Category: Sustainability and Global Affairs

The Role of Environmental and Spiritual Ethics in Galvanizing Nature Based Solutions – UNEP Report

Faith for Nature: Multi-Faith Action was a global event October 5-8, 2020 designed to lay the foundation for inter-faith collaboration for sustainable and regenerative development to achieve the SDGs. Center for Earth Ethics director, Karenna Gore participated. The concept and objectives of this conference were coordinated to be in support of the fifth United Nations Environment Assembly to be held in February 2021 in Nairobi with the overall theme “ Strengthening Actions for Nature to Achieve the Sustainable Development Goals”.

The Faith for Nature Conference had the following objectives and outcomes:

A) Identify the relevance and way forward in mobilizing values, ethics, spirituality and faith-based action to achieve the SDGs.

B) Empower faith-based organizations in taking action for the SDGs and to cooperate for sustainable and regenerative development, with a view to endorsing the establishment of a global Faith for Earth Coalition.

During the conference, the UNEP published a brief outlining critical markers towards understanding the state of our planet and recommendations for our continued mobilization for the road ahead.

The Role of Environmental and Spiritual Ethics in Galvanizing Nature Based Solutions

We are currently facing unprecedented multiple crises of climate change, pollution, biodiversity loss, zoonotic diseases amongst many others. Unsustainable human activities continue to degrade vast areas of the planet and if left unchecked could result in widespread ecosystem collapse and further biodiversity loss. The climate crisis continues to be the greatest existential threat to humanity and will exacerbate challenges of poverty, food security, water supplies, natural disaster resilience and peace. This crisis transcends all barriers and will negatively impact everybody as despite drastic developments over time, all civilisations remain firmly rooted in nature and cannot afford to destroy it. We must act quickly to reverse this trend before the negative impacts on human beings, and the planet, become irreversible.

Many consider humanity to have entered the age of the Anthropocene, whereby the human race is the single most influential factor dictating the current and future state of planet earth. There are no quick technical fixes to solve the climate crisis and our overexploitation of natural resources. We cannot afford to be complacent and hope that science and technology alone will solve these pressing problems. Instead, transitioning to a more sustainable future requires the engagement of the full spectrum of society and the employment of innovative approaches that address climate change and protect the natural environment based on behavioural and environmentally ethical changes in production and consumption patterns. One of these approaches, and the focus of this paper, is that of Nature-Based Solutions (NBS), an emerging
concept with great potential. This paper will outline what NBS are, how the UN is supporting these practices, how FBOs are already engaging with NBS and what can be done to scale up action. This will be framed in the context of environmental and spiritual ethics that will help galvanise momentum to adopt nature-based solutions.

Read on or download the report pdf.

What are Environmental and Spiritual Ethics?
Environmental ethics can be described as a set of norms describing how humans should behave towards nature and its resources. These norms reflect a moral attitude concerning what is viewed as good/permissible or bad/sinful [1]. Given that the climate crisis is rooted in a complex web of economic, social and cultural factors, as well as belief systems, social attitudes and perceptions, it is worth considering how these ethics impact our ability to address it. The unsustainable socio-economic systems, and consumption and production patterns that dominate much of the world today, arguably reflect belief systems and social attitudes. To make global human activity more sustainable therefore requires an examination and potential return of the values, beliefs and ethics that drive human beings and their relationship with the natural environment.

For many people, these values and ethics will be derived from or inspired largely by their particular faith. There exists a multitude of different spiritual traditions and religions throughout the world, varying in size from a few hundred adherents to many millions, reflecting the incredibly diverse cultures of the world. Overall, roughly 85% of the global population is affiliated with a religion or faith, with spiritual beliefs influencing people’s worldviews and decisions [2]. Despite the great diversity of religions and beliefs, virtually all share a common ethic based on harmony with nature and an obligation to preserve it from destruction. All faith beliefs explore the relationship between man and nature and whilst these perspectives vary, each acknowledges that environmental destruction will have negative impacts. However, most religions arose at a time when people were much more intimately connected to the natural world, gaining their livelihoods directly from it. With technological progress, the impacts of globalisation, ever-growing urbanisation and increasing mechanisation of agriculture and food production, people today, particularly in mega and big cities, are more detached from nature than ever before. Therefore, there often exists a disconnect between what is contained within religious texts and teachings, and the current practices of the adherents of those religions [1].

Therefore, in this time of unprecedented global environmental degradation, a new environmental ethic based on universally shared values is required, one that places a greater value on nature and connects to spiritual beliefs. This duty of care must be expanded to all places and not only address today’s pressing challenges, but factor in future generations that are to come so they do not inherit a severely damaged planet. This means re-evaluating the irrationality of valuing economic growth and material wealth over the health of the natural ecosystems, upon which all life relies. This is where religious teachings can play an important role in helping people rediscover old ties with nature still dormant in the collective human conscience and found in scripture. A collective environmental ethic does not mean homogenising the diverse perspectives religions offer. Rather it entails embracing diversity and creating a common notion of a moral duty to protect the environment that can serve to bridge religious divides whilst incorporating the expertise, knowledge and practices that different faiths provide. The ultimate aim should be that humans learn to live in harmony with nature and with one another. The destruction of nature is a catalyst for most issues facing the world, and there is an intricate linkage between a healthy environment, peace, prosperity and development [1]. Therefore, all faiths should acknowledge the universal threat posed by the environmental crisis and collectively resolve to address it. As shall be discussed and demonstrated, nature-based solutions are one area where faith actors can draw on ethical traditions and spiritual guidance. Combining these with contemporary scientific knowledge and best practice will serve to make faith contributions even more effective.

The most common perspective is that of stewardship in Abrahamic religions, or interdependence in Buddhism and Hinduism. As advocated by Pope Francis in his encyclical Laudato Si, On Care for Our Common Home, this position holds that God gave earth to man to care for, and that destruction of the natural environment is a destruction of God’s own creation. The Laudato Si explains the linkages between injustice, poverty, exclusion and environmental degradation and is highly critical of excessive consumerism and materialism. This grants an intrinsic value to nature, but still acknowledges that humans have a special and unique responsibility in protecting all creation as the dominant species. As we enter the dawn of the Anthropocene, this responsibility is more significant than ever and believers are compelled to consider their role as environmental stewards [3]. Our religions, or secular moral philosophies can guide us to make more responsible choices regarding the environment.

The UN and Environmental Ethics
The call for the consideration of environmental ethics and connection to spiritual beliefs is not new. Several global conferences, seminars and publications have addressed different elements over the past thirty years. In this section, a list of where the UN and in particular UNEP, has contributed to the dialogue is mentioned.

The World Charter for Nature, 1982, emphasised that “Every form of life is unique, warranting respect regardless of its worth to man, and to accord other organisms such recognition, man must be guided by a moral code of action” [4].

The UNEP Seoul Declaration on Environmental Ethics was adopted in 1997. The declaration proposed to develop a new value system: where ‘human greed and excessive materialism’ are replaced by ‘an ethical paradigm [5].

The 1998 General Assembly (GA) resolution 53/22, proclaimed 2001 as the UN Year of Dialogue among Civilizations. The resolution called on governments and the UN to plan and implement cultural, educational and social programmes to promote the concept of dialogue among civilizations, including through conferences and seminars and disseminating information [6] (UN, 1998).

The 2000 Millennium Declaration included respect for nature among the six fundamental values essential to international relations in the twenty-first century [7].

In 2000, UNEP, The Parliament of World’s Religions, Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology and other partners published “Earth and Faith: A Book of Reflection for Action” [8] introduced these issues and made linkages between spiritual beliefs, environmental issues and the moral responsibility towards them. This effort, twenty years later, has resulted in a newer version titled “Faith for Earth: A Call for Action” [9] that is being launched during the Faith for Nature conference.

There were several international conferences on Dialogue among Civilizations, including: Vilnius, Lithuania (2001) [10]; Tokyo and Kyoto, (2001) [11] ; and Tehran (June 2001) [12], which adopted the Tehran Declaration on Environment, Religion and Culture. The latter, promoted environmental education and religion and called for environmentally responsible behaviour. Furthermore, the International Conference on the “Dialogue among Civilizations, Cultures and Peoples” in 2005 and the subsequent Forum in the same year emphasised, the need for a new shared vision of a common destiny [13].

UNEP, UNESCO and other partners held in 2016 in Tehran the second International Seminar “Environment, Culture and Religion – Promoting Intercultural Dialogue for Sustainable Development” examined the nexus of environment, religion and culture, as a direct response to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development [14].

What are Nature-Based Solutions?
Nature-Based Solutions is an umbrella term for various approaches that share common features and are designed to protect the natural environment whilst addressing societal challenges. These approaches are inspired and supported to work with nature itself and its capacity to selfheal. Human wellbeing and biodiversity depend directly on healthy, diverse and resilient ecosystems, with Nature-Based Solutions acting to protect, restore and sustainably manage them and the range of essential services they provide. NBS can become an important strategy in climate change mitigation and adaptation, ecosystem restoration and fighting pollution by addressing major related issues such as food and water security or natural disaster resilience. Nature-Based Solutions should be flexible, locally adapted, systemic and grounded in the best environmental science and knowledge to ensure they are properly implemented to create the most benefits, for people and planet [15].

