exempt from ecological ethical scrutiny.
He asked if staff really needed to attend international ecumenical and multi-faith events in person. Did the notional benefits to the Uniting Church outweigh the ecological and even the economic costs?
“Do staff really need to attend international mission projects, or can the church sensibly delegate authority to local supervisors, or perhaps just fund agencies with adequate supervision and project management of their own?”
Wouldn’t it be better, he wondered, to use the funds currently spent on international air travel to achieve more tangible benefits consistent with the church’s mission, both locally and internationally?
As Dr Douglas observes, God is putting down a mighty carbon footprint in Australia. But the churches are attempting to lighten God’s tread.
The Catholic Church is attempting a carbon audit of thousands of churches and parish buildings, about 1,500 schools and more than 300 hospitals and aged-care facilities.
Catholic Earthcare Australia is offering a low-cost, automated data collection tool for tracking, monitoring, benchmarking and reporting each Catholic organisation’s ecological footprint.
It is aimed at developing a spirituality of communion, ecological conversion and sustainability.
Thea Ormerod, President of Australian Religious Response to Climate Change, said ARRCC would love to see it accepted as normal that faith communities take action to reduce their carbon footprints.
“Although it cannot honestly be said that this is the general practice yet in Australia, a range of faith communities and religious organisations have taken steps to reduce their carbon footprints.
“A stellar role model is the Uniting Church community in Maroubra Junction with its Project Green Church initiative.”
To encourage widespread recognition that caring for the environment is part of an authentic religious life, ARRCC promotes the work of individual faith communities and religious organisations.
At its 2010 Eco-Awards night, prize-winners included Caloundra Uniting Church in Queensland, the al-Ghazzali Centre in Lakemba and the Anglican Diocese of Canberra/Goulburn.
Ms Poulos thought it would be impossible for the Uniting Church to conduct a church-wide audit. But she knew synods were working on it in various ways.
Stephen Webb is Deputy Editor of Insights and Media Officer for the Synod of New South Wales and the ACT.
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