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World Youth Day's ecological conversion opportunity


World Youth Day's ecological conversion opportunityIn Australia — especially in this time of drought — people are increasingly conscious of climate change. Not a day goes without a news headline highlighting some new initiative to reduce carbon emissions.

Despite the climate change sceptics, the upswing in environmental consciousness is a global phenomenon. It is not just first world elites who are taking notice, but all kinds of communities in the developing world as well, from Pacific islanders worried about rising sea levels and storm surges to Filipino rainforest dwellers concerned about typhoons.

Interestingly, the late Pope John Paul II was aware of and shared this environmental consciousness. In a remarkable and almost prophetic statement in 2001, he called on the Church to encourage and support the "ecological conversion (that) has made humanity more sensitive to the catastrophe to which it has been heading".

"Man," he said, "is no longer the Creator's 'steward', but an autonomous despot, who is finally beginning to understand that he must stop at the edge of the abyss."

Picking up on increasing signs of this ecological consciousness, noted American commentator, John L. Allen, said "ecology and natural resources" are one of ten "megatrends" that he expects to shape global Catholicism in coming decades.

I’ve been thinking about these issues, particularly in the context of the forthcoming World Youth Day 2008 event, for which I am organizing a local program for a Melbourne parish.

Each time I look at the World Youth Day website the number of people expected to participate keeps rising. Half a million, 600,000, now 700,000 people are expected to come to Sydney for the final Mass with Pope Benedict on the 20th of July.

Many of the Australian participants will fly in to Sydney. More than 100,000 international visitors are also expected – nearly all of whom will fly for up to 25 hours.

According to figures available on climate change websites, a flight from Europe will generate seven to eight tonnes of carbon dioxide that will be emitted into the atmosphere. Even a flight from Singapore will generate over three tonnes.

World Youth Day's ecological conversion opportunityIt is obvious then that, depending on exactly how many people come, and from where, the 'carbon cost' of hosting World Youth Day in Sydney could easily reach half a million to a million tones of CO2 equivalent.

That’s five to ten times more than the 100,000 tonnes that FIFA estimated as the carbon cost of hosting last year’s World Cup!

Significantly, though, FIFA committed itself to making the World Cup a 'carbon neutral' event. It did this by partnering with the United Nations Environmental Program, and by purchasing 100,000 tonnes of 'carbon credits' to compensate for the extra carbon dioxide generated by spectators attending matches.

This raises the question of how World Youth Day will ensure that it is an environmentally responsible event.

The German hosts of World Youth Day 2005 in Cologne recognized that it was beyond them to make the event carbon neutral. Nevertheless, they adopted a series of environmental guidelines which are still available on the WYD2005 website.

So how will WYD2008 respond to the challenge?

If climate change and environmental destruction are really threats, is it enough to limit ourselves to simply issuing a series of guidelines? How seriously do the organisers take Pope John Paul II’s call for "ecological conversion"?

If the organisers are serious, the answer is clear — at a minimum, they need to ensure that WYD2008 is 'carbon neutral'. Better still, why not work to make it a 'carbon positive' event?

Could World Youth Day 2008 be transformed from an environmentally expensive event into one that will call 700,000 people towards "ecological conversion"? It is worth also reflecting on recent words of Pope Benedict who will also be present at World Youth Day 2008.

"The destruction of the environment, its improper or selfish use, and the violent hoarding of the earth's resources cause grievances, conflicts and wars, precisely because they are the consequences of an inhumane concept of development," he wrote in this year’s World Day of Peace message, drawing a clear link between the concept of human development and environmental concern and protection.

Pope Benedict also chose the theme for next year’s World Youth Day — Jesus’ words in the Acts of the Apostles: "You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses." They are words worth reflecting on in the context of the challenge of "ecological conversion".

It is possible to make WYD2008 an environmentally responsible event — though it will take a lot of work. The end result could be that WYD2008 will become a moment when people stepped back from the environmental abyss, and turned the spirit of St Francis of Assisi, patron Saint of the environment, into a modern megatrend.