By drawing upon nature itself, NBS’ also have the potential to be one of the most cost-effective and efficient strategies we have against climate change and environmental degradation. They primarily work with and around natural systems, instead of relying on expensive technologies, feats of engineering or the use of conventional infrastructure materials of steel and concrete. Therefore, investing in Nature-Based Solutions means utilising renewable natural processes and local resources whilst decreasing the use of costly external inputs of energy, money, materials and human management. This makes Nature-Based Solutions very appealing routes to sustainable development and one that is more open to broader participation given they are more environmentally affordable than other strategies [16].

Many Nature-Based Solutions draw upon historical knowledge and practices. With a welldeveloped strategy and a deep understanding of local ecosystems, organisations can contribute to these processes. Nature-based solutions should be employed not only to protect existing ecosystems, but restore previously degraded ones.

An example of an effective nature-based solution is mangroves. Mangroves have long acted as a great buffer between the land and sea, serving to protect local communities from strong winds, storms and coastal erosion. They also support fishing, supply water resources, provide timber, are effective carbon sinks and important sites of biodiversity. Therefore, when mangroves are degraded and their resources depleted, local communities risk food and water insecurity, as well as becoming much less resilient to natural disasters. So, mangroves supply critical services and their destruction is bad for both the environment and people in surrounding areas [17]. Restoring them creates benefits across the board, ensuring a more sustainable future. Nature-based solutions can also be synergised with grey infrastructure when necessary to create hybrid solutions. An example of this would be the systems of dikes and sea gates constructed along the Dutch coast [18].

The UN and Nature-Based Solutions
The United Nations has embraced the benefits of Nature-Based Solutions, with the Climate Action Summit, convened by the UN Secretary-general, in September 2019, bringing NBS to global political attention as an important strategy in climate change mitigation and adaptation. To this end an NBS Coalition co-led by China and New Zealand, launched the NBS for Climate Manifesto that seeks to mobilise support from governments, the private sector, civil society and international organisations to massively scale up land restoration activities worldwide [19]. This has already been accompanied by nearly 200 initiatives from around the world, and organisations of any size can draw inspiration from these as an example of best practice [20].

Indeed, the UN Environment Programme has also called for “an urgent, massive investment effort to conserve and restore biodiversity and ecosystems, and drastic change in the way we interact with and depend on nature, to unlock its full potential” [16]. UNEP estimates that by working with nature, we have the potential to reduce emissions by more than a third by 2030. This is especially important as the United Nations has recently launched its Decade of Ecosystem Restoration and is reviewing national commitments to the Paris Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals [21]. See the various ways how UNEP, with its partners, is committed to nature-based solutions here.

UNEP is working from the ground up, with small communities and at the highest levels, to carry out nature-based solutions. This can be through raising awareness around NBS and supporting a wide range of restoration initiatives such as agroforestry, reforestation and afforestation programmes, particularly in tropical region, to reduce land degradation while soaking up carbon. UNEP is also assisting countries define, implement and monitor their national biodiversity action plans and ecosystem-based climate change adaptation plans [16].

Finally, Strengthening Actions for Nature to Achieve the Sustainable Development Goals is the theme for the upcoming United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA5) to be held in February 2021. This session is intended to “mobilize, motivate and energize member States and stakeholders into sharing and implementing successful approaches and Nature-Based Solutions that contribute to the achievement of the 2030 Agenda” [22]. This will bring NBS further into the forefront of global policymaking and environmental action.

Other Multilateral Engagement with Nature-Based Solutions
The European Union is also increasingly invested in nature-based solutions which it describes as “living solutions inspired by, continuously supported by and using nature, which are designed to address various societal challenges in a resource efficient and adaptable manner and to provide simultaneously economic, social and environmental benefits” [23]. The European Union believes NBS is a realistic sustainable pathway that will allow for targets of job creation, growth, competitiveness and innovation, whilst tackling global environmental challenges. This forms part of the EU’s Biodiversity Strategy to 2020, Horizon 2020 Programme and Green Infrastructure Strategy for a more sustainable Europe. Significant funding, research and innovation programmes have been directed towards implementing NBS within and beyond EU boundaries [23].

There are other multilateral entities that are advocating for NBS. The African Development Bank has also explored whether nature-based solutions are the key to Africa’s climate response [24]. Simultaneously the Asian Development Bank has also explored the role of NBS in building resilience, particularly in the greater Mekong sub-region [25].

These are important developments as in order to stay within safe planetary boundaries, nature itself, must be brought into development, policymaking and climate solutions in a coherent way and at unprecedented scale [26]. The ongoing Coivd-19 pandemic has emphasised humanity’s unhealthy relationship with nature and despite immense changes in countries around the world, the climate crisis continues unabated. NBS offers a chance to rethink this relationship and offers numerous opportunities to forge a new sustainable future, one that still accounts for the four dimensions (social, economic, environmental and cultural) of sustainable development.

Faith-Based Organisations and NBS
The Faith for Earth Initiative aims to build on this momentum and increase faith engagement with the ideas and practices of NBS. Fortunately, we have a lot to draw upon as faiths have long been engaged in NBS practices, even if they weren’t necessarily described as such. This following section will demonstrate historical and contemporary examples of faith communities using Nature-Based Solutions and why FBOs can become incredibly important actors in this field.

Roughly 85% of the global population is affiliated with a religion or faith, with spiritual beliefs influencing people’s worldviews and decisions. Further, 5% of commercial forests, 10% of habitable lands belong to FBOs and 50% of schools are run by FBOs [27]. These figures highlight why FBOs can be an indispensable power in the implementation of nature-based solutions given the extensive land and resources under their control and the educational leverage they have. The influence of faith leaders and the substantial wealth of natural assets of some FBOs are further resources to assist faith actors in such ethical environmental action. However, the influential outreach, credibility and connection with faith followers are the most essential resources that can lead to behavioural change in believers.

Indeed, the concepts and practices of proactive environmental conservation within religions appeared much earlier than the first modern conservation movements in the West during the mid-19th century. Many of these conservation movements themselves emerged from religious organisations and were inspired by faith teachings. As stated above, there is a clear history of environmental consideration within religions and folk traditions, reflected in scriptures and practices, some which pre-date contemporary religions. This rich history is further manifested in the location of sacred sites of worship, many of which are found in areas of natural beauty.

Examples of Faith and Nature-Based Solutions
Ancient Sanskrit texts from India (Mahabharata, Ramayana, Vedas, Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita, Puranas and Smriti), explicitly address the relationship between humans and nature. These are considered some of the oldest religious texts in the world, from which much of Hinduism is descended. Ecology is central to the spiritual worldview in Hinduism and there is significant emphasis concerning environmental ethics, with people expected to live in harmony with nature and recognise that divinity prevails in all elements, including plants, animals, rivers and other natural features. Perhaps the most notable example is the river Ganges being personified as the goddess Ganga [28]. The Bhagavad Gita instructs to not exploit and shape the environment to fulfil human needs, but instead advocates for a balance in earth’s ecosystems and has many prohibitions on harming the environment. There are clear messages of conservation embedded, which can even be viewed as nature-based solutions. For example, there is guidance on not uprooting trees by rivers as it can cause erosion and flooding, as well as preventions on polluting. There are even messages on not harming the sky, which today we might consider the atmosphere. Overall, there is a spirit of non-violence within Hinduism, that extends to all living beings and emphasises that humans are not above nature. This spirit extended to neighbouring religions of Jainism and Buddhism [28].

Muslim spiritual ethics teach that such environmental care is not for people alone, but for all life. People are instructed to act as Khalifa, or trustee of God, and entrusted with the safekeeping of life on earth [1]. The first Global Environmental Forum from an Islamic Perspective, held from 23 to 25 October 2000 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, with UNEP as a partner, adopted the Jeddah Declaration on the Environment from an Islamic Perspective. That Declaration advocates for environmental protection and notes that sustainable development from an Islamic perspective is the development and rehabilitation of the Earth in a manner that does not disrupt the equilibrium established by God [29].

Faiths and Forests
Another environmental principle that features in Hinduism, and indeed a majority of spiritual and indigenous traditions, is viewing trees as sacred and providing many benefits, both spiritual and material. Trees and forests have often been revered and protected by various religions, with mention of them regularly found in scriptures. Building on these historical traditions, tree planting and protection initiatives are increasingly popular amongst faith-based organisations. Such initiatives are also affordable and can easily mobilise members of a faith-community to climate action.

Sacred groves are found all throughout the Indian subcontinent and South-East Asia with reference made to them in Hindu, Jain, Daoist, Sikh and Buddhist sacred texts. These groves are usually associated with local temples, monasteries or shrines and situated in pristine natural environments. They are communally protected, with unsustainable practices being banned, such as hunting, logging, clearing or irrigation systems [30]. Traditionally they served as sites of prayer and contemplation, as well as providing medicines and renewable resources such as fruits, dry-wood and honey. Today many act as biodiversity hotspots as more and more species are threatened with habitat destruction, both flora and fauna. In areas like Rajastan, they have also helped prevent desertification and can be considered a precursor to bold initiatives such as the Great Green Wall [31].

