The journey to COP26 – connecting, equipping and inspiring the worldwide Anglican family to safeguard the integrity of creation through 2021

19 March 2021

“To live out my Christian faith is to follow Jesus. That must include standing alongside the most vulnerable and marginalised on the frontlines of the climate emergency. As faith communities, my prayer is that we might stand together, emissaries of hope and love, calling for God’s justice and peace upon this precious world. Now is the time for action.” Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, addressing international faith leaders, 4th February 2021

Story by Jack Palmer-White, the Anglican Communion’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, and Elizabeth Perry, the Anglican Alliance’s Communication and Advocacy Manager.
Photo: Archbishop Julio Murray speaking at an ecumenical action at COP25. Elizabeth Perry / Anglican Alliance.

This year is a critical one for the world to take action on climate change and protect the integrity of creation. The postponed UN climate talks, COP26, have been rescheduled for November and there is already a great deal of interest and preparation for them, both within the Anglican Communion and throughout the wider world.

However, COP26 – the 26th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) – is just one of the important meetings that are taking place this year to address the environmental crises the world is facing. Other, equally significant, meetings will also shape the world’s environmental agenda for the coming years. The decisions that are made – and the actions that follow – will determine what kind of world future generations will inherit.

So, what are the some of the key events and opportunities this year offers and how will the Anglican Communion be engaging with them?

In this third of our companion environmental pieces, we explore these questions and share ideas for how Anglicans everywhere can be involved.

First though, we look at why there is such urgent need for action and give a brief overview of creation care within the Anglican Communion.

You can jump straight to the events and opportunities here.

People and planet under threat
It is no exaggeration to say that the integrity of creation is under threat and at risk of collapse. The life systems of the earth are under severe strain from the triple crises of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has recently published its first synthesis report Making Peace With Nature: A scientific blueprint to tackle the climate, biodiversity and pollution emergencies, which opens with these stark words from UN General Secretary, António Guterres, “Humanity is waging war on nature. This is senseless and suicidal. The consequences of our recklessness are already apparent in human suffering, towering economic losses and the accelerating erosion of life on Earth.”

Extreme weather events, sea level rise and changed rainfall patterns are severely impacting millions of people across the world. This is evident within the Anglican Communion and beyond. People live with pollution and waste. Degraded natural environments are the norm for many.

Creation care and Anglican identity
Anglicans have long held a holistic understanding of mission, which not only takes creation care seriously, but also sees it as a one of the principal ways we share in God’s ongoing story of love in the world. This understanding is expressed in the Anglican Marks of Mission and it is lived out in myriad ways by Anglicans across the Communion.

However, it is probably fair to say that creation care, environmental action, protecting the earth and loving creation deeply – as God does (John 3:16) – still do not, generally, receive the priority the other Marks of Mission do. This urgently needs to change. The stakes are high.

Anglicans and Creation Care
Throughout the Communion, there are thousands of Anglicans who are committed to creation care, working, praying and acting to protect and renew the life of the earth. From planting trees to community clean ups, adopting Green protocols or advocating for change, Anglicans are putting their faith into action.

Indigenous Anglicans play a particularly significant role within the Communion, as defenders of Nature and bringing a much-needed understanding of deep relationship and interdependence with nature, which is in stark contrast to the extractive worldview prevalent more generally. This was compellingly illustrated in the Prophetic Indigenous Voices on the Planetary Crisis series.

There are also Anglican initiatives that operate at Communion-wide level. The Anglican Communion has passed resolutions on climate change and the environment through the instruments of the Anglican Consultative Council and Lambeth Conferences of bishops.

The Anglican Communion Environmental Network (ACEN) brings together Anglicans who care for God’s creation. It has been an official network of the Anglican Communion since 2002. ACEN enables the sharing of experience, knowledge and resources to encourage Anglicans to support sustainable environmental practices both as individuals and in the life of their communities. Among its many activities, ACEN promotes and creates resources for the Season of Creation (working ecumenically) and has an active social media presence – Green Anglicans.

Associated with the network are the “Eco-Bishops”. Eco-Bishops were first established in 2015 when Archbishop Thabo Makgoba and the ACEN invited 17 ‘Anglican Bishops for Climate Justice’ to gather near Cape Town to consider ‘how we might live out, with urgency and in hope, the Fifth Mark of Mission’. The bishops were from places that were already affected by climate change, many in drought-stricken or coastal regions and cities vulnerable to rising seas. This led to the publication of their official statement, The World Is Our Host. Eco-Bishops continue to be advocates for environmental concerns both within the Communion and outwards from it.