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Existing comments

Thankyou Stefan for articulating that concerns over ecology are not peripheral to WYD. Rather any festival that seeks to express the Catholic faith in its fullness must engage with the Church’s continued reflection on stewardship.

To reiterate Pope Benedict in his message for the World Day of Peace: ‘humanity, if it truly desires peace, must be increasingly conscious of the links between natural ecology, or respect for nature, and human ecology. Experience shows that disregard for the environment always harms human coexistence, and vice versa.’

That Australia is hosting Benedict is certain. The extent to which we can find practical expression of his teachings remains to be seen.

Evan Ellis | 06 March 2007  

An excellent question Stefan! Can the ecotheology be converted into operational policy or will it remain, as it largely is now, an optional extra?

I am increasingly noticing that national and international conferences and similar gatherings (outside the Church) are providing the option of purchasing carbon offsets to address the aspect of travelling to the event. Some go further by giving those who purchase carbon credits a green dot on their conference name tag to show that they 'did the right thing'. Peer pressure and guilt are supposed to motivate others to buy credits retrospectively.

Some event organisers go further still and require attendees to purchase offsets as part of the conference fee. There are clearly some equity issues that may arise from this and some sort of cross-subsidisation may be justified.

It is certainly possible for WYD08 to be carbon neutral but it will cost somebody quite a bit of money and/or effort to achieve this. But harder still will be finding the institutional commitment to make any carbon neutralisation aspect compulsory and equitable, rather than optional and potentially inequitable based on ability to pay.

What hasn't been explored is the deeper question of whether any organisation should be promoting such an international event, dependent as it is on demonstrably damaging and unsustainable air travel. Carbon offsets don't solve the problem of emissions and even if they did, they only address one part of the pollution generated by fossil fuel use. They don't address many other damaging aspects of the air travel industry and the associated culture. Perhaps until there is a truly sustainable means of long-distance travel (if this is even possible), we should be reassessing our expectations as to whether global gatherings are justifiable.

We need to look not merely at carbon neutralisation, as we've already done too much harm to the carbon balance. We need to look at strongly carbon-positive solutions and we need to address personal and collective values, attitudes and behaviours rather than simply 'taxing' in various ways, carbon and other emissions such as through the use of off-sets.

But given that WYD08 is going ahead, I hope that the organisers can at least neutralise its carbon impacts. Ideally, I'd like to see participants involved in for eg. tree planting, rather than just paying for another party to do this. The participatory aspect may be more powerful as an educative device and may address some aspects of the aforementioned equity issues associated with 'taxing' traveller's carbon emissions.

Steven Douglas | 06 March 2007  

Stefan is seriously wrong if he thinks that the amount of CO2 resulting from plane emissions is a deterent to world travel. Of course people need to be concerned about the environment but you may as well stop all forms of travel immediately if you are serious about stopping ozone damage. And Stefan should stop supporting this destruction by desisting from all forms of consumption that was transported to his area by carbon producing vehicles!

Kevin Lee | 08 March 2007  

Hey Kevin, how about telling Stefan he should go back to living in a cave too! Looks to me like you're a tad threatened by the realities of global warming - shock horror - it might actually affect your 'lifestyle'! There's nothing useful to be gained by attempting to polarise the situation into one of 'carbon consumer' and 'carbon-free consumer'. Most of us have 'carbon debt' and most of us are still racking it up at a scary rate. The sooner we get on with reducing our carbon 'footprint', the sooner we can get to the business of dealing with global (inequitably distributed) carbon debt - something that is essential if we're going to have much chance of getting our climate back into line (noting that it is inherently variable).

I agree that for most people at this point in time, even when they do understand that their air travel generates significant 'greenhouse' pollution, they won't stop flying. Some might rethink it, some might reduce it, a growing number will purchase carbon offsets, but sadly if the decision is left to the 'free market' or 'consumer conscience' (spot the oxymoron), most people, Catholic or not, will continue to use jet air travel until something dramatic happens to change their ways. I guess that some of Stefan's point is that good ol' Catholic guilt manifesting as new-found / rediscovered Christian environmentalism might be enough to enact some substantial changes in the context of WYD. I hope this is the case, and I hope others follow suit or do even better and look to alternatives to current forms of air travel or to long distance travel in general.

