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How Pope Francis could tip the balance against fossil fuels

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vatican solarSix years ago, Pope Benedict XVI installed more than 1,000 solar panels on the Vatican’s audience hall, helping him earn him the sobriquet of the “Green Pope”.

Some time in the next few months, his successor Pope Francis may just go one step further. His actions could tip the balance against fossil fuels, as the world’s wealthiest institution takes on the world’s most powerful industry.

The signs have been building. In November, the Pope sent a letter to Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott urging him to address climate change and sustainability at the G20  summit – something Abbott had pointedly refused to do.

At Lima, the Pope sent another letter urging diplomats to agree on a strong deal to tackle climate change as UN negotiations drew to a close. In a message to Peru’s environment minister, Manuel Pulgar Vidal, who led the discussions in Lima, Francis warned that “the time to find global solutions is running out.”

A group of Catholic Bishops went one step further, calling for an end to fossil fuel use, citing climate change’s threat to the global poor as the lodestar of their concern. The document, signed by bishops from all continents, insisted on limiting global temperature rise to 1.5°C relative to pre-industrial levels — a considerably more ambitious goal than the 2°C ceiling that’s generally agreed on as the threshold beyond which climate change becomes truly dangerous.

They also called for the building of “new models of development and lifestyles that are both climate compatible” and can “bring people out of poverty.” Specifically, they said: “Central to this is to put an end to the fossil fuel era, phasing out fossil fuel emissions and phasing in 100 per cent renewables with sustainable energy access for all.”

There is growing speculation within church circles that this view is held at the highest level. Pope Francis wants the image of the Catholic Church to evolve beyond that of a huge multi-national corporation, to its origins as a social and humanitarian based organisation.

As he showed in his extraordinary speech this week to the priests, Pope Francis is very much his own man, not of the establishment. Francis told the bishops and cardinals who run the Curia – the central administration of the Roman Catholic Church – that their careerism, scheming and greed had infected them with “spiritual Alzheimer’s”.

It was Benedict, though, who put the wheels in motion. The solar panels on the audience hall were enough to power the lighting, heating and cooling of a portion of the entire Vatican state. According to this National Geographic article, he authorised the Vatican’s bank to purchase carbon credits by funding a Hungarian forest, thus making the Catholic city the only fully carbon neutral nation-state.

Several years later, he unveiled a new hybrid Popemobile that would be partially electric. Francis went a step further, commissioning Osram to install 7,000 LED lights in the Sistine Chapel, cutting energy consumption by 90 per cent. It is now being extended to other Vatican museums.

But how much further could Pope Francis go? There is speculation that in his Encyclical, due in April, or even in a New Year’s speech, he could call for dramatic reform by the Catholic church. It would be similar, but bolder and more practical, than the Ecological Conversion address of Pope John Paul II in 2001.

This could include divestment. No one knows how much the Catholic Church has in its funds. It is likely to be hundreds of billions. The Uniting Church in Australia has voted to divest from fossil fuels. In July, the World Council of Churches, an umbrella group representing over half a billion Christians, announced its plans to fully divest from fossil fuels.

The SMH reports that in the same month, the Anglican Church of Australia passed a motion encouraging its diocese to divest. It noted then than a global campaign for the Vatican to divest had just been launched. Ironically, the Vatican’s finances are now controlled by Cardinal George Pell, the former archbishop of Sydney who is a noted climate science denier.

francisThere is speculation that the Pope could emulate the bishops’ call for 100 per cent renewables. What he could do is repeat and enhance the efforts to install solar and lighting at the Vatican across the church’s global assets. In effect, he could follow in the footsteps of other corporate giants – such as Google, Apple and Ikea – and set a goal of 100 per cent renewables for his own church, or corporate entity.

The Catholic Church is not just the largest private employer in Australia (and other countries), with some 180,000 employees, it is also one of the biggest energy consumers – with a combined annual bill that runs into the billions of dollars from schools, aged care centres, churches, parish centres and hospitals.

A series of initiatives that encouraged energy efficiency, the installation of solar systems – schools would be perfect for this because usage matches solar output – and also battery storage would have a profound impact on the incumbent energy system, hastening the inevitable transition to decentralised energy grid.

Not only will this encourage and facilitate a much higher overall adoption of renewables, it will also likely result in cheaper energy for all consumers. Major network providers in Australia see this as inevitable, and are already installing – without subsidies – battery storage instead of upgrading grids, and talking of renewables-based micro-grids instead of relying on the old centralised model.

In the US, the combined energy consumption of Catholic organisations – schools, hospitals, aged care, churches, seminaries and the like, would run into the tens of billions. In Europe, the same again.

But if the Pope’s criticism of the Curia was greeted by stunned silence in the Vatican, it is unlikely that any move towards divestment or a massive uptake of renewables would be greeted in the same way.

