Explainer: What are Pope Francis and the Vatican doing to fight climate change?
Before the second-ever Catholic president even set foot in the White House, he gave Pope Francis his word, promising he would work with the leader of the global church to address the crisis of climate change. On the first day in office, President Joseph R. Biden Jr. made good on his promise, signing an executive order for the United States to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement, renewing a commitment that his predecessor had reneged on.
Pope Francis has devoted much of his papacy to teaching about care for the planet and raising the priority of climate change on the world agenda, and Mr. Biden has consistently affirmed the pope’s vision for climate justice.
“Pope Francis is right in ‘Laudato Si’’: ‘Never have we so hurt and mistreated our common home as we have in the last two hundred years,’” Mr. Biden wrote in an op-ed for Religion News Service in December 2019. “My faith teaches me that we should be a nation that not only accepts the truth of the climate crisis, but leads the world in addressing it.”
The Biden administration will find a willing partner in the fight against climate change in Rome—where the commitment to the environment predates Pope Francis.
Mr. Biden named two fellow Catholics to lead the administration’s climate policy: Gina McCarthy, the national climate advisor, will head up the newly created White House Office of Domestic Climate Policy and a National Climate Task Force; and John Kerry will serve as special presidential envoy for climate and hold a seat on the National Security Council, the first time that such a role has been created to specifically address the climate crisis as a matter of national security and U.S. foreign policy.
The Biden administration will find a willing partner in Rome—where the commitment to the environment predates Pope Francis. Here’s what you need to know about the Vatican’s response to the climate crisis over the years—within the walls of Vatican City headquarters and internationally.
What did previous popes say about climate change?
The Catholic Church’s response to climate change can be traced through the last three papacies, at least. Its concern for protecting God’s creation goes even further back. “The earth sustains humanity,” wrote Hildegard von Bingen, the 12th-century Benedictine nun and doctor of the church. “It must not be injured; it must not be destroyed.”
Pope John Paul II was also aware of the rapid environmental decline facing our planet and often appealed for international cooperation in the fight against climate change in his annual messages on the World Day of Peace.
Notably, it was Pope Benedict XVI who was lauded with the title of “The Green Pope.” The German pope, like his predecessor, continued to incorporate calls for climate change in his public speeches and homilies and inspired deeper theological reflections about the protection of the natural environment. He also introduced a few practical changes in Vatican City.
“The earth sustains humanity,” wrote Hildegard von Bingen, the 12th-century Benedictine nun and doctor of the church. “It must not be injured; it must not be destroyed.”
Benedict approved the installation of solar panels for the Paul VI Hall, for example; greenlit the creation of a reforestation project in Hungary to offset the Vatican’s carbon emissions (which later fell through); and approved the use of the first hybrid popemobile.
Notwithstanding the successes and reforms of his forebears in the faith, it was Pope Francis who cemented the church’s commitment to ecological sustainability with his landmark papal document “Laudato Si’,” published in May 2015. In his document “on care for our common home,” Pope Francis called for a “bold cultural revolution” on multiple levels: spiritual, theological, scientific and practical (No. 114).
Why is “Laudato Si’” so significant?
In dedicating an entire teaching document of the church to climate change, Pope Francis added an integral ecology to the vast body of Catholic social teaching in the hope that it “can help us to acknowledge the appeal, immensity and urgency of the challenge we face” (No. 15).
“Laudato Si’” emphasized especially the impact that climate devastation has on the most impoverished people and nations, calling on world leaders and all people of good will to recognize “that the gift of the earth with its fruits belongs to everyone” (No. 71). Pope Francis reminded us that “every ecological approach needs to incorporate a social perspective which takes into account the fundamental rights of the poor and the underprivileged” (No. 93) and that “the ecological crisis is also a summons to profound interior conversion” (No. 217).
In dedicating an entire teaching document of the church to climate change, Pope Francis added an integral ecology to the vast body of Catholic social teaching.
Pope Francis highlighted how the ecological crisis forms part of a network of injustices across society. “The earth’s resources are also being plundered because of short-sighted approaches to the economy, commerce and production,” the pope wrote (No. 32).
And later: “As long as production is increased, little concern is given to whether it is at the cost of future resources or the health of the environment” (No 195).
What was Pope Francis’ role in the Paris Climate Agreement?
In December 2015, six months after the release of “Laudato Si’,” world leaders met in Paris for the annual United Nations Climate Change Conference, also known that year as COP21. Almost 200 member states signed the Paris Climate Agreement—including the United States, led then by President Barack Obama—which aims to keep global warming “well below” 2 degrees Celsius (and preferably 1.5 degrees Celsius) compared with pre-industrial era levels. This would require member states to remove or substantially reduce all human-caused greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and thereby achieve net-zero carbon emissions by mid-century.
Unlike previous international climate targets, the Paris agreement charges developing nations with the same mid-century target—and enjoins wealthier nations to help their impoverished counterparts.
In support of this attempt to bring world powers together to forge ahead for climate justice, the Vatican sent a delegation to COP21. Cardinal Peter Turkson, then president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, led the delegation.