Creation care is also a core part and focus of the work of both the Anglican Alliance and the Anglican Communion Office at the United Nations.

The Anglican Communion Office at the United Nations (ACOUN): The Anglican Consultative Council (ACC) has permanent representation at the UN and engages on a number of issues including gender justice, peace and security, and the environment and climate. The ACC is also accredited to the UN Environment Assembly and is expected to receive accreditation to the UNFCCC before COP26. The ACOUN is responsible for coordinating and stewarding the Communion-wide engagement with these bodies and their associated meetings.

The Anglican Alliance exists to connect, equip and inspire the worldwide Anglican family to work for a world free of poverty and injustice and to safeguard creation. As well as the integrity of creation being at risk of collapse, environmental degradation and climate change drive poverty and inequality. Through its partners and networks, its Regional Facilitators and the Anglican mission and development agencies, the Anglican Alliance connects with grass roots Anglicans and development practitioners in every part of the Communion. The Alliance is able to hear and gather stories and experience, and share them with the ACOUN team, and is also able to disseminate information from the UN team to people on the ground. Our aim is to connect, equip and inspire Anglicans to make creation care a priority for action and prayer.

In recent times, ACEN, ACOUN, the Anglican Indigenous Network (AIN) and the Alliance have been collaborating ever more closely, each body bringing its particular expertise to the shared vision of safeguarding the integrity of creation and renewing the life of the earth.

Young Green Anglicans, Mozambique

What do we hope to achieve?
The current decade – 2021 to 2030 – is the most critical the world has ever known for action to be taken to address the triple environmental crises. Without it, life on earth will be impacted and degraded in ways that will make the COVID-19 pandemic look minor in comparison.

The world is hurting. The Anglican Communion is a body, and the body is hurting. People and planet are denied the fullness of life Jesus came to bring (John 10:10). Caring for creation is about loving our neighbour, loving ourselves and loving our God.

And because we are a global body of many parts, the Anglican Communion can play a meaningful and significant role in being part of the solution: inspiring new ways of seeing, advocating for change, encouraging one another to prayer and action.

The overall aim of ACOUN and the Alliance is simply to do all we can to halt and reverse the unfolding environmental catastrophe by helping the Anglican Communion live out the Fifth Mark of Mission and working towards the Kingdom vision of abundant living and mutual flourishing of people and planet. Our strategies for how we achieve this are more nuanced and mundane, but this is the overarching goal for which we strive.

What are the opportunities 2021 offers and how will the Anglican Communion be engaging with them?
The climate COP in Glasgow is at the far end of the year and is the event that will receive by far the most public and media attention. This particular COP is especially important because it is the fifth meeting since of the historic Paris climate agreement of 2015 and as such is the first scheduled milestone for all nations to significantly increase their ambition for reducing their greenhouse gas emissions. These are called Nationally Determined Contributions, or NDCs.

It is essential to understand that it is the actions taken by governments and others before the event – the commitments they make to increase their NDCs – that will determine the success of COP26. The most significant and urgent advocacy we can engage in across the Communion ahead of the COP is with our own national governments, calling on them to make stronger commitments to reducing green house gas emissions. Supporting Anglican leadership in such advocacy is the first priority of the Anglican Communion’s COP26 engagement working group (see the section on COP26 below).

The ACT Alliance has a created an extremely helpful toolkit for national level advocacy on NDCs designed for faith actors and is planning a webinar for May. These ecumenical / multi-agency offerings provide the best way into such advocacy and we strongly encourage Anglicans to engage with them. In addition to advocacy, putting our own house in order is vital. Inspiration and ideas that can be adapted include the Race to Zero (UNFCC) and Sustaining Earth, Our Island Home (Diocese of California).

The first of the global events of 2021 chronologically is the fifth session of the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA-5). The first part (UNEA-5.1) took place in February and part two is scheduled for February 2022. The Anglican Communion engaged with UNEA-5.1 through a small delegation led by Jack Palmer-White, who heads up ACOUN. There were several notable successes, as described in our recent web story.

