And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. (Genesis 1:31)
We human beings are an integral part of God’s good creation, and are dependent on the divinely created web of life for our well-being. As God’s image-bearers we also carry the responsibility to care for God’s creation. But due to anthropogenic climate change we stand on the verge of fulfilling the prophecy of Micah: “the earth will be desolate because of its inhabitants, for the fruit of their doings” (Micah 7:13). Moreover, love is at the centre of our Christian belief (1 John 4:16), and we acknowledge that if one member of the worldwide body of Christ suffers, all suffer together with that one (1 Corinthians 12:26). But sisters and brothers in poor, vulnerable and marginalized communities are facing the worst impacts of climate change while those responsible for the crisis continue to resist the demands of solidarity and justice.
The executive committee of the World Council of Churches, meeting on 12-17 November 2021 in Bossey, Switzerland, therefore expresses its disappointment and dismay at the inadequate outcome of the COP 26 Climate Change Conference. While some important progress and new initiatives did emerge from Glasgow, they remain far from enough to bridge the gap between the accelerating climate emergency and the lack of sufficient commitment and action to address it.
The science of climate change is implacable, not amenable to negotiation, and unforgiving of political short-termism. The most recent assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has demonstrated even more clearly and categorically the responsibility of human beings - or more specifically, wealthy industrialized countries – for the changing climate, and the urgency of action to address this challenge.
The time remaining for the major changes to our economies and societies that will be necessary to avoid catastrophic climate change is now vanishingly short – perhaps as little as a single political cycle in many democracies. But the latest joint analysis by the UN climate and environment agencies shows that even with the latest pledges and commitments made at COP26 – far from staying within the safer limit of 1.5°C global warming – the world remains on a trajectory that could substantially exceed the upper limit of 2°C, which would entail devastating consequences for low-lying island nations and communities in coastal and riverine areas due to major sea-level rises, vastly increased incidence and intensity of extreme weather events, and highly unpredictable consequences for biodiversity and eco-systems globally.
Nevertheless, the World Council of Churches does acknowledge the important new developments during COP 26, including in particular:
- The increased global mobilization of young people, representatives of vulnerable and marginalized communities, and churches and interfaith partners for climate justice, even if - especially due to COVID-19 restrictions - physical access to the conference and the decision-making sessions in Glasgow was greatly restricted;
- A commitment by over 120 countries, representing about 90% of the world’s forests, to halt and reverse deforestation by 2030;
- A pledge by more than 100 countries, led by the United States and the European Union, to cut methane emissions by 30% by 2030;
- An agreement by more than 40 countries – including major coal-users such as Poland, Vietnam and Chile – to shift away from coal, one of the biggest generators of CO2 emissions;
- The creation by 11 countries, including some sub-national authorities, of the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance (BOGA) to set an end date for national oil and gas exploration and extraction;
- The agreement by nearly 500 global financial services firms to align $130 trillion – some 40% of the world’s financial assets – with the goals set out in the Paris Agreement;
- The inclusion of references - if not yet clear commitments or effective mechanisms - on loss and damage, fossil fuel subsidies, Indigenous Peoples, and a just transition; and, perhaps of greatest geo-political significance
- The bilateral US-China agreement to work together on cutting greenhouse gas emissions in the next decade.
In addition, while the Paris Agreement of 2015 required revision of Nationally Determined Commitments (NDCs) every 5 years, the Glasgow outcome mandates annual reviews. Given that the emissions cuts pledged at COP26 fell well short of those required to limit temperature rise to 1.5°C, annual revision of these commitments is the minimum condition for maintaining any hope of staying within the 1.5°C threshold.
And even though language regarding phasing out coal – the dirtiest fossil fuel – was weakened in the final outcome, COP26 for the first time gave a clear signal of the beginning of the end of coal and other fossil fuels. However, as the UN Secretary-General observed, promises ring hollow when the fossil fuels industry still receives trillions in subsidies, when countries are still building coal plants, and when carbon is still without a price.
The implications of the science are clear: To stay within the 1.5°C limit, emissions must be reduced by about 45% by 2030. Coal must be phased out. More than 40% of the world’s existing 8,500 coal plants will have to close by 2030, and no new ones can be built. Consumption of all fossil fuels must be massively reduced, and fossil fuel subsidies must end. And commitment to sustainable production and consumption, and investment in a just transition to renewable energy, must be massively increased.
One of the greatest disappointments of COP26 is the persistent failure by rich countries to fulfil the promise made at the 2009 Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen to provide US$100 billion a year to poorer nations by 2020, for climate change adaptation and mitigation. Wealthier countries must make good on their promises, and provide the funding (as grants, not loans) commensurate both with the need and with their historic responsibility for the loss and damage already suffered by vulnerable poorer countries.
The World Council of Churches has been advocating for climate action for almost four decades, has been actively engaged at every UN Climate Change Conference, and has continuously emphasized the need for climate justice and a just transition that respects the rights and perspectives of poor and vulnerable nations and communities, of Indigenous Peoples, of women and girls, and of those least responsible for the climate emergency. Among innumerable other statements made during these decades, we recall the November 2019 WCC executive committee statement in which we joined other faith leaders, communities and civil society organizations in declaring a climate emergency, demanding an urgent and unprecedented response by everyone everywhere – locally, nationally and internationally.
This is the last crucial decade for climate action to avoid the catastrophe long foretold. In Glasgow our political leaders have once again procrastinated on taking the actions that the climate emergency demands, and diminished the window of opportunity for taking that action.
The WCC executive committee calls for justice for the poor and marginalized who face the worst and most immediate consequences of climate change. We demand the necessary emergency response from all governments, in whose hands now lies not only the interests of their present citizens, but of all future generations of life on this planet. We call for recommitment to the realization of the Sustainable Development Goals, and the promotion of sustainable livelihoods and communities.
We acknowledge and affirm the agency and leadership of Indigenous Peoples, the governments and peoples of low-lying island nations, and other vulnerable and marginalized communities at COP26 and in many other contexts. We express our deep appreciation of the many ecumenical and interfaith initiatives for climate justice in which the WCC and its member churches and partners have been involved in relation to COP26 and over the years.
Now, in this crucial moment, we urge all member churches, ecumenical partners and Christian communities to be leaders - not only followers - in making the changes for which we advocate. We commend to the global ecumenical fellowship the resources made available by the World Council of Churches – including the “Roadmap for Congregations, Communities and Churches for an Economy of Life and Ecological Justice” and the “Walk the Talk” Toolkit – to inspire and assist in taking practical and effective actions at the church and community level. In addition, we invite all churches, faith-based organizations, families and individuals to ensure that they are not indirectly implicated - especially through their banks, pension fund investments and other financial service arrangements - in the continuation of the fossil fuel industries that are major drivers of the climate crisis, but are actively promoting the transition to sustainable energy economies.
We continue to call for broader economic reform and transformation to support the attainment of the Paris goals, namely: moving away from GDP and promoting alternative indicators of progress and wellbeing, debt cancellation especially for nations experiencing recurring and intensifying climate impacts, carbon taxes and other measures to curb emissions and to resource climate finance and reparations, the reallocation of resources spent on buying weapons to the promotion of sustainable development, the reduction of corruption and theft of public funds that should be used for climate change responses, and incentivizing investments in real climate solutions such as agro-ecology, community-based reforestation and renewable energy systems.
We appeal for a fundamental conversion – a metanoia – in all our nations, societies, churches and communities, away from the destructive exploitative path which has led us to this precipice, towards a just and sustainable future.