Steven Douglas | 08 March 2007  

UK journalist George Monbiot, writing in his book 'HEAT':

"You could build 3,000 footbridges, spend your life's savings on gate fees in Kenya, slosh around in wetlands until you had trench foot and not redress a fraction of the impact cause by your flight (from London to Kenya)....The mean distance travelled by car in the UK is 9,200 miles per year (producing 1.2 tonnes of cardon dioxide). But in a plane, we can beat that in one day ...."

Monbiot's conclusion in HEAT is that we could live a comfortable first world existence AND cut our emissions by 90% by 2050. The only area that cannot be reconciled with a low carbon future is air travel, he says: "It has become plain to me that long distance travel, high speed and the curtailment of climate change are not compatible.

"If you fly, you destroy other people's lives." (p.188, Heat, Allen Lane 2006)

The aggressive climate 'flat-earthism' of Cardinal Pell suggests his anxiety to refute the moral imperative to reduce air travel - as recommended by scientists, non Catholics and even non believers.

Kate Mannix | 10 March 2007  

Thank you for your courageous words Stefan. Its great to read an article that reminds us of the opportunity we have at hand. Next year, as Australia hosts the world's largest gathering of young people, the eyes of the world will be upon us. The theme of WYD08 (you will be my witnesses), will be preached to the world not through words but through our actions. In order to be true witnesses of Christ's love, we need to send a strong message of justice and responsible stewardship through our actions. The world expects nothing less of Christians. Jesus expects nothing less of His disciples.

Achieving a "Green WYD" is an enormous challenge but it is also an incredible opportunity for our nation, and indeed for the worldwide Church. We will have a captive audience of young people who are longing to 'make a difference' in the world. We will have the opportunity to form and educate these young people about justice and ecology in very practical ways. I believe it is the responsibility of everyone involved in organising WYD, whether at the national or local level, to ensure we capture this opportunity.

Thank you for the leadership you have shown Stefan. My hope is that all the organisers and participants will begin to unite on this issue and make significant steps towards achieving this vision. It is certainly a priority in our Diocese of Broken Bay. If we collaborate on this project and foster the involvement of our young people, I believe it will come to fruition and have an impact well beyond WYD.

Penny Elsley | 27 March 2007  

May God continue to bless you Stefan. I know I am not alone with this great concern. I have been blessed by 2 WYD pilgrimages, and both were important parts of my ongoing ecological conversion, so yes we have a great opportunity.. we must run the race to the end as St Paul wrote, so there is still time to make a difference!
I selected some wyd05 and some wyd02 photos to create "Robert's Blog about our ecological vocation.". I initially selected 16 photos from both of my WYD pilgrimages to share my thoughts on Ecological Aspects of WYD Experiences. Just photos are at http://au.pg.photos.yahoo.com/ph/roberti2002wyd/album?.dir=3809scd&.src=ph&store=&prodid=&.done=http%3a//au.pg.photos.yahoo.com/ph/roberti2002wyd/my_photos
but I have also put them into a blog with some comments & a few German & Canadian urls. I also added the Earthrise photo since I do wonder if its just a coincidence that I was born in 1968. The blog link is http://au.blog.360.yahoo.com/roberti5wyd (Start on 16 - 17 of 17 for earthrise Yahoo 360 seems to have lots of features I haven't had time to experiment with yet. ) I have verified that you can add comments to it if you have a yahoo id.

Robert Iacopetta | 03 April 2007  

'Carbon positive' - I like that! It's a challenge to the organizers of WYD, and to the youth themselves!

Frank A Hilario | 10 June 2007  

I would like to do something active, specifically I would like to start a major tree planting program on our family farm located in the snowy mountains region NSW. There seems to be debate re the merits and benefits in the tree planting process to offset carbon. I guess to I have an ulterior motive. Tree planting for twelve months seems like an excellent way to spend my time. To do this I would obviously need financial support. Cost of trees, fencing, drip irrigation and my labour. Also I am wondering where a land owner might stand in relation to locking up land for trees.

paul mackay | 05 September 2007