Japanese Shintoism is grounded in rural agricultural tradition, with ceremonies and practices that guide the relationship between people and nature. A key component of this is the establishment of Sacred forests (镇守の森) that have been inherited generation by generation, preserving ancient trees and plants, as well as sustaining animals that rely on them. Many Shinto shrines are built of wood and situated in forests or groves, and spirits (kami) are believed to reside in trees [32]. These sites serve to emphasise the mutual relationship that binds humans and nature, and these customs and practices could be embedded into nature-based strategies. Further, they also act as biodiversity reservoirs and communities/societies with declining biodiversity are seen to be in decline themselves [1].

In Ethiopia, of the only 3% of primary forests that remain, the majority are found in groves protected by Orthodox churches. Ethiopian Orthodox churches were historically designed as symbols of paradise, resembling the garden of Eden and these church forests are closely tied to spiritual practices. Often these tiny native forests lie on only a few hectares adjacent to a church. Yet these forests contain the endemic biodiversity of the Ethiopian highlands that are increasingly being lost to agriculture, cattle grazing and industry [33]. Building simple stone walls around them prevents cattle from eating new growth and allows trees to flourish undisturbed, slowly increasing the size of these church forests. This cost-effective nature-based solution is a mild adaptation of a religious practice that has been ongoing for hundreds of years and another example of why faith actors can be so important moving forward [34].

The Hima (reserve) system in Islam is another demonstration of organized protected areas that dates back thousands of years. The word “hima” in Arabic means a “protected or forbidden place”. Hima was developed by early Muslims to protect trees, regulate grazing and provide socio-economic and environmental benefits for the entire society in the highly arid Arabian Peninsula where conservationist water practices are essential. Different types of Hima existed to stop desertification, deforestation, allow bee-keeping and regulate grazing [35]. One criteria for establishing Himas is that it must be established in the way of God; for public welfare. Two examples of large scale Himas established by prophet Mohammad are the cities of Makka and Medinah.

The Maronite Church of Lebanon has protected the forests of Harisa, a WWF Mediterranean Programme “forest hot spot” for over 1000 years. Indeed, the Lebanese flag today features a Cedar tree at the center [1].

In Pakistan, rare species of original trees are still found in old Muslim graveyards, due to prohibitions against cutting such trees. This is another example of where endemic species have been preserved due to religious guidance [1].

Further, inspired by the scriptures or spiritual principles, some religious sites have been built for novel plantations. Over 50 plants are mentioned in the Qur’an and Sunnah and over 120 in the Bible [36]. There now exist Islamic, Biblical, as well as Baha’i botanical gardens, which serve as repositories of biodiversity and offer pilgrims a destination for eco-tourism and a chance to see rare flora.

Eco-Sikh’s Guru Nanak Sacred Forest project draws upon Sikh principles whilst using the renowned Miyawaki Method in their forestry work. The Eco-Sikh initiative draws upon religious ethics in their integrated approach. This approach centers around a holistic vision that demands that injustice against the environment and people be combatted together. All life relies upon a bounteous nature, and when it is degraded it is the poorest who suffer first and foremost. Hence why Sikh tradition has placed great emphasis on recycling, avoiding waste and limiting the use of resources, alongside a spirit of community sharing of resources. The Guru Nanak Sacred Forest project is reflective of a broader environmental ethic within Sikhism. One that believes that an awareness of the sacred relationship between humans and the environment is necessary for the health of our planet and humanity’s survival. This ethic is not confined to the Sikh community alone, but to all of humanity and nature, advocating that people cease to exert mastery over nature and exist in harmony instead [37].

Last but not least, in terms of restoration at a large scale, over the last decade, FBOs have invested finance, lands and labor into scientifically based plantation initiatives. Christian and Muslim groups across Africa have committed themselves to planting millions of trees over the last decade [33]. Contemporary Tu BiShvat (New Year of the Trees) in Judaism is also celebrated through tree planting for this ecological awareness day [38].

Interfaith Efforts
Overall, many faith communities have long attached importance to trees and protected them for the multiple benefits they provide. These traditions contain a big reservoir of knowledge and best practices that can be drawn upon when implementing nature-based solutions Whilst, the above examples demonstrate individual faith practices that involve protecting forests and trees, there are also interfaith initiatives. The most notable of these is the Interfaith Rainforest Initiative. The IRI was founded to nurture a worldwide movement for the protection of tropical forests, grounded in the values, ethics and moral guidance of faith communities [39]. This initiative is currently working in Brazil, Colombia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Indonesia and Peru in coordination with some of the world’s leading interfaith organisations, including Religions for Peace and the World Council of Churches.

UNEP Faith for Earth, FAO, the Global Catholic Climate Movement and several charitable organizations are engaging with the Living Chapel on creating a global interfaith movement for creating Living Sacred Spaces. The programme aims to create environmental impacts on a large scale by performing concrete environmental actions promoting peace-building and environmental sustainability. These Living Sacred Spaces will be hubs for community-led action utilizing recycled materials, wastewater reuse, tree plantation, use of renewable sources of energy and creating new job opportunities for local communities [40].

Given the essential role forests play in regulating our environment, the increased interest in forestry amongst FBOs is a positive development. However, it is essential to ensure that tree planting initiatives are done in a rigorous and scientific manner. There are many factors to be considered and we encourage all organisations to thoroughly inform themselves before starting a project [41]. When correctly implemented, combining the traditions of faith with the principles of nature-based solutions, faith based organisations can sustainably transform places they control and be significant contributors to NBS.

Food Consumption
Faith traditions also impact on food consumption practices. The doctrines of Mahayana Buddhism, Jainism and Hinduism all recommend a vegetarian diet amongst followers due to ahisma (non-violence) towards human being and all nature [1].

Islamic (Halal and Tayyaba) and Jewish (Kosher) norms also prohibit the consumption of pork and mandate certain food preparation methods and dietary regulations. These reflect dietary ethics and laws as regulated in the respective religious texts of each: the Qur’an and Sunnah for Islam and the Torah and Talmud for Judaism. Whilst there exist differences in these regulations, within and between the two faiths, they draw upon religious mandates that exist to prevent corrupting that which God has created [42].

Whilst, a plant-based diet has the least negative environmental impacts, there can exist regulations that do minimal ecological harm without being vegetarian or vegan [43]. In Christianity during the period of Lent, adherents fast or abstain from certain foods at a time of reflection. Some of these traditions emerged out of a necessity to protect or use a resource sustainably or from a cultural aversion {42}. Regardless, these spiritual norms are embedded in everyday life and can be expanded upon to incorporate new developments on sustainable and ethical consumption.

For example, Korean Buddhist monasteries long situated in remote areas have developed diverse and unique culinary styles utilising local, seasonal ingredients. As an increasing number of Koreans take pilgrimages to such sites, they are exposed to this cuisine and faith inspired eating practices. Korean temple foods are celebrated for being sustainably and locally grown, low in calories, modestly portioned and healthy due to its vegetarian principles. This traditionally religious inspired food is becoming an important part of consumer’s lifestyles [44].

The concept of alaya consciousness within (Mahayana) Buddhism sees the enlargement of human desires as the root cause of environmental problems [45]. This concept can refer to a more general need to reduce materialism and excessive consumption and serve as an environmental ethic that people can adopt, regardless of their religious perspectives. Many FBOs have long contributed to addressing food security issues and hunger around the world. This remains one of the major challenges of the 21st century as the global population continues to grow rapidly and more and more land is allocated for unsustainable agricultural practices. However, a startling third of all food produced goes to waste, enough to feed the world’s hungry. Thus, what is required is more equitable distribution of food and a reduction in waste and overconsumption. Sharing food is a recurring and often fundamental part of many world religions, with adherents encouraged to share amongst those less fortunate. These values can be expanded to include guidance on reducing food waste. Indeed, Pope Francis stated in 2013 that excessive food waste was “like stealing from the table of the poor and hungry” [46].

Religious organisations should encourage their followers to consider food consumption and production patterns and how they can be more ethical and sustainable in their choices. As previously mentioned, faith actors have an important role to play in these processes. At a time when the world has been devastated from the outbreak of a zoonotic disease (COVID19), it is essential to consider new food consumption patterns with spiritual traditions able to provide inspiration. The world’s faith traditions promote different practices of eating ranging from what to eat during the Christian lent season, to Muslim’s fasting during Ramadan or vegetarianism practiced by followers of Hinduism and Buddhism. The core values of religions are demonstrated in adopting a sustainable lifestyle that respects the health of the people and the health of the planet. A comprehensive overview on this matter is addressed by Todd
Levasseur’s “Religion and Sustainable Agriculture: World Spiritual Traditions and Food Ethics (Culture of the Land)” [47].

Sustainable living:
Lifestyles identify how we live — a set of behaviours, choices, and habits shaped by social, economic, and political spheres of life, reflecting who we are and the society we live in. Lifestyles, individual and collective, are a key element in actualizing the social-ecological transformation toward sustainability that the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and Agenda 2030 seek. Targeting a change in lifestyles is an ultimate long-term solution to achieve planetary health and global sustainability. Many of the world’s religions and faith traditions harbour untapped resources for implementing more sustainable living and lifestyles [2]. They contain teachings regarding care of the Earth, wise use of natural resources, working for the common good, social justice, and well-being for all which speak to the four dimensions of sustainable development (environmental, social, economic, and cultural sustainability). The idea of an “ecological civilization” based on Confucianism is finding its way into many levels in China’s state administration, the higher education system, and more widely into the whole society. The aspirations of this “ecological civilization” are in accordance with the SDGs of the Agenda 2030 and have made sustainable behaviours and consumption the spine of the religion [48].