On Thursday 25th March, ACEN, in partnership with major UK Christian agencies, is hosting a webinar asking how Churches in the Anglican Communion can act for climate justice ahead of COP26 through divestment and investment. The Anglican Church of Southern Africa, the Church of Ireland and the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia have already divested from fossil fuels and many others are debating whether to do the same. Although it is primarily aimed at a UK audience, there is an open invitation to “Join this interactive webinar to hear from inspiring leaders across the Anglican Communion, who will share their insights about the steps that Churches need to take on divestment and investment ahead of COP26 in Glasgow in November 2021.”

In May, the postponed Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) is scheduled to take place in Kunming, China. If it is able to go ahead, this will be another meeting that shapes the global landscape, as delegates will review the achievements of the CBD’s 2011-2020 strategy and, it is anticipated, finalise the post-2020 global biodiversity framework. Frameworks such as this articulate a shared understanding of, and global commitment to, the action that is needed. They provide useful language and a framing that different actors, including faith bodies, can relate their own activities to, helping them share what they are doing and seeing how they are part of a bigger picture.

2021 is also the first year of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. The decade aims to build “a strong, broad-based global movement to ramp up restoration and put the world on track for a sustainable future”, which will involve both building political will and grass roots initiatives and which “will provide a hub for everyone interested in restoration to find projects, partners, funding and the knowledge they need to make their restoration efforts a success.”

The decade will be launched on June 5th – World Environment Day. The resources and ideas provided through this initiative will be of great help to Anglicans wanting to undertake practical activities to “sustain and renew the life of the earth”. The Decade will also help churches think about how they can link their work on creation care into wider global initiatives.

In July, the UN High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development will take place, with its theme of achieving a sustainable and resilient recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. The world has committed to achieving the Global Goals for Sustainable Development (the SDGs) by 2030. Several of the Global Goals concern the environment, including goals 7 (affordable and clean energy), 13 (climate action), 14 (life below water) and 15 (life on land). This is another opportunity for prayer, reflection and action by churches.

The Season of Creation runs from 1st September to 4th October. Now well-established, the Season of Creation provides an extended period in the church year for special and specific focus on the natural world and our relationship, as Christians, with it. It is a time for prayer and action – a global, ecumenical celebration, which has grown in uptake and impact year on year. It runs until October 4th, St Francis’ Day. The theme for this year’s Season of Creation is “A home for all? Renewing the Oikos of God”.

In this critical year for creation, the Season of Creation is all the more important, especially as it comes in the final run up to COP26. Two significant events are also scheduled to take place in the final week of the Season of Creation, described below.

The Pre-COP26 Youth summit will take place between September 28th and 30th in Milan, Italy, under the tile of Youth4Climate: driving ambition. Youth are at the forefront of climate activism, as seen in the phenomenal rise of Fridays For Future school strikes. A recent survey of Christian UK teenagers by Tearfund found that 9 out of 10 Christian teenagers are concerned about climate change but only 1 in 10 thought their church is doing enough about it. “The sense that climate change is not a high priority has left many young people disappointed with the church”, the report says.

A meeting of religious leaders and scientists at the Vatican is being planned for the autumn –  likely 4th October –  to build momentum for COP26. This is a joint endeavour between the Vatican and the COP presidency (jointly held by the UK and Italy). In preparation for this event, the British and Italian Embassies, together with the Holy See, are convening a series of virtual meetings. Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby addressed the first of these meetings, which took place on 4th February.

The UK government writes, “Faith leaders played a key role creating the conditions for the success of COP21 in 2015 and many of them have spoken out about the shared responsibility of people of faith to care for the whole of creation.”

COP26 is scheduled to take place between the 1st and 12th of November in Glasgow, UK. The UNFCCC COPs are the pre-eminent global decision-making process on climate change.

There has been Anglican presence at previous COPs but, with the Anglican Consultative Council’s accreditation to the UNFCCC, this is the first time the Communion can participate as a whole. Accreditation provides opportunities which have not been possible at previous conferences. These include: making formal written submissions, bringing voices from across the Communion into the UNFCCC; having an Anglican Communion delegation attend the annual Conference of Parties; and holding meetings between the delegation and government delegations at the COP.

An Anglican Consultative Council engagement plan is currently being developed by a working group chaired by Archbishop Julio Murray Thompson, the Bishop of Panama and Primate of Central America, who provides leadership to the Anglican Communion on climate change. The working group has representation from the AIN, youth, ACOUN, ACEN, the Anglican Communion Office, Lambeth Palace and the Anglican Alliance.