“We cannot remain blind to the grave damage done to the planet, nor can we remain indifferent to the plight of the millions of people who most bear the burden of such destruction,” said Cardinal Turkson in his address. “A great deal is at stake for every country. Progress has too long been based on fossil energy, to the detriment of the environment. This is the moment to take action.”
As the leader of the global Catholic Church, the pope speaks for 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide—many of them among the world’s leaders—challenging them to follow suit.
Following the signing of the Paris Agreement, member nations were given five years to publicly pledge their commitments to meet mid-century climate targets. On the fifth anniversary of the Paris Agreement, held online due to Covid-19 restrictions, the pope himself addressed the United Nations Climate Ambition Summit: “Vatican City State is committed to reducing net emissions to zero before 2050,” he said.
“The current pandemic and climate change, which have not only environmental but also ethical, social, economic and political relevance, affect above all the life of the poorest and most fragile,” said the pope. “In this way they appeal to our responsibility to promote, through collective and joint commitment, a culture of care, which places human dignity and the common good at the center.”
The weight of Pope Francis’ public pledge to carbon emissions targets cannot be reduced or limited to his role as the leader of the smallest city-state. As the leader of the global Catholic Church, the pope speaks also for 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide—many of them among the world’s leaders—challenging them to follow suit.
What has Vatican City State already done to respond to climate change within its walls?
Here are some of the green initiatives that the Vatican has embarked upon to meet the 2050 promise within its own walls.
Ostensibly, the most ambitious project that the Vatican undertook to reach net-zero carbon emissions was still under the leadership of Pope Benedict XVI. In the summer of 2007, it announced a plan to become the first carbon-neutral state after receiving what appeared to be a generous donation and a proposal from a Hungarian corporation, with an American parent company, to establish a “Vatican climate forest” in Hungary.
But years later, the corporate donors appear to have broken their promises. An April 2010 investigation by The Christian Science Monitor found that the Vatican may have been the victim of an elaborate publicity stunt designed to sell carbon offsets to clients impressed by the company’s generous “donation” of trees to the Vatican.
Since 2017, the Vatican has planted almost 300 trees in Vatican City as part of a reforestation program to minimize its carbon footprint, and it is also now pesticide-free.
Nonetheless, since 2017, the Vatican has planted almost 300 trees in Vatican City as part of a reforestation program to minimize its carbon footprint, and it is also now pesticide-free, the Rev. Rafael García de la Serrana Villalobos, told L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, in December 2020.
“Climate neutrality can be achieved by Vatican City State primarily through the use of natural sinks, such as soil and forests, and by offsetting emissions produced in one area by reducing them in another,” said Father García de la Serrana Villalobos, head of Vatican City’s Directorate for Infrastructures and Services. “This is done by investing in renewable energy, energy efficiency or other clean technologies such as electric mobility.”
Energy-efficient technology upgrades
In 2008, the Vatican announced a renewable energy plan, pledging to convert 20 percent of its power supply to renewable energy by 2020 by installing solar panels on the rooftops of Vatican buildings. The project saw the installation of 2,400 solar panels on the roof of the Paul VI papal audience hall and was expected to cut the Vatican’s carbon dioxide emissions by about 225 tons, saving the equivalent of 80 tons of oil each year.
Between 2012 and 2020, more energy-efficient refrigeration units were installed, and a series of other energy-efficiencies have also taken place. Only electricity from renewable resources is imported into the city-state, for example, and a new watering system in the Vatican Gardens reduces water consumption by 60 percent. Optimized heat production and exchange systems have been installed, and a new heat plant reduces the release of methane and other pollutants into the atmosphere.
The popemobile and electric cars
In 2019, the Japanese bishops contributed to the pope’s efforts to go green, giving him the first-ever zero-emission popemobile, operating on a hydrogen fuel cell system and capable of running about 310 miles on a single charge.
In 2019, the Japanese bishops contributed to the pope’s efforts to go green, giving him the first-ever zero-emission popemobile.
The Vatican also expects to increase its fleet of electric vehicles and expand the network of charging stations for these cars to the Vatican’s extraterritorial locations, like the basilicas of St. Mary Major, St. John Lateran and St. Paul Outside the Walls.
A circular economy of reuse
Recycling methods and systems at the Vatican have seen a complete overhaul. Last year, the Vatican announced a ban on the sale of single-use and disposable plastics, including carrier bags, water bottles, cutlery, straws and balloons.
Now, 65 percent of the Vatican’s waste is recycled, and there are plans to increase that figure to 75 percent by 2023. Used vegetable oils, paper and cardboard are being recycled to produce biodiesel, and other biowastes are converted to make high-quality compost. Father García de la Serrana Villalobos says that there is now a “policy of treating waste as a resource and no longer as waste.”
The Vatican is committed to the cause of climate change not only through its papal teaching documents but in practical ways.
“While the situation is not good and the planet is suffering, the window of opportunity is still open,” Pope Francis told delegates at the United Nations Climate Action Summit in September 2019. “Let us not let it close. Let us open it with our determination to cultivate integral human development, to ensure a better life for future generations.”