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Brisbane auxiliary Bishop Ken Howell reveals his carbon footprint

Emissions measured: Brisbane auxiliary Bishop Ken Howell with the results of his carbon footprint, measured on an online calculator. Photo: Emilie Ng

What would be the carbon footprint of a Catholic bishop in a large and bustling archdiocese? In this two-week series, Emilie Ng uses the carbon footprint of one auxiliary Bishop to explore the three last pope’s teaching on the environment.

BRISBANE auxiliary Bishop Ken Howell visited the airport nearly once a fortnight in 2019, but it wasn’t the primary contributor to the “concerning” size of his carbon emissions for the year.

Following a report into the carbon emissions of ABC News Breakfast reporter Madeleine Morris, The Catholic Leader asked Bishop Howell to calculate his carbon footprint for 2019 using a UK-based carbon offsetting company’s free calculator.

The calculator measures carbon emissions for home energy consumption, flights, car and motorbike travel, public transport, and “secondary” items, or the measure of greenhouse gases produced when manufacturing, delivering, and disposing of products and services, including pharmaceuticals, clothes, technology, and vehicles.

Bishop Howell, who is leading an archdiocesan project that hopes to encourage Catholics to lower their carbon footprint, expected his results to be lower than the average Australian’s, which is estimated at 22 tonnes of carbon emissions per capita.

The auxiliary Bishop of Brisbane lives a relatively modest life – he doesn’t buy clothes save for clerical garments, he has kept the same mobile phone for three years, and because he lives alone at the presbytery in East Brisbane, his energy consumption and food costs are well below even the average retiree.

He’s a moderate meat eater who “dislikes lights that are left on that don’t need to be left on” and where he can, uses public transport to travel in to the Cathedral precinct.

Bishop Howell assumed the bulk of his emissions would come from flights, since last year he caught 22 planes, including a return trip to Perth for the Australian Catholic Youth Festival.

But the results of the calculator revealed something entirely different – the primary contributor to Bishop Howell’s 28.08 metric tonnes of carbon emissions was not from constant long-distance travel but from products and services he purchases, most likely, the new car purchased for him by the Archdiocese.

This category alone measured up to 19.21 metric tonnes of carbon emissions, nearly 70 per cent of his yearly total.

“It does concern me, very much, because we do have to reduce this,” Bishop Howell said.

“But does that mean that I should consume less or eat less? Yes, probably. 

“Certainly I monitor electricity usage – I dislike lights that are left on that don’t need to be left on. 

“Yes, I felt that I have been monitoring this kind of thing and observing what I do consume, so it was a little surprising to see that it was a higher footprint.”

Travel concern: Bishop Ken Howell assumed the bulk of his emissions would come from flights, since last year he caught 22 planes, including a return trip to Perth for the Australian Catholic Youth Festival.

Bishop Howell is committed to reducing his carbon emissions after this stunning experiment, not just from the results but as a matter of faith, tied closely with his admiration of Pope Francis’ encyclical, Laudato Si’.

“And Pope Francis is adamant, we must look at what we do and realise that our actions have a consequence, not just in the environment but in other things as well, but especially in the environment,” Bishop Howell said.

“Part of being Catholic is that you’re reflecting on all aspects of the way you live.

“If we’re not doing that, we’re missing certain things that might be not respecting God’s creation. 

“If we think that we’re masters over, as Pope Francis constantly says, if we think we’re masters over the environment and we can do what we want for our own convenience, then we’ve missed something completely that’s at odds with our scriptural background, and our appreciation of what God has made for us, the beauty of creation. 

“So if we forget that then we’re in trouble.”

Many consider 2019 the year of radical advocacy for climate change – who can forget the controversy of Extinction Rebellion – but the most recent three Popes have all pushed Catholics to consider how poorly humanity has treated the planet.

In 2001, during a General Audience in Rome, Pope John Paul II, now a saint, famously coined the term “ecological conversion” while teaching about man’s stewardship of creation.

And like Bishop Howell, the Pope knew the planet was in trouble 20 years ago.

“Unfortunately, if we scan the regions of our planet, we immediately see that humanity has disappointed God’s expectations,” then-Pope John Paul II said.

“We must therefore encourage and support the ‘ecological conversion’ which in recent decades has made humanity more sensitive to the catastrophe to which it has been heading.”

Pope Benedict XVI, though considered more conservative in his theology, was no less assertive when it came to matters of ecological conversion.

He even names climate change twice in his address for World Day of Peace in 2009.

“Can we remain indifferent before the problems associated with such realities as climate change, desertification, the deterioration and loss of productivity in vast agricultural areas, the pollution of rivers and aquifers, the loss of biodiversity, the increase of natural catastrophes and the deforestation of equatorial and tropical regions?” the Pope emeritus said.

Again in his encyclical Caritas In Veritae, Pope Benedict XVI said the Church “has a responsibility towards creation and she must assert this responsibility in the public sphere”.

“At the same time we must recognize our grave duty to hand the earth on to future generations in such a condition that they too can worthily inhabit it and continue to cultivate it,” the Pope said.

All three popes, when discussing ecological conversion, are quick to point out that this rediscovery of creation cannot be considered without condemning the absconding moral compass of modern society, with its disregard for human life.

Everything is related, even the advancement of abortion, which Pope Francis says is “incompatible” with protection of nature.

Pope Benedict XVI digs even deeper into this contradiction: “If there is a lack of respect for the right to life and to a natural death, if human conception, gestation and birth are made artificial, if human embryos are sacrificed to research, the conscience of society ends up losing the concept of human ecology and, along with it, that of environmental ecology. It is contradictory to insist that future generations respect the natural environment when our educational systems and laws do not help them to respect themselves.”

Finally, in his 2015 letter, Laudato Si’, Pope Francis draws on the teachings of his predecessors to dwell on “our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed” with Mother Earth.

He calls climate change a “global problem with grave implications” and agrees with scientific research that claims greenhouse gases caused by human activity – including carbon dioxide – are destroying the earth.

“Humanity is called to recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption, in order to combat this warming or at least the human causes which produce or aggravate it,” Pope Francis writes.

So how does a bishop feel when his footprint goes against the teaching of the popes?

“I’m a fraud,” Bishop Howell said. 

“The whole thing is a concern to me and I am very conscious of this whole question because I think it’s not just me, it’s the whole community in the Church and in the country who have to address certain issues because I think we’ve got to the stage where we can’t deny climate change and the impact of that is becoming more and more evident, where we have weather events that are causing difficulties. 

“But I wouldn’t have thought that I was a major consumer.

“I’m not really sure how completely accurate this is to show my reality.

“But it does make you wonder what can be changed in that.”

Next week this series will explore practical ways to reduce carbon emissions in light of ecological conversion.

Written by: Emilie Ng
Catholic Church Insurance

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