To meet our carbon targets, we will need a concerted global effort, which needs to include faith groups. More than eight in ten people globally identify with a religious group , and 1.3 billion of these are Catholics . The ‘Guardians of Creation’ research project was established to help Catholic dioceses understand and reduce their carbon footprint, whilst celebrating the distinctive contributions a faith community can bring to this process.
The Laudato Si’ Research Institute (LSRI) at Campion Hall, one of the Permanent Private Halls at Oxford University run by the Jesuits, is part of the ‘Guardians of Creation’ project, which has recently issued carbon accounting guidelines for the Catholic Church in the UK. Led by the Diocese of Salford and in collaboration with St Mary’s University, Twickenham, and the LSRI, the project is piloting an approach in the Diocese of Salford for nationwide use.
The UK has 36 Catholic dioceses (geographically bound portions of the Catholic Church under one Bishop), which collectively contain a variety of buildings in different shapes, sizes and conditions. When piloting a carbon accounting approach for the Diocese of Salford, it was found that the operational energy use of the roughly 1000 buildings under the influence of the diocese is responsible for 25,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions annually. If we assume this is typical for a diocese, the total footprint of the UK church might be in the region of a million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year.
By undertaking carbon accounting and setting budgets and targets, we can begin to understand potential impact. The UK has a statutory net zero ‘no later than 2050’ framework, which also has an interim target of 78% reduction in all greenhouse gases from 1990 levels by 2035. Organisations can choose to align their decarbonisation to this pathway. If an organisation is using 2019 as a baseline, this means a 63% reduction on 2019 by 2035. Theoretically, if every diocese were at minimum to align their targets with this approach, 630,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide a year could be saved by 2035. Some dioceses are already setting carbon targets more ambitious than this, so we can hope that the impact will be greater still.
‘Guidance on Carbon accounting for Catholic Dioceses’ encourages dioceses to reflect on their motivations for carbon accounting, which can be resource intensive in terms of time and money, things a diocese is often stretched on already. Furthermore, most dioceses are not legally obliged to disclose their emissions. Despite this, there is enthusiasm to begin. Carbon accounting will help dioceses focus their efforts by highlighting the biggest energy saving opportunities, communicate progress towards sustainability, and, importantly, respond to their values as a faith institution, with particular awareness of the suffering and devastation already being caused by climate change and our responsibility to respond. It is symbolic perhaps that this research is being piloted in Manchester, the birthplace of the industrial revolution.
Shortly before COP26, almost 40 faith leaders signed a joint appeal, presented by Pope Francis to Alok Sharma, to raise awareness of the unprecedented challenges the ecological crisis brings. Pope Francis noted that there are several levels to address this challenge from, but emphasized the role of religious traditions in example and action, and education. Alongside the practical challenges of decarbonisation, the LSRI is responding to this educational challenge, engaging in transdisciplinary research on the most pressing ecological and social issues of our day, and investing in the dialogue between intellectual insight and the wisdom of religious traditions, in recognition of the potential of these dialogues to transform society. The name of the institute is inspired by Pope Francis' 2015 encyclical Laudato Si', which framed our ecological crisis as one which is as much social as environmental, and promoted a way of thinking about the crisis rooted in an ‘integral ecology.’
How this concept of ‘integral ecology’ can inform a decarbonisation process for the Catholic Church is the topic of the LSRI paper “Caring for our common home in the church and beyond: Theological foundations for a comprehensive decarbonisation strategy in the Catholic diocese.” Recognising the urgency of the situation and the unique nature of a faith institution grappling with the crisis, the authors note that "in this conversation it will be key that the dioceses cultivate ecological virtues and practical wisdom to overcome the adversities of the socio-ecological crisis. And they will have to do it fast." This might mean identifying that a technological improvement that reduces energy consumption comes at the expense of communities exploited for the extraction of minerals needed in batteries, for instance. Simply pressing ahead with the ‘green’ agenda without considering the human and environmental impact may well be at conflict with the values of faith traditions, and the long term sustainability of an action more generally. These are important conversations, and perhaps ones more easily initiated through faith settings driven by questions of a virtuous life, rather than economic viability.
To loosely paraphrase a recent lecture by Dr. Carmody Grey (visiting research fellow at the LSRI), people need to be motivated to make changes if we are to address the ecological crisis, and several decades of statistics of ever increasing severity do not appear to have moved the needle sufficiently. More difficult to cultivate than statistics but more effective in motivating change are the values and motivations people hold. This is where faith groups are experts. If 80% of the world population is, in principle, guided by a force more significant than market economics in their decision making, then faith groups clearly have a great deal to offer in addressing the practical and educational challenge of the crisis.
‘Guidance on Catholic Diocesan Carbon Accounting’ is available here: https://www.stmarys.ac.uk/research/areas/theology-and-ethics/guardians-of-creation/about.aspx
‘Caring for our common home in the church and beyond: Theological foundations for a comprehensive decarbonisation strategy in the Catholic diocese’ is available here: https://lsri.campion.ox.ac.uk/news/lsri-publishes-new-report-caring-our-common-home-church-and-beyond
For more information please contact Edward de Quay (Carbon Transition Officer at the Laudato Si’ Research Institute): Edward.firstname.lastname@example.org
 Pew Research Centre (2012) The Global Religious Landscape: https://www.pewforum.org/2012/12/18/global-religious-landscape-exec/
 Statistics of the Catholic Church 2019: https://press.vatican.va/content/salastampa/en/bollettino/pubblico/2019/10/19/191019b.html
 Meeting on “Faith and Science: Towards COP26”, promoted by the Embassies of Great Britain and Italy to the Holy See, together with the Holy See (04 October 2021): https://press.vatican.va/content/salastampa/en/bollettino/pubblico/2021/10/04/211004a.html
 ‘What do we want to sustain?’ Thinking about Faith and the Climate. Dr Carmody Grey: Hook Lecture 2021. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DIEQeG3IRM4