The working group has agreed three priorities, which will guide ACC engagement before, during and beyond COP26 in November 2021. These three priorities are to:

  1. Equip & enthuse Anglican leadership: supporting leadership where needed to engage in national level advocacy, including supporting church leaders in identifying their country’s commitment to the Paris Agreement and advocating to keep them accountable.
  2. Amplify and advise: supporting and promoting young Anglicans and indigenous Anglicans’ participation at COP26 and beyond.
  3. Promote resilience and finance: developing clear policy positions on these two key issues that can be taken up by the delegation and at national/provincial level

Engagement is being planned in the understanding that COP26 is likely to take place in a virtual/hybrid format.

As we said in the introduction to this section, the action taken before the COP will determine its success. The first of the priorities above is aimed to support and encourage such action.

2021 is a year of unparalleled potential to choose what the world will look like in 2050 – for good or ill. In his address to international faith leaders on 4th February, the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby asked, “How can we make 2021 a year of hope?” It is a question for all of us.

The full text of the Archbishop’s powerful speech is reproduced below.

Archbishop of Canterbury’s address to international faith leaders ahead of COP26 climate change conference. February 4th 2021.

Sometimes, God pulls the threads of circumstance together and our lives are changed forever. This year has been an extraordinary example of such a moment.

The Covid-19 pandemic has forced the world to look at how we have been living and operating, when so much of what was considered ‘normal’ was not possible. We have been confronted by our behaviour: by our sin; our greed; our human fragility; our exploitation of the environment and encroachment on the natural world. For many this uncertainty is new. But many more around the world have been living with uncertainty for decades as the grim, real and present consequence of climate change. To think it is a problem of the future rather than a scourge of the present is the blind perspective of the privileged. We look around and see that Mozambique has been hit again by tropical storms. In Nigeria, desertification has contributed indirectly to conflict between people competing for dwindling resources. Floods and cyclones have devastated crops in Melanesia, risking poverty and food insecurity.

But the pandemic has also revealed our capacity for change; the opportunities for repentance; the potential for hope amidst suffering.  We have learnt much about our interconnectedness, and our need for one another. It has been a revelation to many of us: we cannot go on as we have been.

Climate change is an issue in which greed, fragility, justice and interconnectedness come together. There are signs of hope and consolation. In the UK, we are preparing for COP26 in Glasgow in November and the G7 in Cornwall in June. It is good news that the United States has rejoined the Paris Accord. Many powerful people will be coming together, and on their minds must be this: how do we recover from a pandemic by imagining a world that puts the most vulnerable and the most marginalised at the centre? Where the protection of our natural assets is at the heart of our economic and financial decision-making? How can we make 2021 a year of hope?

Those with the power to effect change will need to balance that power with their responsibility. In the Bible’s accounts of the creation of the world, God gives humans dominion over the Earth. But replacing dominion with domination is a false theology and a sin, we should look instead to Jesus’ words that the Son of Man ‘did not come to be served, but to serve’. As the Anglican Communion’s fifth Mark of Mission puts it ‘to serve the Earth, not enslave it’.

I speak as a Christian. Jesus teaches us that there are no greater commandments than to love God and love our neighbour. To abide by those commandments as a Christian today is to step up to the challenge of climate change and connected environmental crises.

The relationship between science and faith presents us with a very real and a powerful route to lasting, major change. Our global reach, our commitment to local communities and our hope combined with the knowledge and expertise of science can forge a powerful alliance.  I am humbled by the action of the Anglican Communion around the world, from initiatives like Green Anglicans, The Anglican Communion Environmental Network (ACEN), the Eco-Bishops group, the Anglican Communion’s presence at the UN and the work of the Anglican Alliance. I particularly acknowledge the contribution from Archbishop Julio Murray, who is in this meeting and who leads the Anglican Communion in this area.

Finally, those who have the broadest shoulders should bear the greatest burden. And if these nations and powers stand in solidarity together, their shoulders will be strong indeed. This is a time and place where generosity, sacrifice and self-interest overlap.

To live out my Christian faith is to follow Jesus. That must include standing alongside the most vulnerable and marginalised on the frontlines of the climate emergency. As faith communities, my prayer is that we might stand together, emissaries of hope and love, calling for God’s justice and peace upon this precious world. Now is the time for act.