In 2015, Hindu leaders published the Bhumi Devi Ki Jai – A Hindu declaration on climate change, starting with a famous quote from the Atharva Veda stating that “the Earth is my Mother and I am its creature” [49]. It underlines the fact that what will be done to the planet will be done to humans through the principle of interdependency. These beliefs give significant importance to nature and the planet and are setting the stage for sustainable lifestyles within the context of Hinduism.

Jainism has a lot to contribute to the development of sustainable lifestyles in a faith-based perspective. Jain lay persons, for example, are enjoined to engage in occupations that are not associated with violence and/or destruction of life, and follow a vegetarian diet [50].

A key Buddhist environmental ethic, that of the “principle of circulation”. This is related to the Buddhist view on the cycles of life and the idea of reincarnation or rebirth. If one considers that they will one day be reborn, then one’s future prospects are determined by behaviours of oneself in the present. Therefore, to live in an unsustainable and environmentally unethical way will negatively impact one’s future self. Thus, there exists an individualistic as well as collective ethical pressure to care for the environment [45].

Some native peoples, especially the Lenapes, indigenous people of the north-eastern woodlands in Canada and the United States, think that all energy on Earth comes from the sun [51]. From their point of view, our dependence on fossil fuels is unjustified and problematic. Human activities consume currently about 12.8 terawatts of energy when the sun continuously provides around 800 terawatts to the Earth. We just need to find innovative ways to use this energy effectively.

Faiths celebrate their respective religious festivals throughout the year. For instance, some celebrate the birthday of their religious leader, others celebrate an ancient miracle that changed the lives of early believers. Just like the reasons behind the celebrations, the way people celebrate differs from faith to faith and culture to culture. Some sacrifice animals, some dance, some have family gatherings. Yet these celebrations have become a source of consumption, with large amounts of waste generated and sent to landfills. While celebrating the holy days, we can be conscious of the environment and think about the impact of our actions and festivities.

Almost all faiths have their holy destinations and call their followers to visit these sites. Believers from a variety of cultures and residency locations travel long distances to pray and to redeem their sins. Yet, these holy journeys contribute to environmental degradation through greenhouse gas emissions, since in our modern world we travel long distances by plane, car, or train. It is no longer possible to pilgrim on foot for weeks and months. Moreover, our choices in the pilgrimage site have an impact on the environment. Hotels, restaurants, the means of transportation within the site/city, the products and services we use – all have a certain impact on the environment. Yet, in most cases, we only consider factors like cost, availability, convenience, time efficiency, congestion, and comfort. It is up to us to consider our environmental impact before and during our pilgrimage.

The Green Guide to the Hajj, the first guide to an environmentally sustainable Hajj, was launched in November 2011 to encourage Muslim pilgrims to reduce their impact on the Earth, while arriving in Mecca in Saudi Arabia. The Green Guide for Hajj, a new version, was launched by Global One 2015 and EcoMuslim at the Sacred Land Launch and Celebration of the Green Pilgrimage Network, in Assisi, Italy [52], organized by the Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC). The Hajj – one of the five pillars of Islam – is amongst the biggest annual pilgrimages in the world (in 2010 some 2.5 million pilgrims attended it), and such massive human activity inevitably has an impact on the environment. This guide offers pilgrims the chance to be mindful of the potential environmental impact of their journey and to make
choices to limit any damage.

Integrating sustainability into lifestyles and cultures can be achieved by every individual in his/her everyday life and actions, beyond faith-based aspects of life and living. Promoting sustainable lifestyles needs cross-cutting methods and domains through which each aspect of daily life can be addressed. These methods and domains provide further tools for those practitioners who intend to internalize sustainable lifestyles in their personal lives and own community. Particularly, education, finance, partnerships, and advocacy are key domains in convincing people to live their lives in a sustainable way.

Greening Houses of Worship
In recent years there has been growing momentum for FBOs to “green” their sites and Houses of Worship. A House of Worship is a building, or a structure especially constructed or converted into a place where individuals or a group of people perform religious rituals of devotion. They usually serve as the spiritual centre for communities. Such houses of worship can occupy land as small as a few meters, to structures and facilities that expand for thousands of acres. These are now being transformed into beacons of sustainability through practices of worship and teaching/preaching about environmental care. Further, Houses of Worship are increasingly using sustainable designs, with buildings being constructed or converted to be more eco-friendly, often incorporating principles of Nature-Based Solutions [53].

Christian churches have been particularly active in this field, with adherents from all denominations participating in greening their churches and surrounding communities. There exist different perspectives on Christian environmental ethics that inspires them to act and this is a rich and growing field of discussion [3]. Other massive initiatives have been started in the Islamic world to green mosques around the globe by installing solar systems, water saving devices and planting trees. While many temples and sanctuaries around the world rely on nature for their daily practices, needs and conservation efforts.

One of the most important contributors to nature-based solutions are indigenous people throughout the world. Many indigenous belief systems have long held a reverence for nature, with populations directly sustaining their livelihoods from it. The natural environment provides much of the food and medicine they consume, and the materials required in daily life. Given they are more intimately connected, indigenous people act as environmental guardians with a deep understanding of local ecosystems. Their unique value and belief systems have enabled them to respect and live in harmony with nature, utilising natural resources, but conserving the diversity of life upon which they depend. This involves protecting sacred areas by prohibiting logging, fishing, hunting or even entrance to certain sectors of forests, rivers and streams. Environmental degradation is the main threat to indigenous cultures and ways of life throughout the world and they are heavily invested in protecting it [1].

Furthermore, owning, occupying or using around 22% of the world’s surface areas, indigenous people safeguard 80% of the world’s biodiversity and are essential to protecting it [54] (1). However, these areas are often contested, and indigenous people face regular threats to their land rights. Yet “lands managed by indigenous peoples and local communities with secure rights experience lower rates of deforestation, store more carbon, hold more biodiversity, and benefit more people than lands managed by either public or private entities” [54]. Overall there is close correlation between areas of biological and cultural diversity with most indigenous populations found in areas of megadiversity. These species-diverse environments in which indigenous peoples live are deeply tied to productive activities and spiritual values. From that perspective, all creation is sacred and the sacred and secular are inseparable with belief systems preventing the overexploitation of resources.

(1) Figures vary on the percentage of land owned by indigenous people given debates on the definition of indigenous and that such populations frequently suffer from a lack of land rights and illegal encroachment into their territory. Some figures state that indigenous groups and local communities amounting to 2.5 billion people, customarily manage over 50% of the global land, but legally on just 10% [56]. Other figures again, state that 350 million indigenous people live in over 70 countries, inhabiting nearly 20% of the world’s surface area and 85% of its protected areas frequently in highlight biodiverse tropical rainforests [1].

There has been a tangible uptick in attention concerning the involvement of indigenous knowledge in environmental governance. Many organisations, NGOs and initiatives are now committed to working with indigenous groups to protect their land rights and work together for climate action. A number of international governmental and non-governmental organizations, such as the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, UNESCO, the International Labour Organization (ILO), the Commission on Sustainable Development and its forums on forests, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the World Bank, WWF, IUCN and others, have also integrated the promotion of the rights of indigenous peoples into their respective activities [1].

The input of indigenous people has been an important contribution to REDD+ and ICPP [55]. When indigenous people seek to adapt to novel challenges like climate change, they look for holistic solutions to increase resilience to a wide range of stresses. The intimate knowledge they have of their environment can enable them to make observations and interpretations of natural phenomena that might otherwise pass under the radar of external scientists. For instance, the sensitivity on regional warming by Tibetan pastoralists and exhaustive understandings about the Greenland shark by Pangnirtung Inuit of southern Baffin Island, are astonishing findings for scientists [57].

Therefore, climate scientists advocate the respectful acknowledgment of their distinctiveness and rationalization, or the direct assimilation of local knowledge systems into western worldviews of environmental management, and then the expansion of options for governance and action. As such, indigenous knowledge would serve as local expertise, a source of climate history and baseline data, give insights into impacts and adaptation in communities, and in the interim, contribute to formulating research questions and hypotheses, and long-haul community-based monitoring as well [58].

Agriculture is a sector that could particularly benefit from the adoption of indigenous practice and knowledge. Globally important indigenous agricultural heritage systems not only sustain livelihoods and preserve the cultural legacy of indigenous people, but also protect fragile landscapes and agrobiodiversity. Amid those, hybrid systems, such as agroforestry and agriaquaculture have been recognised as effective carbon sinks/sequestration methods. Unlike many contemporary single-species, high input, high-throughput agriculture systems, the agropastoral system of the Maasai, the Dong’s rice-fish-duck in China and northern upland agroforestry systems in Tanzania are a few example that take advantage of the ecological characteristics of each species, and make full use by recycling waste generated from food production [59]. Whilst these hybrid nature-based systems don’t produce food at the necessary scale to feed many populations, there are certainly lessons to be learnt that could be applied in other contexts.

