Election briefing: Signs of hope for the planet in manifesto pledges on climate change

Luke Jerram’s Gaia installation in Southwark Cathedral, photograph courtesy of ECLAS

By Ruth Peacock

Faith groups across the globe are passionately engaged in climate change campaigns, with a deep desire to save the planet.

And representatives of faith organisations and campaign groups, speaking at a Religion Media Centre election briefing, saw signs of hope and opportunities for engagement in the parties’ manifestos.

With 84 per cent of the world’s population affiliated to a religion, the briefing was reminded that faith has a crucial role in environmental concerns, because there is general agreement across the divides that the planet is God’s creation and humas must protect it.

Faith organisations worldwide are protesting and campaigning, organising community events and raising awareness and they are regarded as having a vital role to play in continuing to press for change to reduce global warming and prevent catastrophic natural disasters.

The briefing was part of a series of discussions looking at manifesto commitments in the UK general election. Most of the parties have set out detailed plans covering the future of energy supplies, protection of the natural environment, new green industries and ambition to achieve international targets of a reduction in carbon emissions to net zero.

The Bishop of Oxford, Steven Croft, a former member of the Lords committee on environmental change, acknowledged that we would need some fossil fuels to reach net zero by 2050, but he believed the government should not be issuing licences for new extraction fields.

Labour, if elected, will ban new licences for oil, gas and coal. The Conservatives pledge annual licensing for oil and gas from the North Sea. The Lib Dems want to reduce the UK’s dependence on fossil fuels significantly. The Greens want to stop fossil fuel extraction. The Reform Party wants to scrap net zero as unachievable.

The Rev Tim Howles, associated director of the Laudato Si’ Research Institute in Oxford, said he saw signs of hope in some of the manifestos, including Labour’s ambition for a decarbonised electricity system by 2030, with onshore and offshore wind.

He also praised the Greens for their ambition on the date, 2040, by which net zero can be achieved. The Lib Dems say by 2045 at the earliest. The Conservatives stick to 2050, the date set by the most recent international conference, Cop28.

Oliver Pearce, policy chief at Christian Aid, pointed out that the International Energy Agency has said that the UK does not need — and cannot afford — any new licences for the exploration of oil and gas from a climate perspective. He wanted more ambition internationally, reducing investments in fossil fuels abroad and providing finance to follow the science for renewable energy.

“There’s a lack of trust in the negotiations at the moment,” he added. “And we need countries, including the UK, to show more ambition, to say, actually, we’re going to provide more funding, because we recognise that climate impacts are intensifying and that more needs to be done.”

Jamie Williams, senior policy adviser at Islamic Relief, who sits on UNFCCC, the United Nations’ climate change committee, emphasised that climate change was the only global issue. What happened in one country affected everyone else.

International negotiations, he said, had entered a toxic phase, with a great deal of disjuncture and bad faith, centred on financial discussions over rich countries compensating poorer ones that bear the brunt of climate change, with natural disasters, collapse of farming and mass migration to survive.

Mr Williams felt the incoming government must continue to support the diplomatic skills of civil servants who are trying to make progress and he paid tribute to those who had been at the sharp end especially since Cop26 in Glasgow.

He also sits on an interfaith liaison committee, which meets regularly for discussion and engages with negotiators at the heart of the global debate.

The global interconnectedness of climate issues means faith groups with adherents all over the world, are in a unique space to liaise, campaign and support each other.

Amandeep Kaur Mann, founder of EcoSikhs, said everything in climate change was connected — fossil fuels, the natural world, health, the economy. Often people did not understand the urgency of the challenge, because the problem was described in words that nobody understood.

But education and explanations were essential. Among diaspora communities, a natural disaster such as a heatwave or flooding in Pakistan, for example, was keenly felt in the UK, because people have relatives and friends there and feel helpless.

Mr Howles described the work of the Vatican and his institute following the words of the Pope, who said the challenge is a cry of the earth and the poor. The Laudato Si’ Institute has projects in Uganda, Brazil, Colombia and northeast India, all connected with partners around the world.

There was a misunderstanding in higher education about the role of religion in the story of climate change. But religion generated attitudes and behaviours and was a significant component in tackling climate change.

George Lapshynov, a researcher with the Theos think tank, said world leaders needed continuing progress and had to bring the population with them to create the changes required.

Analysis by Theos of British Electoral Study data showed that 60 per cent believed not enough was being done to protect the planet. In 2022, research by King’s College London showed one in six adults did not believe that climate change was caused by human activity.

Another finding from the study was that people in the UK were less willing to sacrifice economic stability for environmental protection than was the case five years ago, perhaps explained by the global economic uncertainty after Covid and the war in Ukraine.

There is, however, widespread support in the UK for reformation of the water industry after a series of reports that raw sewage has found its way into rivers and the sea.

Bishop Croft said the attention drawn to this in the election drive by the Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey, who fell into Windermere, was the most imaginative bit of campaigning in the past few weeks. Problems like this, he cautioned, became more complex when trying to find solutions and needed sustained engagement across departments to solve. He hoped this would be top of the government’s agenda.

Campaigns drawing attention to climate issues are often in the headlines. The weekend before this briefing, 60,000 people marched through London to protest against the decline in wildlife in the UK and damage to the ecosystem.

Amardeep Kaur Mann said this was one of EcoSikhs’ key issues, pointing to research that suggested nature degradation could cause GDP to fall by 12 per cent. Plaid Cymru’s manifesto says one in six species is dying out in Wales.

She would welcome the enactment of the stalled climate and nature bill: “Reversing biodiversity loss is not enough. We need an emergency strategy with some sort of climate and nature assembly in a joined-up approach. It’s not just about animals and species, it’s also about how they link to the ecosystem and the economy.”

She told the briefing about EcoSikh’s campaign to plant 400 forests in India and other parts of the world, including Derbyshire and Ireland.

Mahmooda Qureshi, a community campaigner from the West Midlands, told how different faith groups got together in a joint campaign for a low carbon footprint.

Mr Howles said hopefulness derived from grassroots social movements, but he feared that in recent years they had been struggling and even endangered. “I think we’ll need social movements in the years ahead, not just on climate but, for example, on right-wing extremism and so on.” He said such movements were “diagonal”, cutting across party political allegiances.

“Religion can do critical work here by asking questions of themes prevalent in our culture. I often point to the story of the French Jesuits in the 20th century who were going through first of all the rise of fascism, and then the rise of communism. And in every case, they managed to find these wonderful sorts of diagonalising movements where they said, ‘Neither that nor that, because our politics is something completely different’.”

Now, he said, when people talk of the apocalypse as the Earth’s temperature rises, Christians could say they do have something to say about the end of time, but the end isn’t now. “There is still a space for genuine responsibility and political agency,” he added.


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