UC Observer logo
UCObserver on SoundCloud UCObserver on YouTube UCObserver on Facebook UCObserver on Twitter UCObserver's RSS Feeds

Emission control

United Church buildings produce as much carbon dioxide as 30,000 cars. Why are so few congregations cleaning up their act?

By Mike Milne

Here’s some fresh global warming data that’s bound to send a chill across the United Church: the denomination’s 3,000 congregational buildings produce the equivalent of an estimated 135,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide each year. That’s about the same as burning 63 million kilograms of coal, or driving 30,000 cars, or powering 15,000 homes for a year — and it would take a forest about the size of Quebec City to offset it.

Perhaps even more worrying is the fact that few congregations are taking steps to reduce their energy use — even in areas where church-funded no- or low-interest loans are available to help them retrofit their buildings.

Several General Councils have recognized the existential threat of climate change and passed motions calling on congregations to try to lower their carbon footprints. The General Council Office has tried to reduce its energy use by cutting back on travel and meeting electronically more often. And the denomination and its Foundation took a stand against climate change in late 2015 by selling about $8 million in fossil fuel investments. 

But a report released last July, called “Caring for Creation, Our Communities and Our Congregations,” gives the church its first national estimate of how much carbon its buildings are pumping into the atmosphere. It says that for the church to be “a truly credible and inspiring climate change leader [it] must put its own house in order.”

Commissioned by General Council’s finance department for $90,500, the report was completed by Faith and the Common Good, a Toronto interfaith environmental group, and BuildGreen Solutions, an Ottawa consulting firm. “This is a proactive thing,” says General Council finance chief Erik Mathiesen. “This is a chance for the church to lead by example. But in order to manage something, you need to measure it.”

Lucy Cummings, executive director of Faith and the Common Good, says the carbon reduction report makes clear that carbon-producing energy use is a theological, environmental and ethical issue, as well as a financial issue for congregations. “The energy used to light and heat United Church faith buildings is one of the denomination’s largest carbon contributors — and one of its biggest expenses.”

In other words, congregations can save money and take steps to slow global warning by making their buildings more energy-efficient or offsetting energy use by generating clean energy with solar panels.

“Whatever you’re doing to produce carbon, it’s probably costing you money,” says David Hewitt, executive secretary of Maritime Conference. With 449 preaching places, almost twice as many as any other Conference in the church, Maritime Conference also has the church’s highest estimated per-building carbon footprint. 

Church buildings in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Saskatchewan and Alberta top the carbon report’s energy intensity charts, which show carbon emissions per square foot of buildings. That’s because coal, natural gas and oil products are used so widely in those provinces for heating and producing electricity. As the report points out, cutting energy use in those provinces would give the United Church its most immediate carbon footprint reduction.

Carbon-free electrical generation in other provinces helps reduce churches’ carbon footprints. Ontario generates half of its electricity in nuclear plants, while British Columbia, Manitoba, Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador get 90 percent or more of their electricity from hydro power. 

Following the examples of denominations in the United Kingdom, Australia and the United States, the United Church report suggests a goal to reduce carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050. Interim targets would be proposed for 2020 and 2030.

The suggested program would begin by collecting utility data for all church buildings, which would be entered into a database to show where the church is starting, energy-wise. There’s no deadline, but General Council’s finance unit expects a proposed plan could be unveiled as soon as this spring.

For congregations deciding to take action, more financing for carbon footprint reduction — from revolving loan funds or grant programs — will likely be part of the plan. About $40 million in national United Church funds is set aside for building new churches, but only $5 million of that is currently loaned out. There are no new buildings on the horizon, so Mathiesen says the remainder could be freed up for carbon footprint reduction. 

Money may not be the only factor preventing congregations from going green. Low uptake on current loan or grant programs suggests that many congregations either don’t know about the programs, can’t tolerate debt (even at no interest) or can’t rationalize long-term financial commitments. Congregations that are struggling to meet payroll and fund minimal building maintenance are unlikely to take on projects with long-term benefits, says Rev. Ron Ewart, executive director of Toronto United Church Council (TUCC), the church development and financing arm of Toronto Conference. TUCC’s Sustainable Energy Loan Fund, which totals $538,000, provides $5,000 to $50,000 five-year no-interest loans, with five more years at one percent. 

Despite such generous terms and plenty of promotion, less than 60 percent of the fund is loaned out. Says Ewart, “I’d love to see every dollar out there . . . lowering the carbon footprint and taking responsibility for our buildings.”

Even church grant programs have gone unspent: $100,000 offered by General Council for practically free energy audits in 2011 and 2012, for instance, attracted only 50 congregations, at an average cost of $750. 

Motivating volunteers is also a problem. An Ottawa Presbytery program called Project Footprint, adopted in 2015 with a commitment to cut its 60 church buildings’ carbon footprint by 25 percent in five years, ran into that roadblock. Adopted as part of the carbon footprint report, the Ottawa project received about $14,000 worth of energy audits and consultants’ help collecting energy-use data from congregational volunteers. Still, only a quarter of congregations submitted the data required for the study’s investigation into church space and energy use. 

Part of the problem, says Presbytery staff minister Rev. David Sherwin, was getting busy volunteers to gather information on building and energy use and do detailed calculations. The carbon footprint report identifies two possible solutions: standardized spreadsheets for inputting data; and getting access to the usage data on churches’ utility bills, which would require little more than a congregation’s permission.

“If we want to encourage churches across the country to do this,” says Sherwin, “we have to find ways to make that possible.”