Simultaneously, indigenous fire management practices create a network, or mosaic, of burnt firebreaks, reducing hazardous blazes in the dry-season and modifying the landscape to encourage vegetation regrowth and a more nutrient-rich habitat for all [60]. Since unforeseen bushfires have recently taken massive tolls on worldwide forests, these traditional approaches would be viable methods for ecosystem conservation and reforestation of forests. Ultimately principles of nature conservation are intrinsic to indigenous ethics and their input is invaluable for effective nature-based solutions.

Conclusion and Recommendations
Many religions consider humans as stewards of the creator on Earth. Others believe that everything is managed by a higher divine spirit. But all agree that there is an individual and communal responsibility for the future and future generations. This responsibility for future generations is perhaps best manifested by the example from the Iroquois tribe in North America, who would plan ahead for the seventh generation when making decisions, ensuring that they do not tarnish the sacred land upon which future generations will depend [1].

The wellbeing of humanity and the functioning of the economy and society ultimately depend upon the responsible management of the planet’s finite resources. This involves recognising that environmental conservation is not an impediment to development, but a moral duty and crucial component for future generations by staying within safe planetary boundaries. Every sector and social group in the world have a responsibility to contribute towards a greener, more sustainable future, and religious organisations are no exception. This paper has begun to outline the many ways faith communities can and have contributed to nature-based solutions and the environmental ethics contained within faith traditions that can contribute towards these processes. Now FBOs must look at how they can accelerate and scale-up these contributions, as well as reducing practices that harm the environment.

1. Interfaith collaboration to form a global platform “Faith for Earth Coalition” to bring the common understanding of religions towards our spiritual and moral responsibility toward earth.
2. Leverage the unique ability of religious institutions to mobilize social networks in addition to a distinct moral standing.
3. Financial resources of faiths be mobilised and invested into new, innovative partnership platforms and sustainability initiatives, such as NBS.
4. Strengthen interfaith collaboration in the implementation of the SDGs contributing to peace-building and environmental sustainability.
5. Inter and Intra-Faith collaboration on building the capacity of faith leaders at all levels to understand the ethical, moral and spiritual responsibility towards earth.
6. Religious and cultural leaders to strengthen educational materials building on ethics, values and cultural norms that raise a future generation linked to moral standards and not material world.
7. Religious scholars to continue engaging with scientists in building guidance for sustainable development that addresses the moral, ethical, spiritual, and practical responses needed to adopt nature-based solutions to environmental challenges and build common ground for collective action
8. Governments embrace religious and cultural diversity, knowledge and sustainable practices as important contributions in building back a better future.
9. Empower UNEP and its partners to continue engaging with religious leaders and engage religious leaders in policy dialogue through the United Nations Environment Assembly.
10. We be self-reflective and question our own ways of thinking. Building systematically updated knowledge and ensuring a self-reflective view around the pros and cons of engagements must be a constant and deeply contextualized process. There is no one size fits all approach [61].

Religion remains one of the most powerful forces in the world that drives social values and behaviour. Today we need profound shifts in values and behaviour to transition to a sustainable future and no institutions are better placed to catalyse such changes than religious ones. Indeed, adherents of a faith need only look into the scriptures for inspiration as all faiths contain a series of ethics relating to the natural environment and guidance on how humans should interact with it. Now is the time to engage and act, for a greener, better and sustainable future.

What is the Faith for Earth Coalition?
The Faith for Earth Initiative established by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), and the expected Coalition, is tasked to strategically engage with faith-based organisations (FBOs) and partnering with them to contribute towards the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and Agenda 2030. Various faiths acknowledge humanity’s obligation as environmental stewards and the Initiative seeks to mobilise these faith actors and resources, united around the common goal of sustainable development.

The Faith for Earth programme is a global interfaith initiative aiming at introducing the cultural, spiritual, and ethical dimensions of sustainable development into the means of implementation of the SDGs, especially those related to climate change, life under water and life above land. Faith for Earth has three main goals including: 1) inspiring environmental action by faith leaders and their institutions, 2) green faith-based investments and assets as part of financing for sustainable development, and 3) providing knowledge resources between the scientific-based evidence and religious teachings and sacred scripts. When integrated into the normative work and decision support system of the global environmental governance, these faith-value systems present an important tool for an ethical and transformative approach to finding long-lasting environmental solutions.

The Faith for Earth Coalition is a global multi-stakeholder platform to realize this common vision with the overall aim to facilitate partnerships with faith leaders, faith-based organizations and people of faith at global, regional and local levels in order to inspire, empower and strengthen action and behavioral changes towards achieving the SGDs. The intended impact shall be achieved through establishing a multi-stakeholder platform for global interfaith dialogue and cooperation between Faith Leaders, faith-based organizations, young people, scientists, policy makers and environmentalists on issues that contribute to solving global environmental challenges. The Faith for Earth Coalition will facilitate policy dialogue and public engagement on environmental sustainability, encouraging innovative approaches to finding long-lasting solutions.

The Faith for Earth Coalition comprises four Coalition Councils:
 The Council of Eminent Leaders: Composed of high-level faith leaders representing major and minor world religions.
 The Youth Council: Composed of young faith leaders and members of youth movements advocating for the protection of the Earth.
 The Network of FBOs: Composed of faith-based organizations with a focus on the environment or those working with (local) faith communities responding to the Sustainable Development Goals.
 The Faith-Science Consortium: Composed of religious scholars, scientists and environmentalists to bridge the gap between environmental science and religions.

The unique value-added of the Faith for Earth Coalition is its impact on interfaith collaboration regarding environmental issues. The Faith for Earth Coalition is an innovative platform for bringing together diverse stakeholders with different backgrounds and beliefs around the issue of environment which undoubtedly affects all humans regardless of worldview. Caring for the Earth, as a common home to all religious followers, is a concern that brings faith-based organizations and religious and spiritual leaders together in mutual understanding, collaboration and respect.

Practices and spiritual expressions by different religions align with many important concepts of environmental ethics, including the value of the natural world, the continuity between human and non-human forms of life, the moral significance of all living beings in the eyes of God and/or in the cosmic order, and the responsibility to live in balance with nature. The Faith for Earth Coalition connects the intrinsic linkages between faith concepts of stewardship and duty of care and environmental sustainability with governmental and multilateral duty holders, to improve the living conditions of all – and leaving no one behind.

Involving young people – a sector of the world population that numbers over three billion – through the establishment of a Youth Council mobilizes a generation of environmentally conscious leaders who will better influence environmental decision-making processes and act responsibly to promote sustainable development.

The Faith-Science Consortium is established as a bridge between the traditionally secular world of science and the world of faith. Policy dialogue and public engagement take place to link environmental policy and science to faith principles and ethical values and vice versa, while scientific findings and traditional faith-based messages around nature and sustainable living are translated into contemporary language that is actionable by people, such as low plastic waste, food waste prevention, low carbon mobility, energy efficiency and circular economy.

The Faith for Earth Coalition builds on the recognition that the full, meaningful and equal participation and leadership of women in all aspects of the Coalition’s governance and outputs is vital for achieving the targeted impact. Recognizing that environmental conditions have different impacts on the lives of men and women due to existing gender inequality, the aim is to create an enabling environment for improving gender equality and the situation of women and girls everywhere, including in rural areas and local communities and among indigenous people and ethnic minorities.

Finally, ending with a quote from the Earth Dialogue of 2002 that declared: “We do not have the luxury of time. Action is urgently needed, and to make it possible will require: a strong ethical framework; political courage on the part of world leaders; reform of the current systems of global governance and financial regulation; increased and better targeted official development assistance; and heightened individual awareness and commitment worldwide.” – Earth Dialogue Forum, in Lyon, 2002.

Download the PDF Report.

Deep Water Mining – What’s really going on in our Oceans?

“The world is too tragic for naive optimism” – Cornel West

The coronavirus has spurred a number of recovery plans including from the World Bank and the Democrats, and the European Union all of which keep the climate and sustainability at the forefront. Threaded through all of them is the idea of a green revolution that “Builds Back Better”, meaning that the world will once again hit all of its economic markers without the fossil fuel pollution that’s always accompanied it.

That may be easier said than done, however. The green revolution will require massive solar fields and wind farms as well as fields of batteries to store and manage the energy that is captured. The materials required for sustainable tech – primarily lithium, cobalt, copper, and the rare earth metal neodymium among others – are increasingly hard to come by and are mostly found in China, parts of SE Asia, Australia, sub-Saharan African countries, and along the Ring of Fire that runs from the southern tip of Chile to the Aleutian Islands in Alaska. Demand is driving fresh exploration in Eastern Europe and across the United States but the biggest cache of minerals exists underwater. 

4000-6000 ft under the Pacific Ocean exist large hydrothermal vents that belch out constant streams of minerals that form clusters of gold, silver, copper, cobalt and an array of rare earth metals. It’s the new frontier of mining according to a 60 Minutes feature from 2019 that asked why the US hasn’t yet capitalized on this emerging market. And that is a question to ask. The underwater deposits are estimated to be worth upwards of $17 trillion and whoever gets there first could have a veritable monopoly over the much coveted metals. From this vantage point it is fairly mysterious that the United States has not committed more money towards this endeavor especially considering the 2 million sq/mi minefield, called the Clarion Clipperton Zone, or CCZ, is situated between Hawaii and Mexico. 

