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Reform Magazine | October 16, 2021

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Churches and COP26

Churches and COP26

With less than a month until COP26, what can churches best do to address the climate crisis? Asks Andy Atkins of A Rocha UK

In less than one month’s time, the UK plays host and chair to one of the most important international conferences ever held: the 26th Conference of Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change – known colloquially as COP26. It has been described as the last best chance to avoid global climate catastrophe. With scientists now saying that the world needs to cut its carbon emissions by 45% by 2030 to have a fighting chance of avoiding runaway climate change, is there anything Churches can do to increase the chances of a good result?

Yes, absolutely, is the answer. More Christians than ever are recognising that caring for creation or stewarding the environment – whatever language we want to use – is an integral part of the mission. Thank God. Because the next decade is critical for restoring nature, cutting carbon and stabilising our climate if we are to head off environmental catastrophe on an apocalyptic scale. Governments and society need to act urgently and boldly and Christians and Churches could make a game-changing contribution to that by acting together.

Acting together at national level means working in coalitions and partnerships – no organisation let alone local church can solve the environment emergency working alone. And with COP26 on the near horizon, Churches in this country have been participating in a unique opportunity to influence – and there is still time for churches that have not yet acted. A Rocha UK has joined with nearly thirty other charities and denominations, including The United Reform Church, the Church of England, the Church of Scotland and the Church in Wales, Christian Aid, Tearfund and CAFOD, to run the Climate Sunday initiative. Our collective vision is to leave a lasting legacy of thousands of UK churches better equipped to address climate change as part of their normal discipleship and mission; and to make a very significant contribution to civil society efforts to secure adequate national and international action at the COP26 conference.

We have called UK churches to do three things. First, to hold a climate-focused service before COP26. Secondly, to commit to taking further ongoing practical action themselves, through progressing through our A Rocha UK’s Eco Church programme. Thirdly, we encourage churches to add value to their practical commitments by signing the common ‘Time is Now’ declaration, calling on the government to commit to go further faster on UK climate action, before hosting the summit. By this combination of practical action locally, and raising our voice together nationally, we can make the biggest possible difference. You can download service material, register your own church’s service and its commitment, and sign the ‘Time is Now’ declaration all from this Climate Sunday website.

So far, more than 2,000 churches have registered a service, and many hundreds made commitments to practical action in their own church and community for the long term and signed the Time is Now. The higher that number goes before COP26, the more influence we have together. We will be handing a document into 10 Downing Street, with an update on the numbers of participating churches, shortly before the summit, to let the government know just what commitment is there from the churches to act – and to see the government act faster. The UK is badly behind on its own carbon reduction targets.

It is critical that Churches’ action does not end at COP26. Like so many other sectors of society, if Churches accelerate their efforts fast in the next couple of years, it could make a critical difference to the UK cutting its carbon emissions steeply by 2030. That is why Climate Sunday encourages participating churches not just to commit to ongoing action, but to do so with one of the church greening schemes. By joining Eco Church in England and Wales, or Eco Congregation in Scotland and Ireland, they can draw on free resources, and mutual support – critical for going further faster. 

Take Eco Church, for example. Now in its sixth year, the ‘Eco Church’ award scheme brings together a national community of churches from all denominations addressing the environmental crisis, using a common framework, an online toolkit, learning and speaking up together. There are now 4,000 Eco Churches in England and Wales – 10% of churches – which are already part of the Eco Church community. A Rocha UK, which runs the scheme, is aiming, to engage at least 15% of churches in on-going action to protect nature and address climate change by 2025, bringing about a step step change in local Churches’ action on the environment.

The URC has participated in the scheme from the start. There are now 268 URC churches have signed up to Eco Church and two United Reformed Churches have already achieved Gold awards, Tavistock URC and St John’s Marsh Green. Climate Sunday is encouraging churches who have not yet joined Eco Church or a similar scheme to do so; and those that have registered to commit to getting to the next award level – Bronze or Silver say – within a year or so. You can register your church for the scheme here.

International negotiations like COP26 can sound very complicated and even abstract. But the effects of climate change are now very tangible and painful. We need to do all we cannot just to put pressure on governments to achieve a strong agreement, but out of pastoral concern too. Of course, climate change is already hitting the poorest hardest in developing countries. But recent research led by Bath University surveying 10,000 young people across 10 countries has revealed the depth of eco-anxiety and depression among young people, so meaningful action by ‘grown ups’ is needed more than ever to help the younger generation, having to face up to a terrifying threat. Eco-anxiety has arisen not just from environmental destruction alone but is inextricably linked to government inaction on climate change. The survey reports that young people feel betrayed, ignored and abandoned by politicians and adults despite the availability of solutions to climate change. So, adults, parents, grandparents, church leaders – all of us now need to use the resources, influence and powers of decision that we have, urgently – to give the younger generation realistic hope. There is no time to lose.

For any church, in these last three weeks before COP26, holding a Climate Sunday, committing to progress further in a greening scheme, and signing the Time is Now is probably the most powerful action they can take – for a good COP26 result, for climate, and for their youth.

This autumn provides a unique opportunity for UK Churches to act and speak up together on the environment, for maximum collective impact. Climate Sunday is our best way of doing so.

Andy Atkins is CEO of the Christian nature conservation organisation, A Rocha UK, and Chair of the Climate Sunday initiative.

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