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What these Christians are giving up for Lent: Fossil fuels

Solar panels sit in an array at the Southwick Estate Solar Farm, operated by Primrose Solar Ltd., near Fareham, U.K., on Friday, Oct. 2, 2015. The plant, situated in 200 acres (81 hectares) of farmland, consists of 175,000 monocrystalline PV modules and has a capacity of 48 megawatts. Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

A new initiative in the United Kingdom is not only calling for Christian communities to band together in support of clean energy, but actually helping them get their own electricity that way. The Big Church Switch, which launched Wednesday, aims to inspire both individuals and churches to make the switch to renewable energy sources — and they’re already gaining support from church leaders in the country.

The project is a collaborative initiative spearheaded by UK-based international development charities Christian Aid and Tearfund, both of which concern themselves largely with addressing issues related to global poverty. The project’s goal is to convince Christian communities in the UK to register for renewable energy by switching their energy suppliers. The project’s organizers will negotiate with suppliers on behalf of interested individuals or churches and provide quotes on the best deal.

It also reflects the growing interest of faith communities around the world in promoting clean energy and combating climate change, and similar organizations and initiatives have cropped up in other places. San Francisco-based Interfaith Power and Light, for example, refers to itself as a “religious response to global warming” and also helps congregations reduce their carbon footprints and adopt renewable energy sources. And on a broader note, many Catholics around the world have embraced Pope Francis’ call last year to reduce the use of fossil fuels. But the Big Church Switch may be one of the first initiatives that actually facilitates the transition to renewables by making an organized call for a switch and working out group deals for participants.

“Part of what we’re interested in is tackling the root causes of poverty, one of which is climate change,” said Tim Gee, campaign strategy lead at Christian Aid. As he pointed out, the effects of climate change have been shown to have a disproportionate impact on the poor. So tackling the problem of climate change is not only an environmental issue, but also a social one.

“Ultimately, the reason [for the project] is that climate change is hitting the world’s poorest people hardest,” said Ben Niblett, a senior campaigner at Tearfund. “These are the people who did the least to cause it, but they’re the people who are feeling it already.”

In the United Kingdom, as in many other developed nations, energy supply remains the biggest national source of greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for more than 30 percent of all the country’s emissions in 2014. Making personal changes in their consumption of electricity is one of the biggest ways citizens in the UK can start to tackle the issue of global climate change, Niblett said.

And Gee noted that the climate negotiations at the UN’s climate conference in December were another major catalyst for the project. While world leaders hope to keep global temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees above their pre-industrial levels, Gee acknowledged that there’s still “a significant gap between what governments have acknowledged to be the need of a 1.5-degree world and what has been pledged so far. So what we want to do is to show what needs to happen.”

The organizers deliberately chose to launch the campaign on Wednesday, which is an important date for many Christian denominations. Known as Ash Wednesday, the Christian holy day marks the beginning of Lent, the season in the church calendar leading up to Easter. Traditionally, it’s a season of self-reflection and self-sacrifice.

“Lent is a time people are looking to give something up, take stock, thinking how do I want to live my life better,” Niblett said. ‘We want to encourage people to think, ‘How can I do good with my energy?’”

According to Gee, the project’s organizers hope to make an announcement some time around Easter, at the conclusion of Lent, about how many individuals and churches have made the switch so far. But he noted that the project is also about celebrating those who have made the commitment already. Both offices of the Lutheran Church and Quakers in Britain have switched to renewable energy ahead of the campaign’s launch. Additionally, the initiative has been endorsed by several notable church leaders, including the Church of England’s Bishop of Salisbury, Bishop of Guildford and Bishop of Manchester, among others.

One of the initiative’s selling points is that it negotiates an easier and cheaper transition to clean energy than might otherwise be possible for individuals looking to make the switch alone, Niblett said. The initiative has partnered with The Big Deal, a switching site that helps individuals in the UK get better deals on changing their energy provider, and buying groups 2buy2 and Parish Buying, to negotiate the best group deal for people who make their energy transition through the Big Church Switch campaign.

“If you live in the UK you can get a better tariff [through Big Church Switch] than you could get for yourself, and that’s the power of buying together,” Niblett said. There are a number of renewable energy suppliers that participants can use to make the switch, and the energy may come from a variety of renewable sources — mostly wind and solar, according to Niblett.

The initiative may represent a growing national movement toward the adoption of clean energy. Between 2013 and 2014, greenhouse gas emissions from the UK’s energy sector dropped by 14 percent, and between 2014 and 2015 the share of renewables in energy generation jumped from 17.6 percent to 23.5 percent.

The organizers of Big Church Switch also hope that their initiative will continue to encourage other communities — not just faith communities — to join the movement.

“We want to show government and businesses that the church is doing this and we want that change,” Niblett said. And he later added, “We hope in the U.S. and the UK and all around the world people will make the switch to renewables. Tearfund can only do that in the UK, but we hope people will find their own ways to do it in every country that they’re in.”