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Reform Magazine | November 30, 2021

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Zero ambition

Zero ambition

What would it take for the United Reformed Church to reach net-zero emissions by 2030? asks Simeon Mitchell

Emergencies demand attention – and then action. Last year, the United Reformed Church’s Mission Council recognised the climate emergency, and called for more environmental action in all parts of the Church.

The URC’s Environmental Task Group therefore started its first meeting of 2021 with a big question: should the Church be considering making a more ambitious environmental commitment – and if so, what would this take? The question was prompted in part by recent moves by the Church of England and several other denominations to commit to a target of achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.

The URC’s Environmental Policy sets out an aspiration to reach net-zero by ‘well before 2050’ – and calls on the UK Government to achieve the same. But much has changed since that target was set: a 2050 net-zero target has been set in UK law; there is heightened public awareness of the climate crisis; and there is growing evidence of biodiversity loss. More of our churches – about 18% – have enrolled in the Eco Church and Eco-Congregation programmes, and the first Eco Synod has been awarded.

The date 2030 is significant: if global warming is to be kept to 1.5 degrees, the budget for further emissions into the atmosphere is very tight, and it is therefore vital that societies, especially developed industrial ones like the UK, manage the transition to low carbon economies as early as possible. The independent Climate Change Committee, which advises the UK government on its climate plans, has said: ‘The 2020s must be the decisive decade of progress and action on climate change.’

While the pandemic has put a temporary pause on some of the activities that contribute the most to individuals’ carbon footprints, notably travel, global greenhouse gas emissions have continued to rise. Even if we hold onto some of the habits of the ‘new normal’ when restrictions lift – such as continuing some meetings online – this on its own will not be enough to avert climate catastrophe.

The Environmental Task Group therefore began to explore what it would take for the URC to reach net zero emissions by 2030. What would it mean us doing – at local, synod and national levels? We offer some highlights of our discussion as a prompt for further conversation.

The first question to be addressed is how ‘net-zero’ is defined. It would be possible to define it in ways that cause minimal inconvenience – such as by allowing the purchase of large amounts of carbon offsets to compensate for continuing with carbon-emitting activities – but that would not be the right thing to do (even though it is currently how the UK Government intends to reach its target). We need to have a robust and defensible definition of net zero.

The most significant contributors to the URC’s carbon footprint are travel, buildings, energy use, and how investments are used….

Simeon Mitchell is the United Reformed Church’s Secretary for Church and Society. To offer feedback, email church.society@urc.org.uk, or write to the Reform letters page

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This is an extract from an article published in the May 2021 edition of Reform

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