The fossil fuel industry is certainly worried. Rio Tinto CEO Sam Walsh, who has repeatedly told everyone that the future is coal, took part in a “day of reflection” at the Vatican in September last year. It was ostensibly billed as a chance for mining companies to get “Christian ethical input” to their conversations about the future of their industry. Others saw it as a lobbying exercise.

More recently, the AFR reports, Walsh and other CEOs of major fossil fuel companies took part in an “Ecumenical Day of Reflection on Mining” at Lambeth Palace, the seat of the Church of England, another massive institution – both in terms of funds, and energy consumption.

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  • Ken Dyer

    One can only ask, What would Jesus do? Is this an answer? John 8:12 “…Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” Pretty smart fella, that Pope.

  • Peter Campbell

    If only ‘Captain Catholic’ would listen to the pope on this occasion (not that I would want political leaders to give religious views credence all the time).

  • Lars Lohmann

    Interestingly, former Cardinal George Pell who now runs Vatican finances was quoted not too long ago of stating he did not believe in climate change. We can only hope that he too has changed his mind.

    Those who know much about the transition to a low carbon future and decentralised energy production will know that this is a huge social change that will benefit humanity and create many new green jobs. Pope Francis is a breath of fresh air.

  • GregX

    This is fantastic news. I’m not a religious person but this article has given me some new found faith.

  • patb2009

    if the Churches were to push hard to put in 100% renewable energy and EVs, that would be totally a game changer. It would put the faith community in line with stewardship and protecting God’s works.

  • patb2009

    Perhaps the Pope could get Catholics across the planet to also embrace Green energy… It would be interesting the challenge there.

  • azaredaniel

    We Need Sustainable Energy Policies, with all hands on Deck, removing Home Owners and Business Persons from investing and keeping their own profits goes against our daily childhood pledge of, With Liberty and Justice for All.

    A California Residential Feed in Tariff would allow homeowners to sell their Renewable Energy to the utility, protecting our communities from Poison Water, Grid Failures, Natural Disasters, Toxic Natural Gas and Oil Fracking. It would also create a new revenue stream for the Hard Working Taxpaying, Voting, Homeowner.

    Sign and Share this petition for a California Residential Feed in Tariff.
    http://signon.org/sign/let-california-home-owners

    We need a National Feed in Tariff, this petition starts in California.

    California currently has a Feed in Tariff that does not allow home owners to participate in the State mandated goal of 33% renewable energy by 2020.

    California also does not allow the homeowner to oversize their R.E systems, as of now, your local utility has allowed only 80% homeowner generation from your R.E system.

    California has 2 different Energy policies Net-metering and a Feed in Tariff.

    Net metering the energy policy for homeowners, allow you to bank excess electricity from R.E systems for future credits. The credits you accumulate are at the retail rate, and are reviewed at the end of the year. It will be written off with a thank you from the utility and no payment to the homeowner for producing more than what you use.

    Net metering has allowed third party leasing companies to replace one utility with another.

    “Examples of Net-metering slow down Renewable Energies:

    1. Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPSs) which create de facto caps on the deployment of renewable energies (the Germans do not have any RPSs, their Feed in Tariff has no caps.
    2. Net-metering caps, most states only allow a small percentage of one to two percent of peak load to be net metered.

    3. Third party leasing companies like Solar City, Sun Run, Verango and others fight tooth and nail to protect scarce capacity carve outs (from the States RPSs) so as to bolster their chosen business model.” Bob Tregilus

    No one is fighting for the Hard Working, Taxpaying, Voting, Homeowner, we can change that with a Ca. Residential Feed in Tariff Energy policy that allows everyone to participate. Homeowner’s, Small and Large Businesses, Small and Large farmers, and Industries, have the right to sell Renewable Energy electricity to the utility.

    Vote Solar Initiative is a Sierra Club and Solar Leasing Companies platform to ensure that One Utility will take the place of Another through the continued use of Net Metering.

    We need a Policy that will enable Hard Working, Voting, Tax Paying Citizens, get a chance to participate in the States goal of 33% Renewable Energy by 2020 through a California Residential Feed in Tariff.

    California, there is enough Residential Solar to power 2.25 San Onofres, couple that with a Commercial Feed in Tariff and we can solve some of these environmental and electrical generating problems.

    This petition will ask the California Regulators and Law makers to allocate Renewable Portfolio Standards to Ca. Home Owners for a Residential Feed in Tariff, the RPS is the allocation method that is used to set aside a certain percentage of electrical generation for Renewable Energy in the the State.

  • Carol Tas

    Pope Francis still has ex-Pope Benedict to talk to about issues. Something positive in that.

  • Leslie Graham

    He better watch his back – he’s making some powerfull enemies in the fossil-fuel climate denial machine.

  • David in Bushwick

    Best Pope ever.

  • Doug Cutler

    Scientific agnostic here but this new Pope is starting to rock my world.

  • Chris Fraser

    Some good Catholic friends of mine are not yet aware of these teachings. Let’s hope they find out. I think I’m starting to like this fellow a lot.

  • Fred Gunter

    There is not m