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29 April 2015 17:30

Vatican spells out vision for zero-carbon world

Sophie Yeo

Sophie Yeo

The Papal Basilica of Saint Peter in the Vatican
Credit: TTstudio/Shutterstock
Sophie Yeo

Sophie Yeo

29.04.2015 | 5:30pm
International policyVatican spells out vision for zero-carbon world

The Vatican has gathered religious leaders, scientists, politicians and businessmen under one roof to agree that acting on climate change is a “moral and religious imperative for humanity”.

This was the essence of a declaration signed by the attendees of a one-day meeting hosted yesterday by the Holy See. It outlines a vision for the future of the planet, including the adoption of low-carbon energy systems, a shift of investment away from the military and towards sustainable development, and the transfer of money from the rich to the poor.

The meeting was organised by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences – academic bodies under the auspices of the Pope that seek to combine scientific and spiritual values.

Today, these institutions released their own report, designed to accompany the declaration and to support a forthcoming encyclical on climate change authored by Pope Francis.

The report is entitled “Climate change and the common good: a statement of the problem and the demand for transformative solutions”. It was prepared by a selection of high-profile scientists and economists, including Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University and Hans Joachim Schellnhuber of the Potsdam Institute.

After outlining the history of climate change and its expected impacts, the document gives a set of proposals for how to deal with the problem. Unlike the declaration, it did not need to be sanctioned by the politicians and businesspeople in attendance, meaning the authors could afford to be more specific and, arguably, less consensual in their recommendations.

Zero emissions

The Pontifical academies join the growing call from campaigners, politicians and scientists alike for emissions to be reduced to zero.

However, the report is unclear on whether carbon emissions should be reduced to “near-zero” or “net-zero” by around 2070, demanding both at different points in the text. The difference is an important one.

Reducing emissions to net zero by around 2070 means that the world could still be burning fossil fuels and emitting carbon dioxide, but that these would be balanced out by negative emissions technologies, which absorb the gas from the atmosphere. Examples include carbon capture and storage (CCS) and planting trees, or a combination of both in an as-yet-unproven process known as Bioenergy and Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS).

Reducing emissions to near zero by around 2070 means that the total volume of emissions would have to be cut dramatically, without the help of negative emissions technology. This cuts the fossil fuel industry far less slack, as it means demand for the products is also reduced to near zero.

While the academies’ text appears to conflate the two, the options are not at all interchangeable. The EU, Norway and New Zealand back a target of net-zero emissions by 2100, according to Track 0. But this approach is actively rejected by campaigning groups such as the Climate Action Network, which calls for all fossil fuels to be phased out by 2050.

The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says that, in order to have a good chance of limiting temperatures to below 2C, emissions from the energy sector need to reach 90% below 2010 levels between 2040 and 2070 and to decline below zero thereafter.

Carbon Brief has contacted the authors of the report for clarification of the target, and will update this article if and when we receive a response.

Renewable energy

However, there are hints in the report that the academies are backing the near-zero option.

The clue is in the authors’ vision of the future energy supply. They call for a shift towards “zero-carbon and low carbon sources and technologies” – a demand echoed by the declaration.

In energy jargon, low-carbon technology tends to be code for nuclear power stations and CCS, a type of technology that is still in its infancy that captures and stores emissions from power plants. The IPCC has said that CCS is the only way in which the world can continue to use fossil fuels and avoid dangerous climate change.

The final report also removes demands for a phase-out of fossil fuels that appeared in an earlier draft published by the New York Times.

The following sentence appeared in the draft:

Screen Shot 2015-04-29 At 15.21.48

But the official published version reads:

Screen Shot 2015-04-29 At 15.28.00

The second version removes the idea that continued extraction of coal, oil and gas is impossible in a sustainable future, replacing it instead with the less prescriptive warning on the dangers of ‘business-as-usual’ extraction, but without a calling for a phase-out.


The document sets out a new approach to economics that takes into account the “true wealth” of a country, including the value of its nature, rather than simply gross domestic product.

It sets out the problem as follows:

“Market forces alone, bereft of ethical values, cannot solve the intertwined crises of poverty, exclusion, and the environment. Problems have been exacerbated by the current economic measurement in terms of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). GDP misleads because it does not incorporate the degradation of nature that accompanies production and consumption in the contemporary world.”

The academies recommend that countries instead come to an international agreement to measure their financial wellbeing through national balance sheets – an accounting method that measures the net worth of a country, including its natural assets, rather than simply how much money it makes in a year.

The report also combats the idea that building a sustainable world will be cost-free. “The options we face are not ‘win-win'”, it says – a message echoed in the 2014 New Climate Economy report, which found that, “Not all climate policies are win-win, and some trade-offs are inevitable”.

As a result, countries should be prepared to “accept a reallocation of the benefits and burdens that accompany humanity’s activities both within nations and between nations”, the report says.

Yet while the document makes much of the global inequality that has left billions disproportionately vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, it also makes it clear that the blame for the causes of climate change can no longer be laid squarely on the shoulders of the developed countries. It says:

“In the 21st century world it is, again, the rich who are doing most of the greenhouse polluting, but the rich now are no longer confined to the rich world.”

The Catholic Church itself is in a position to mobilise the public funds needed to help prepare the world’s poorest for the impacts of climate change, says the report.

Its encouragement may be a welcome step for those wondering whether rich countries plan to fulfil their promise of donating $100 billion every year from 2020. So far, just over $10 billion has been pledged to the UN’s Green Climate Fund, the central vessel for climate finance.


It is not just in the realms of finance that the Catholic Church can apply its influence. More than institutional reforms, policy changes and innovation in renewable technology, what tackling climate change needs is a “moral revolution”, say the academies. It states:

“Achievement of this goal would require nothing short of widespread moral reform in which we might collectively give up the greedy behavior that was so necessary for our hunter-gatherer ancestors to survive and instead become truly social beings, living together in comfort and sustainably.”

Religious institutions are in a “special position” to promote this change, says the report.

With Pope Francis’ encyclical expected in June or July, with an address lined up to the UN Assembly and the US Congress in September, the Vatican is increasing its influence ahead of the Paris climate conference in December.

The report from these pontifical academies provides one of the most detailed insights yet into how the Vatican intends to apply its unique outlook to the challenge of climate change. The ambiguities, however, show that we still have much to learn.

Image: The Papal Basilica of Saint Peter in the Vatican.
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