St Paul's Institute

Paris and Beyond: Working Together to Make a Difference

by the Rt Revd Nicholas Holtam

Posted: 16 Dec 2015

UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, said the COP21 talks in Paris were the largest and most complex he has ever been involved in. COP21 was a huge exercise - to gather representatives of 196 countries made for a conference the size of which most of us have and never will experience. And following the acts of terrorism in Paris just two weeks earlier, it was all the more important to show the world that we can act together in the care of our common home.

The global agreement reached on Saturday is far more ambitious than many of us had thought it might be in the weeks running up to the conference. Not only have we got the 2-degree aspiration - limiting the rise in global temperatures to 'well below' 2 degrees above the pre-industrial average - but we've also got an 'endeavour to limit' them even further to 1.5 degrees. Combined with the five-yearly reviews of each country's emissions cuts, and the provisions for climate finance, this has turned out to be a promising deal going some way to preventing the most catastrophic consequences for the world's poorest and most vulnerable people.

Quite a few people noted on the first day of the conference, when the political leaders were making inspiring speeches, that they used the language of NGOs. This was good news: politicians are responsive, they felt the tipping of the political argument. The really important thing is to hold them to account for delivering what has been agreed about a low carbon future.

Faith has made a difference to the conference. There has been an astonishing ecumenical convergence about the care of the environment and climate change. The ecumenical service in Notre Dame in the first week of the conference was uplifting. It was introduced by the Cardinal Archbishop of Paris, an Orthodox priest preached, and a female Lutheran Archbishop read the Gospel, all without comment. There were three choirs: Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant. We prayed together for the environment and for COP21, which was so pressing and so important as to make relatively insignificant the other differences between us.

The same point makes possible a working relationship with people of other faiths. Their involvement in the renewal of the Lambeth declaration on climate change in June was striking. It also led to most of the faith groups present in the UK issuing their own statements about climate change - this was very welcome. In Paris a group of 20 faith leaders presented to President Hollande petitions signed by more than 1.8 million people from faith communities around the world.

The pilgrims who walked from London and from various parts of the world, gave credibility to the faith communities present on the edge of the summit. I think their witness was what moved Christine Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC, to tears when she met them on the Saturday before the conference began. One of the memorable moments was of her dancing with the Archbishop of Cape Town. The pilgrims told extraordinary stories about the journeys that they had made. It will have changed them forever, and I hope it will change the communities to which they return.

The outcome of COP21 is only in part for the governments of the world. Certainly they have a tough task ahead of them. But so do we, as individuals and communities, trying to respond to the reality of the need for repentance and amendment of life if we are to reduce our carbon footprint. It is an invigorating challenge on which hangs the health and wellbeing of our grandchildren. When the Prime Minister said that our grandchildren will ask 'What did we do at this particular moment in our history?', it won't be good enough to say that we questioned the science and worried about the economics. We need to work out how to use transitional technology in order to find a low carbon future.

It's not just an individual commitment - there are things we can do together as the Church as well. In each church community we can be working towards becoming an Eco-Church, reducing our heating and electricity bills, finding sources of renewable energy, and being more efficient about the resources we use. These are simple, but actually quite demanding things we can do to try and shrink our carbon footprint. Very practically, our Shrinking the Footprint initiative is doing excellent work in encouraging our churches to look at ways to do that.

COP21 has been hard won and now needs to be hard-wired. This isn't an optional extra for us as Christians and as Anglicans. Caring for creation has been one of the Anglican Communion's marks of mission since the 1980s: it's who we are as a Church and who we are as Christians.

About this author

The Rt Revd Nicholas Holtam is the Bishop of Salisbury and Lead Bishop on the Environment for the Church of England.

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The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of St Paul's Institute or St Paul's Cathedral.