There are no reliable deep sea mining operations yet because of the extreme complexities involved in the process. Yet is the operative word here. There’s a mad dash by groups around the globe trying to be the first ones to crack this nut and that’s a very scary thing because no one really knows what the environmental impacts would be in any direction. To date, roughly 1% of the deepwater ocean floor has been mapped and little is known about what ecosystems exist down there. What is known is that the  hydrothermal vents that produce the bounty of metals more importantly play host to one of the most curious and alien biodiverse ecosystems on the planet. They are wonderfully complex and shrouded in mystery not only to questions of how they evolved but how they integrate into the oceans ecosystem at large. 

The United Nations recently released a resolution calling for the suspension of deep sea mining until better and comprehensive environmental impact studies are done. The resolution came out of the International Seabed Authority (ISA) which is a consortium of 168 nations formed in 1982 to study and provide regulations for activities in the sea. Though under the umbrella of the United Nations, they are relatively autonomous and have their own governance structure. They have put forward hard fought agreements such as the Convention on the Law of the Sea and The Mining Code which are meant to provide a semblance of guidelines and regulations to those wanting extract resources from the ocean. As agreed to by the 168 nations in the ISA, all the minerals in the deep seabed are considered the shared heritage of all mankind, which is one way to say that it’s open season for whoever can get them. 

In 2018, De Beers Corporation scraped the sea floor for 1.4 million carats of diamonds off the coast of Namibia and is working on a new boat that can scrape at twice the speed. There’s no telling what it’s done or will do to those ecosystems going forward because there’s no requirement to learn what those impacts might be. It’s a disturbing precedent that’s being set and it’s only just beginning. There are mining operations underway in New Guinea to break apart underwater geysers to access the mineral deposits built up around them, and both Japan and South Korea are starting their own deep water operations. There isn’t a policing body for much of any of this. Countries own the waters 12 miles off their coastlines but beyond that invisible line it becomes international waters where regulations and oversight fade away. It’s the perfect place for corporations and countries to extract with relative immunity and little to no recourse, except for whatever the Earth doles out. 

We should have been descaling carbon production decades ago but we didn’t and now we’re looking for an exit where one might not exist. The green revolution that the world so desperately needs might come with costs that we do not begin to know how to measure. In our desperation to avoid the worst of fossil fuels we must not let our hope in a green revolution allow us to rely upon the processes and ideologies that got us here in the first place. 


Laudato Si at 5: Climate Justice and Ecological Citizenship in times of Covid-19

Video: Please enjoy the Laudato Si at 5 webinar program hosted by Fordham Law, June 18, 2020 |12:00-1:00 p.m.

Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home reaches its fifth anniversary, amid a pandemic which has the power to transform ways of working, commuting, and connecting. It also reveals the deep inequities in our society, including environmental injustice that harms human health. In this dialogue, we will explore the ecological crisis in times of COVID-19 from a moral, economic, and legal perspective.

Kit KennedyDirector, Energy & Transportation Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council 
Karenna GoreDirector, Center for Earth Ethics at Union Theological Seminary
John MundellPresident/Senior Environmental Consultant at Mundell & Associates, Inc.
Simone BorgLaw Professor and Head of the Department of Environmental Law and Resources Law at the University of Malta School of Law.

Rabbi Burt Visotzky, Appleman Professor of Midrash and Interreligious Studies and Director, Milstein Center for Interreligious Dialogue, Jewish Theological Seminary
Endy Moraes, Director of Fordham’s Institute on Religion, Law & Lawyer’s Work.


Fordham’s Institute on Religion, Law & Lawyer’s Work

Center for Earth Ethics at Union Theological Seminary

Milstein Center for Interreligious Dialogue, Jewish Theological Seminary

The Rebirth of Coal

Funding for fossil fuels has not slowed down.

In 2015, 197 nations signed The Paris Climate Agreement pledging to transition away from fossil fuels to renewable energy. The science is clear that unless emission from fossil fuels drop to near 0 by 2030, the world is sure to eclipse the 1.5C standard that would stave off the worst impacts of climate change. It was an ambitious and historic pledge that most agreed wasn’t strong enough for the amount of change we needed but a good first step all the same. Four years later and they’re still spending irresponsible amounts of money on fossil fuels and making insufficient process on renewable energy.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic there has been a precipitous drop in fossil fuel consumption. Most estimates put the annual drop somewhere between 5-8% depending on how / if the virus returns with conviction in the Fall. 

Decreases in air pollution above the Northeast United States due to COVID-19 response. (Image credit: NASA / Science Visualization Studio)

Britain has gone two months without burning coal which is something that hasn’t happened since the dawn of the industrial revolution. Elsewhere in Europe, we are seeing drastic cuts in coal emissions as well as the shuttering of coal plants. In the United States, coal continues to plummet despite efforts by Donald Trump and his advisors who are determined to prop up and deregulate the dying industry.

Of all the fossil fuels coal is the worst. It’s dirty and toxic and polluting from the word go because of what is required to mine it and when’s its burnt it releases a toxic cocktail of sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) mixed with Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and Fine particulate matter (PM10 and PM2.5) that come together to pollute the air, warm the atmosphere, and cause cancer. Once burned there are mountains of coal ash full of heavy metals that blow into the air and seep into waterways and aquifers. 33% of power in the USA is generated by coal and almost every coal plant is located adjacent to or in a primarily Black community.

Though the use of coal is down in the United States and Europe, the Asian market has invested heavily in it over the past decades. Recently, China announced 34 gigawatts (GW) of new coal power –  which is equivalent to the power Poland’s produces in a year  – and adds to the already staggering 147 GW it produces from coal annually. It is estimated that China is currently financing a quarter of the world’s coal projects with its development banks – including the China Development Bank (CDB) and China Export-Import Bank (CHEXIM) – providing over $226 billion in loans to Vietnam, Indonesia, India, South Africa, Afghanistan and the Philippines over the past two decades. 

The Chinese investment in coal is discordant with their much celebrated commitment to renewable energy initiatives. China remains the world leader in onboarding wind and solar projects and has outsold every other country in regards to electric vehicles. There are similar questions being raised for Japan which has dramatically increased its reliance on coal on the other side of the Fukushima disaster. It has quickly become the world’s third largest importer of coal in and is Australia’s largest client. When asked why Japan invested in coal rather than safe renewable energy options, one economist simply replied, “because coal is cheap.”

Though the price of renewables is down across the world coal is still a cheap and rapidly scalable option for countries that need energy fast. Countries may have their eyes set on a renewable future but the minerals and metals required for renewable technologies are not keeping pace with energy demands.

Asia as a whole is one of the last markets for coal producing countries like Indonesia, Australia, and India who are seeing their other accounts dry up. Miners and producers in the United States are eager to get in on the action. Interior states including the Dakotas, Utah, New Mexico, Montana and Wyoming are eager to put people to work and send their products to Asia but are being blocked from doing so by Western ports. In 2016, a 96-car train carrying Bakken crude oil derailed outside of Mosier, OR causing an explosion unlike any that had ever been seen. The incident inspired waves of protests in both Oregon and Washington, and sparked new regulations on what can be shipped and exported through the States. For interior coal and oil producing states, though, exploding trains and broken pipelines aren’t reason enough to stop.  Instead, they are suing Oregon, Washington, and California over their prohibitive regulations.

What is mystifying about all of this is that coal is on its last legs according to most every investor. Financial markets and asset managers are being forced to analyze their own portfolios to strategize how they’ll account for depreciating coal stakes and the industries likely inability to cover their outstanding loans.

And it’s not just coal. Fossil fuels across the board are decreasing in value and are projected to continue depreciating. The coronavirus sent oil down to -$37 per/barrel before rebounding and stabilizing in the $20 per/barrel range. This is temporary at best. A recent report by Coal Tracker estimates that if demand drops at the annual 2% outlined in the Paris Agreement, fossil fuel profits could fall by $25 trillion, potentially collapsing the global financial market.

What the world is looking at is an industry that is killing the planet and whose death throes have the potential to untether the global economy. It’s not good. What’s worse is that rather than cutting credit to fossil fuels and investing aggressively into renewables the World Bank and other multilateral development banks continue loaning billions to oil, gas, and coal at twice the rate they are giving to renewables. The pressure to change is mounting from both inside and outside the industry and it cannot relent. In many regards, fossil fuels have never been in a weaker position and though they aren’t going down without a fight they are undeniably going down. The question is navigating the transition in an equitable, sustainable way.


World Environment Day 2020 – Karenna Gore

Today is World Environment Day. Our nation is going through a painful reckoning with systemic racism and worsening economic inequity, so the “environment” can seem to be a lesser concern. But as many Native American and Black voices have pointed out, ecological, racial and economic issues have always been intertwined.

Consider Donald Trump’s current favorite word: domination. The presence of “white” people in this land began with a theological claim, based on an interpretation of the concept of “dominion” in the book of Genesis. In the mid 15th century, the Vatican issued papal bulls (declarations) that stated that European explorers were on a mission for Christianity to “conquer,” “vanquish” and “subdue” the regions we now know as the Americas and Africa. These bulls explicitly stated that the people in those lands were part of the flora and fauna. This dehumanizing thought system later became enshrined in law as the “Doctrine of Discovery” which was used to justify the taking of land from Native American peoples. You can learn more about this in the book Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery by Steven Newcomb and through the Indigenous Values Initiative.

