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Laudato Si’: the Pope’s call to action on sustainable development

By Sarah Wykes & Rob Elsworth, CAFOD Member · 25th June, 2015
Catholic Church Ew Flickr
Image: Catholic Church of England & Wales / Flickr

Pope Francis' recently released Encyclical on climate change has drawn attention from across the world to the challenges of sustainable development. But why speak out now? 

Encyclicals are letters to the Catholic Church outlining the thinking of the Pope and in this case of the Bishops of the world. They do not normally generate global media interest and get leaked ahead of time. But like so much done by Pope Francis, this encyclical bucks the trend.

Its chosen theme – on care for our common home – is a direct plea to stop destruction of the planet and protect the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people and communities. In a first for a papal encyclical, it calls on everyone – not just Catholics and people of faith – to protect the climate as a common good; a system that it essential for human life.

The Encyclical Laudato Si’ (‘Praise be’), released on the 18 June, calls for action on the greatest threats facing the human family today – climate change, growing global inequality and the destruction of biodiversity. Pope Francis sees these as reflections of a world which has put profit and the drive for relentless growth above all other considerations. He urgently appeals for “a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet. We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all.” (para. 14).

It also poses a clear and radical challenge to political leaders to use this inclusive conversation to start building a different model of economic development that benefits everyone, not just the few.

Why is the Pope speaking out now?

2015 is a critical year for development and the future of humanity. In September, the U.N. General Assembly (UNGA) will agree on a new set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) running until 2030. Prior to this is the summit on Financing for Development (FFD) in Addis Ababa in July. Most significantly, in December governments including world’s biggest polluters will meet in Paris to negotiate a new international agreement on climate change under the United Nation Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the culmination of a six year process.

Perhaps the greatest symptom of this human crisis is climate change, “one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day” (para. 25). Pope Francis’ encyclical is a significant moral contribution to the climate change debate, and a welcome counterbalance to the economic and technological focus of the UNFCCC discussions.

Although it is “a global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, political and for the distribution of goods”, Pope Francis recognises that climate change will hit the poorest hardest: “[i]ts worst impact will probably be felt by developing countries in coming decades” (para. 25).

Despite the scientific consensus, action on climate change has been made a contentious political issue by vested interested and climate sceptics. Pope Francis has been strongly critical of current levels of action, describing the outcome of climate talks in Lima in 2014 as “nothing great”. He also makes a hard-hitting, direct challenge to “those with more resources and economic or political power [who] seem mostly to be concerned with masking the problems or concealing their symptoms, simply making efforts to reduce some of the negative impacts of climate change” (para. 26).

Because he clearly recognises that 2015 is a “make or break” moment, he has added his voice to the case for kick-starting action in Paris, emphasising the importance of “a bit of time between the issuing of the encyclical and [the Paris talks] so that [the Catholic Church] can make a contribution.”

Without directly referencing the upcoming climate talks in Paris he also highlights the need for the “establishment of a legal framework which can set clear boundaries and ensure the protection of ecosystems has become indispensable” (para. 53). Without such a framework, the dominant techno-economic model is likely to continue.

A true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor”

Pope Francis, Laudito Si'
Moving away from polluting energy to sustainable energy for everyone

The encyclical is also clear that the central plank of climate action is urgently shifting away from the polluting fossil fuels that are the main cause of global warming to cleaner and more socially sustainable forms of energy. The Pope has 3 key messages on this:

  1. There is an urgent need to substitute fossil fuels with sustainable energy and this must be available to everyone, including the poorest (paras 26, 165 & 179).
  2. Richer countries must help poorer countries to make the shift away from fossil fuels or leapfrog to cleaner sources of energy through financing, technology transfer and technical assistance (paras 52, 165 & 172).
  3. Maximising energy efficiency as key building block of the energy shift (para 180).

Overall, the encyclical gives welcome support to advocacy for the energy shift through the SDGs and other global processes.  CAFOD and other groups are calling for the SDGs not only to integrate effective action on climate change into the overall Framework but also for a new Energy SDG that ensures access to sustainable, affordable, safe and reliable energy services for everyone, as well as ramping up the share of renewables and improving energy intensity to the level needed by 2030 to keep the world below 1.5°C of warming.

For us, this requires not just financing, technical assistance and appropriate technology transfer but also building local capacity – institutional and human. See our recent blog for more information.

How will the Encyclical’s call to action be received in the UK and at Paris?

Echoing some of the themes in the encyclical, CAFOD has been advocating through our One Climate, One World Campaign for UK and international action to support the poorest and most vulnerable who are the hit hardest by climate change – see our report Pushing People Over the Edge – and for a sustainable energy shift to tackle climate change and end energy poverty suffered by billions around the world

A group of leading UK environment and development agencies, led by the Green Alliance, is also calling for David Cameron’s new government to deliver on the climate promises made in his pre-election climate pledge through Plan 2015.  Last week showed the appetite of UK citizens for climate action when 9,000 supporters of The Climate Coalition came out in force for a mass lobby of the UK Parliament in Westminster. In total, 330 MPs met their constituents, with others agreeing to do so locally. See here for more details.

We hope the UK will heed the many calls to action, including now from Pope Francis. Just before the Pope issued his Encyclical, a new report by Ernst and Young lamented the UK’s move to cut public support for solar and wind energy, concluding: “Only time will tell whether [the UK Government] realizes that simultaneously chasing a climate change target while abandoning the most cost-competitive renewable energy technologies is somewhat absurd”.

Internationally, CAFOD is calling for a fair and binding global agreement on climate change that has the needs of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable at its heart and leads to transformational and sustainable change. In particular, the agreement must include a long-term goal of phasing-out all fossil fuel emissions and phasing-in a 100% renewable energy future with services for all no later than 2050.

For more on the key statements on climate, energy and the environment, see also this Carbon Brief blog.

The Encyclical – more than climate, environment and energy

“A true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor” (Laudato Si’ – para 49). 

Widely billed by the press as an encyclical on climate change it is, in fact, a far more wide ranging document. It includes thinking on the role of technology, the ethics and objectives of business, migration and urban development, the treatment of the poor in politics, population growth versus consumerism, development aid and the rights of future generations.

In essence, Pope Francis is calling on the world to fundamentally rethink its definition of economic and social progress to develop one that is in harmony with Creation. CAFOD also believes that any low carbon transformation or “greening” of economies must also be a social transformation that benefits the many not just the few and includes the poorest. See our 2014 report on Securing Social Justice in Green economies with Kate Raworth and IIED and Kate’s blog.

This vision must now be translated into concrete action under the three global processes – the UNFCCC agreement, the SDGs Framework and the Financing for Development discussions – that are coming to fruition in 2015.  All these can build the foundations for a new global settlement for sustainable development that integrates poverty eradication and environmental sustainability. But this will not happen without political leadership and action at the national and local level as well as in other international fora, such as the G20, to secure the low-carbon transformation needed to protect our common home and benefit all its inhabitants.

Sarah Wykes and Rob Elsworth,

This article has been reposted with permission from the CAFOD policy blog "Serpents & Doves". The original is available here.

Image credit: "Pope Francis" (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) by Catholic Church (England and Wales)

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