Churches also have to keep spreading the climate change message — and show their commitment to fighting it through their own actions, says John Dillon, a longtime staff person at the interchurch justice coalition KAIROS. “Church buildings stand out in communities,” he says. “Not everybody can put up solar panels or a solar water-heating system. But when they do, people in the community sit up and take notice.”

When Mardi Tindal was United Church moderator from 2009 to 2012, she travelled cross-country almost exclusively by low-carbon train to take messages about care for Creation and warnings about climate change to church halls and sanctuaries. For Tindal, a national carbon footprint reduction plan will be a welcome effort that may help more congregations put her words into action.

“We are making decisions that will make life better,” she says. “Our advocacy efforts ring hollow unless we are willing to walk the walk in doing what we are asking other people to do.”  

Reducing their footprints: 3 United churches take action

Some United Church congregations have already cut their carbon footprints through professional energy audits, retrofit projects and installing solar panels. Here are three examples:

Highlands United 
North Vancouver, B.C.

About a year ago, a 15-member climate and environment action group was formed at Highlands United to work on reducing the church’s carbon footprint. 

Its initial proposal for solar panels was halted when consultants showed it didn’t make sense because of too little sunshine and too many tall trees at the church. Now the action group is considering switching the church’s heating system from natural gas to biomethane fuel for an extra $10,000 a year. Another option is to replace the boiler with electric-run heat pumps for up to $200,000 in capital costs. 

But, says group member Jon Carrodus, “there’s a wide range of opinions and attitudes among church members,” and direct climate change-related benefits are often hard to illustrate. 

Tottenham United
Tottenham, Ont.

At this small village church north of Toronto, the congregation was clear about wanting to reduce its carbon footprint. It started by spending $10,000 on new windows and an on-demand water heater, plus another $5,000 replacing inefficient lights with LEDs. 

Lay minister Patti Rodgers acknowledges the project will save energy and money but says it was primarily “a justice issue.” The congregation “did a whole series on caring for our planet last year and decided there were things we could do.”

The church financed its efforts with a loan from Toronto United Church Council’s Sustainable Energy Loan Fund.

Islington United

About six years ago, this large Toronto congregation with a 30,000-square foot building got serious about cutting its carbon footprint. Its Green Team has four core members and two dozen more who pitch in on projects. 

Steve Tower, the team’s lead member, says the ongoing project began with an energy audit in 2010, followed by a solar audit to find out if electricity-generating solar panels would be a wise investment. 

The audit showed the church used the same energy as about seven households. Insulation, sealing, adjustments to windows and doors, heating system controls and about 1,000 new LED lights brought the church’s energy-use equivalent down to six households.

An $80,000 solar array, installed in 2011, has already returned more than $56,000 to church coffers — the net financial gain is used to fund social justice and outreach projects, or more energy-related retrofitting. An organic garden and urban beehives are also part of the mix. Currently, the Green Team is researching energy savings in a planned kitchen renovation. 

Church-related networks like Greening Sacred Spaces have been helpful, says Tower. But return-on-investment reports, showing how energy savings can pay for capital expenditures, have been crucial in getting the congregation onside — and likely helped Islington United to finance its projects through congregational donations and investments.

“The global warming and net-zero discussions are gaining traction,” says Tower. But balancing costs and savings “immediately got the attention of people on the finance side.” 

Readers’ advisory: The discussion below is moderated by The UC Observer and facilitated by Intense Debate (ID), an online commentary system. The Observer reserves the right to edit or reject any comment it deems to be inappropriate. Approved comments may be further edited for length, clarity and accuracy, and published in the print edition of the magazine. Please note: readers do not need to sign up with ID to post their comments on ucobserver.org. We require only your user name and e-mail address. Your comments will be posted from Monday to Friday between 9:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Join the discussion today!


Courtesy of Pixabay

Why this woman is leaving the Catholic Church in her 60s

by Angela Mombourquette

After a lifetime devoted to Catholicism, a Nova Scotia teacher is settling in with the United Church of Canada. Here, she explains why.

Promotional Image


Jocelyn Bell%

Observations: It’s a long road toward full equality for women

by Jocelyn Bell

'It’s a wonder that we continue to see male ministers as normative and attach shame to female ministers’ biology and sexuality.'

Promotional Image


ObserverDocs: Playing by Heart

by Observer Staff

United Church music director Kara Shaw was born prematurely, became almost totally blind and was later diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. Today, the 28-year-old showcases her unique musical ability, performing piano on local and national stages.

Promotional Image


May 2018

Toronto church builds interfaith friendship

by Vivien Fellegi


May 2018

This parent found no support for her autistic daughter — and decided to change that

by Kieran Delamont

Suzanne Allen talks about raising a daughter on the autism spectrum and bringing all autistic girls together


May 2018

Church retreat helps first responders with PTSD

by Joe Martelle


May 2018

Why this woman is leaving the Catholic Church in her 60s

by Angela Mombourquette

After a lifetime devoted to Catholicism, a Nova Scotia teacher is settling in with the United Church of Canada. Here, she explains why.


May 2018

Pregnant in the pulpit

by Trisha Elliott

Ministers who take a maternity leave still face discrimination in their own congregations


May 2018

The two words Rev. Cheri DiNovo wants to hear from the United Church

by Alex Mlynek

The Toronto minister talks about her disappointment over the church’s silence when she officiated the country’s first legalized same-sex marriage 17 years ago – and why she wants an apology.

Promotional Image