Donald Trump’s call for domination was paired with a photo op visit to a church to hold up a Bible. This is not just a superficial dog whistle to a racist white evangelical base. It is a desperate grasp at an entrenched and deranged theological tradition that was foundational to our nation.

The marriage of Christianity and empire began with the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine in the early 4th century. This was the driving force in stamping out indigenous Earth-based spirituality (“paganism”) in Europe. The famous essay by Lynn White, Jr.—The Historic Roots of our Ecologic Crisis, argued that this was the defining moment for the trajectory of ecological devastation that he identified as perilous even back in 1967. One thing White does not mention, but many other scholars have (particular in the fields of eco-feminism and eco-womanism), is that this also involved the persecution of the the women who kept the Earth-based spiritual traditions of Europe, and the characterization of the female body as profane and the female mind as inferior. Needless to say, there is plenty of that spirit in Trumpism too.

Our American civil religion, including the notion of “manifest destiny” and the concept of “American exceptionalism” is so secularized and commonplace that many do not see how deeply theological it is. As the Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas has brilliantly documented, whiteness is a theo-political construct that was honed over centuries to be an inherently oppositional force against black and brown bodies. You can learn more about this in her book Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God.

In this moment, we must make the connections to theology to understand the deep historic and psycho-social forces that Donald Trump is drawing on. As he blatantly invokes Christianity to dominate people he deems dangerous and unworthy, his administration has also ordered a suspension of enforcement of environmental regulations. What is the number one indicator of the placement of a toxic facility in this country? The race of the people who live nearby. Black children are ten times more likely to die of asthma in this country than white children. There are many current struggles around racial discrimination in the sitings of petrochemical factories, fracking wells, compressor stations, pipelines, incinerators and so on. The toxins from these sites cause respiratory, cardiac and other underlying health problems that also make people more vulnerable to coronavirus. You can learn more about the role of structural racism in health disparities on this Earth Institute blog and also from the work of the NAACP environmental and climate justice program.

The United Nations established World Environment Day in 1972, part of the same wave of consciousness that led to the first Earth Day in 1970, the establishment of the EPA, and the passing of the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act, all of which are under assault by the Trump administration today.

That consciousness was quickly stymied by the Reagan Revolution. The Reagan Administration’s statement on World Environment Day in 1986* claimed that “Americans turned a nearly unpopulated continent into a prosperous, peaceful, and protective home for 240 million persons” and dismisses the concept of sustainability, not to mention the intrinsic value of nature. It is actually worth reading in its entirety, as a record of the deeply mistaken thinking that got us into the mess we are in. Here is one of many places you can learn more about the diverse and vibrant Native American cultures that were here before Europeans arrived: Nation Museum of the American Indian.

Now is the time to change on the level of cause rather than react on the level of effect. As we mark this World Environment Day, let us examine the thought systems that have been so prevalent they have become invisible. Let us honor those Black and Indigenous voices that have led the way in the environmental movement. And let us continue to sit with the profound meaning and implications of the words spoken by both Eric Garner and George Floyd: “I can’t breathe.” That is the charge of World Environment Day 2020.

Catherine Coleman Flowers appointed to ‘Unity’ Task Force on Climate Change

Moved by a visit to Lowndes County, Alabama, Bernie Sanders has appointed Catherine Coleman Flowers, Founder of the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice (CREEJ) and CEE Fellow on Environmental Justice and Civic Engagement to the ‘Unity’ Task Force on Climate Change. Flowers has been shining a spotlight for years on conditions of abject poverty in southern states where neglect of poor people, largely communities of color, has led to a sanitation nightmare and the return of diseases long thought eradicated from the United States. She will serve alongside task force members selected by both Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders to inform policy making discussions in preparation for the 2020 presidential election in November.

In addition to her work through CREEJ and at the Center for Earth Ethics, Catherine serves as the Rural Development Manager for the Equal Justice Initiative. Her first book, WASTE: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret will also be available in November.

Read a full list of Climate Task Force appointees below.

Read a summary of all the task force news at Vox.

Biden’s appointees:

  • Former Secretary of State John Kerry, task force co-chair
  • Rep. Kathy Castor (D-FL), chair of the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis
  • Kerry Duggan, former deputy director for policy to Vice President Biden
  • Former EPA administrator Gina McCarthy
  • Rep. Donald McEachin (D-VA), member of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce and co-founder of the United for Climate and Environmental Justice Congressional Task Force

Sanders’s appointees:

  • Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), task force co-chair and co-author of the Green New Deal resolution
  • Varshini Prakash, co-founder of youth activist group Sunrise Movement
  • Catherine Flowers, founder of the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice

U.S. Faith-Based Coalition Calls on World Bank to Take Climate Action in the Time of COVID

Washington, D.C. – A coalition of faith-based organizations in the United States will launch a campaign tomorrow in support of Big Shift, a global effort calling on the World Bank to end all support for fossil fuels and shift investment to renewable energy access in the time of COVID-19 and beyond. The World Bank continues to subsidize fossil fuels, which fans the flames of the ongoing climate emergency, despite scientific evidence showing the impact of continued investment and usage of such fuels. The campaign, which will drive support for a petition to World Bank President David Malpass, begins tomorrow and will be promoted through May 24th.

The launch coincides with the buildup to the fifth anniversary of Laudato Si’, Pope Francis’s second encyclical, which calls for care of “our common home” and laments environmental degradation and global warming.

“Five years ago this week, Pope Francis urged the world to replace highly polluting fossil fuels with renewable energy without delay (Laudato Si’ 165),” said Susan Gunn, director of the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns. “While some progress has been made in the shift towards a renewable energy economy, more still needs to be done, especially by large institutions whose great financial and political resources come with great responsibility. That is why we’re asking the World Bank to stop supporting fossil fuels. In this time of acute crisis, we need them to help lead the way forward towards a more sustainable future for everyone.”

The coalition behind this week’s effort includes the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns, Columban Center for Advocacy and Outreach, Center for Earth Ethics, Sisters of Mercy of the Americas’ Justice Team, and Church World Service, all of whom support the work of the global Big Shift initiative, a network of civil society groups representing 112 partner organizations.

The petition (in English and Spanish) comes in the form of a letter, which addresses the current situation and calls for immediate action:

“As people of faith and conscience from diverse traditions in different countries, we lament the devastating impacts of COVID-19 which are occurring at the same time as communities are experiencing the far-reaching implications of the changing climate – from huge wildfires to extreme droughts and flooding. No one is immune to COVID-19, which is leaving a trail of death and illness, overburdening and overwhelming health care systems and workers around the world. It is leaving untold economic damage in its wake that will have repercussions for years to come.

Both climate change and COVID-19 fall hardest on the poorest and most vulnerable communities and nations who are at greatest risk because of pre-existing health, gender, racial, ethnic and economic inequities. Additionally, 840 million people still live without having access to the energy needed to improve their economic and developmental outcomes and respond to COVID-19.”

The group specifically called on President Malpass to:

  • Phase out lending for all fossil fuels after 2020, including coal and natural gas
  •  Develop a clear strategy to improve access to energy through small scale renewable energy sources

The petition notes that this call is in line with World Bank commitments to support the Paris Agreement goal of limiting global temperature rise to less than 1.5C and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal seven (SDG7) to provide sustainable energy access for all by 2030.

”Shifting the Bank’s energy portfolio would demonstrate the moral leadership urgently needed during these difficult times,” the petition reads. “ Doing so represents good environmental and financial stewardship which will send a clear signal to other governments, finance institutions and markets.”

For more information about Big Shift and the efforts to encourage the World Bank to support renewable energy in the time of COVID-19, contact [email protected].


A Time for Change

The coronavirus pandemic should be understood as a dress rehearsal for climate change. The rapidity and breadth of its impact has been too much for our systems to bear. It’s put health care, social security, food systems, sanitation, and most everything else to the absolute test. Thus far food is still getting to the grocery stores and medical care continues to be given but the question remains for how long? If the pandemic continues assaulting the world for months on end can we trust that our supply chains will continue to hold steadfast? Our globalized world is absolutely dependent upon safe, efficient, and guaranteed shipping.

Depending on perspective, globalization and free trade are a gift. It created huge wealth across the globe, decreased costs associated with manufacturing and trade, and developed a model that maximizes efficiencies across the entirety of the global economy. Geographic regions around the world contribute to the creation of singular products, with favorites in separate companies making component parts for a whole product that is sold globally. It’s efficient, low cost, high revenue, and creates cheap replicable products that weed out competition.

Seen another way, the globalized model rooted out the ability for local development of goods and services, notably manufacturing and agriculture. It’s why there are food desserts, which should more appropriately be called food apartheid zones in cities surrounded by farmland. The majority of farmland around the world has been dedicated to monocropping staple crops that are then shipped globally rather than locally. For instance, half of the United States arable farmland is monocropped.

The global food chain of course allows there to be bananas in Wisconsin in the winter and wheat from the United States is sent to food starved areas across the world. But it also means that our food access is completely reliant on a complex exchange between nation states and private enterprises rather than local farmers and ranchers. If any links in the supply chain break then a global food crisis would be inevitable. We are not that far away. The United Nations has provided warning that food shortages may be imminent with food production facilities and farms losing workers to the disease.

What the coronavirus has demonstrated is that our system of global interdependence is not as stalwart as we would like or need it to be. South Korea is using the unfortunate opportunity provided by the coronavirus to push for greener economies and infrastructure. They see what needs to be done to encounter climate change and are working towards it. Some countries are going the other direction. China recently announced 34 gigawatts (GW) of new coal power — equivalent to Poland’s annual output — adding to the 147 GW it already produces annually from coal. The China Development Bank (CDB) and China Export-Import Bank (CHEXIM) — have also provided over $226 billion in loans to South East Asian countries — Vietnam, Indonesia, India, and the Philippines over the past two decades. It’s created a boom of renewed production and confidence in the fossil fuel sector while dealing a huge blow to conservation and environmental efforts, let alone the hope of hitting the Paris Climate Agreement targets.

Not only are these actions inane they are deeply immoral and make very little long-term economic sense. What does make sense is a re-evaluation of and a commitment to investment strategies that fund locally focused regenerative agriculture projects and renewable energy production. Regeneration International describes regenerative farming as: ”farming and grazing practices that, among other benefits, reverse climate change by rebuilding soil organic matter and restoring degraded soil biodiversity — resulting in both carbon drawdown and improving the water cycle.” At present, agriculture globally is responsible for nearly 30% of global emissions. Regenerative farming techniques, on the other hand, have the potential to to sequester upwards of two tons of carbon per hectare. Additionally, it is estimated locally focused regenerative farming has the ability to employ upwards of 32 people for every million dollars in production revenue creating a net-positive boon for local economies and mitigating climate change.

Despite a pledge to green their portfolios, the majority of MDBs continue to heavily resource fossil fuel infrastructure. This is true for other banks and crediting agencies. For instance, “from 2016–2018 Export Credit Agencies (ECAs) provided $31.6 billion annually to support fossil fuel projects” — $7.1 billion for coal and $24.5 billion for oil and gas. By comparison, ECAs only gave $2.7 billion per year for renewable energy. Common wisdom has held that investing in fossil fuels is a guaranteed money maker. This belief continues to hold even though half the coal plants in the world are projected to lose money in 2020. Furthermore, the coronavirus pandemic has plummeted oil to nearly $10 a barrel. Rather than bet on oil rebounding and investing heavily in it, let’s make moves in the other direction.There is no better time than now to transition away from fossil fuels. Renewable energy has a higher economic upside and the long term viability that fossil fuels do not. We need MDBs and ECAs to move their investments towards renewable energy and local economies. It will strengthen local resilience and create new energy and economic pathways that are not dependent on fossil fuel economies. This transition will be slow but it is necessary if we want to guarantee a future worth living into.

CEE Joins Big Shift Global

CEE is proud to announce that we have formally partnered with the Big Shift Global campaign. The Big Shift Global (BSG) is a multi-stakeholder, global campaign coordinated by organizations from the Global North and South. Together, we aim to make the people’s views on energy finance known to Multilateral Development Banks (MDBs), their Executive Directors, as well as the Heads of State and Finance Ministers of the members countries.

You can hear it straight from them here.

CEE got involved because we cannot adequately address the climate crisis while the world keeps bankrolling and burning fossil fuels. It’s like trying to patch a hole in a bucket that doesn’t have a bottom. You’re solving for the wrong problem. We want to solve for the right problems which means getting money away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy projects that will bring clean, affordable energy the world round. There are a lot of banks and financial institutions that invest in fossil fuels and with this campaign we’re focusing on Multilateral Development Banks, which we get into below.

What’s a Multilateral Development Bank

Multilateral Development Banks (MDBs) are institutions composed by a group of countries that provide financing and professional advising for the purpose of development. Development here is a broad category. It can be anything from fossil fuel projects to infrastructure, financial development, or agricultural development. Really anything needed to make society function. MDBs finance projects in the form of long-term loans at market rates, very-long-term loans (also known as credits) below market rates, and through grants. 

Twelve notable MDBs are:

The World Bank, European Investment Bank (EIB), Islamic Development Bank (IsDB), Asian Development Bank (ADB), European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), CAF – Development Bank of Latin America (CAF), Inter-American Development Bank Group (IDB, IADB), African Development Bank (AfDB), New Development Bank (NDB), Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), Arab Petroleum Investments Corporation (APICORP), and Eastern and Southern African Trade and Development Bank (TDB)

For reference, the USA is a member of five MDBs: the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the Inter-American Development Bank, and the African Development Bank.

How do MDBs Work

Great question. MDBs are made up by lending countries (rich countries) and borrowing countries (not rich countries). While it’s far more complicated than this, basically the rich countries pool their money together in the MDBs and then decide which projects they want to fund in which countries. There’s a lot that goes into this process including applications and indicators for returns on the investment (ROIs) and loan repayment plans but at the end of the day, the MDBs essentially have the say in what countries and what projects are worthy of their investment. 

For decades, the sure fire money makers have been and continue to be fossil fuel development projects. With Paris and climate change on people’s minds, many MDBs have shifted towards renewable, sustainable projects but not all of them, and even the ones who do still keep a toe in the fossil fuel pool. 

You’re Telling Me that My Tax Dollars Fund Fossil Fuel Projects Around the World

Yes. As stated above, the United States is a member in five separate MDBs. Representatives from the United States Treasury – under the leadership of Steve Mnuchin – sit on the boards of MDBs to vote which projects go forward and which ones don’t. The number of votes each representative on the board gets is typically determined by the amount of money said country has in the bank. Predictably the United States and other major economies like China and Europe tend to be big lenders and have significant sway over what does and doesn’t get funded. 

MDBs, 1.5 C, and Paris

A 1.5C global temperature increase is bad. However, 1.5C is much better than 2C, which is infinitely better than a 3C increase. If we eclipse 3C then pack your things and find the high ground.

To help meet the 1.5C target – ideally coming in under it – nine MDBs pledged to align their financial flows to the Paris Climate Agreement during the 2017 One Planet Summit. These nine bank heroes further announced at COP 25 that they will “design and implement long-term low GHG emissions and climate resilient strategies that grow in ambition over time.

This is well and good but ambition doesn’t always match outcome. With President Trump in the White House and vehement climate denial from fossil fuel companies and conservative regimes across the planet – to say little of how entrenched global economies are in fossil fuels – the move towards financing renewable energy projects is slow and even saw a decline between 2017 and 2018.

So Are MDBs Good or Bad

Yes. MDBs have huge potential for creating better lives and living for developing countries. MDBs can also serve as the invisible hand that picks development projects that may not necessarily be in the interest of the borrowing country but has huge upside for the lending country. There’s lots of room for corruption and for special interests to put their own interests over those of the country being lent to. 

But with positivity in mind, MDBs can and have acted as positive forces for good. They are increasingly shaping their investment strategies to the shifting needs of climate and energy finance. This includes innovative projects around wind and solar, which bring energy to previously energy starved areas.

This piece is essential for BSG. It’s not only about getting money out of fossil fuels but using the shift to renewables to improve currently impoverished regions. Unlike fossil fuel driven energy sources, wind and solar can be adapted to most any region to provide on the spot energy. Neither wind nor solar require the drills and wells and bulky housing units that fossil fuels do. Renewables can mark a just transition towards energy for all creating new jobs, now opportunities, and new for folks around the world.

What Now 

Show up and speak up. We’ve learned through the divestment campaign that our voices do matter. The Big Shift Campaign is more than simply moving money away from fossil fuels. Its moving money from fossil fuels to renewable sustainable energy options that will bring energy to currently energy starved populations. This a project for human and planetary well being that moves us away from death towards life.

We know what doesn’t work. We know what is causing the planet to fall a part. We know who is responsible for it. We all know what does work and what can be done. Keeping on this current path is like someone with lung cancer investing in a lifetime’s supply of cigarettes. It just doesn’t make sense. Let’s speak the truth and do what makes sense. Let’s tell MDBs and our governments that we want to invest in life.

Let’s get our money into renewables. 


Center for Earth Ethics Affiliates with Columbia Earth Institute

Beginning October 2019, the Center for Earth Ethics will affiliate with the Earth Institute at Columbia University. Karenna Gore, as director of CEE, will become an ex-officio member of the EI Faculty.

The Earth Institute (EI) is comprised of nearly 2,000 professionals – including researchers, students, and academics – from across Columbia University. It is a unique gathering place for transdisciplinary conversations to advance Global Sustainability Solutions. EI understands that there is no single solution to sustainability in the time of climate change, and that only collaboration will we be able to adequately address the most pressing issues of our times

As a new partner, CEE will have the opportunity to contribute our earth ethical lens to these conversations. Our experience working with frontline, indigenous, and faith communities coupled with our comprehensive scholarship and research will be an important value add to the EI community.

It is an exciting opportunity to work with new partners to research and implement much needed solutions to the climate crisis. Look forward to future news about joint projects with EI and updates on ways to become more involved.