A new Anglican-led organization is aiming to help churches reduce the greenhouse gas emissions from their buildings to zero.
An organizer of the group, however, says he’s shocked by how much of these gases Anglican churches are producing, according to some early data.
Drawing together Anglican dioceses with educational institutions such as Concordia University and Humber College to provide technical guidance, Net Zero Churches advises congregations on how to reduce carbon emissions in two ways: by changing mechanical systems—heating, cooling, for example—to stop creating greenhouse gases; and by reducing energy use. Participating churches will track their gas and hydro use and costs for five years and do a comparison at the end to gauge their progress.
In the diocese of Niagara, Humber College is assigning students to do thermal imaging—a process in which infrared radiation is used to view differences in temperature—and analyze the results. Data suggests that the first 14 churches to take part are collectively creating about 200 tonnes of greenhouse gases per year, Net Zero Churches co-founder Mark Gibson says.
“That seems like a huge amount of pollution coming from our churches … I think that’s the kind of shock that this research is finding,” Gibson says. “We are far more polluting than we think.”By comparison, in 2019 Canada’s per capita household greenhouse gas emissions were 3.8 tonnes —considerably higher than levels in countries like the United Kingdom, France and Germany whose per capita household emissions that year each ranged between 1.7 and 2.2 tonnes, according to Statistics Canada.
Since Net Zero Churches began in January, four dioceses—Montreal, Niagara, Ontario and New Westminster—have joined, Gibson says. As this story was going to press, three more were preparing to take part: Edmonton, Huron and Rupert’s Land. Another three, he says, are in the decision-making stage: Toronto, Ottawa and Nova Scotia and P.E.I. Gibson says he hopes the project will eventually expand to other faith communities.
Gibson, who is married to diocese of Montreal bishop Mary Irwin-Gibson, did some work with renewable energy in his career as a consultant and later served as chair of the environmental stewardship committee for the diocese. In this role, he came across thermal imaging as a technique to identify leaks of heat in Anglican buildings.
That led him to cross paths with Sue Carson, then chair of Climate Justice Niagara—the environmental outreach committee for the diocese of Niagara—and later co-founder of Net Zero Churches.At its 2021 synod, the diocese committed Climate Justice Niagara to help parishes complete a walk-through energy audit of their buildings by the end of 2022. It also mandated wardens and clergy to use the audit to create a five-year parish plan for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by at least 10% by 2024. To reach these goals, the diocese developed self-assessment questionnaires for parishes and decided the next step might be to use thermal imaging to find heat leaks in church buildings.
Carson and Gibson at this time were both members of the Anglican Church of Canada’s Creation Matters Working Group. At the group’s meeting in January 2022, the two realized they were both looking at thermal imaging to gauge emissions in church buildings. They combined Niagara’s self-assessment questionnaires with Montreal’s procedure for thermal imaging to begin work on about 40 congregations.
“Our first step is to be able to quantify how many greenhouse gases our different church buildings currently produce,” Gibson says. “Then we can calculate how many tonnes could be saved with different interventions, and what support would be needed through grants to make that happen.”
Walk-through energy audits allow congregations to assess their current situation. “You just hold your hand up to a window, you can tell whether there’s any heat leaving or cold coming,” Carson says. “If I can do it, I think most people can do it… We’ve tried to make it simple, but we’re here to help as well,” she adds.
Thermal imaging reveals information about the building envelope—the physical separation between the conditioned interior and unconditioned exterior of a building. But what reduces the greenhouse gas emissions, Gibson says, is changing the building’s mechanical system.
One solution, he says, is electrification, either through air-source heat pumps or geothermal heating and cooling. Air-source heat pumps take in heat from outside a building and release it inside, using a similar process to air conditioners but in reverse. Geothermal heating involves a ground-source heat pump that transfers heat to or from the ground.
One of the aims of Net Zero Churches is to provide congregations with options based on their location and finances. Air-source heat pumps, for example, are more expensive than a gas furnace but will save money for a congregation in Ontario, where electricity is now cheaper than natural gas. The project also tries to find grants congregations could apply for to finance upgrades.
Carson’s own congregation, St. James Dundas in Hamilton, Ont., is participating and currently looking at purchasing heat pumps. Gillian Hendry, chair of the church building committee and one of four wardens, says taking part in Net Zero Churches was a no-brainer for St. James, which she says has long attempted to reduce its carbon footprint, including by installing LED lights last year.
“There wasn’t any going back and forth on whether we should participate or not,” Hendry says. “It was just something that we thought was the right thing to do.”
Abhilash Kantamneni, a research associate with Efficiency Canada—a research institute based out of Carleton University that promotes an “energy-efficient economy”—says Net Zero Churches is a welcome development. An electrical engineer by training, Kantamneni formerly helped churches in rural Michigan develop their own sustainability plans as part of the faith-based network Interfaith Power and Light.
“It can be hard for someone who is not really familiar with the built environment of churches and their organizational challenges to provide adequate advice,” Kantamneni says.
The technical, organizational, governance, and financial challenges of getting to net zero, Kantamneni says, are compounded for churches due to their unique cultural heritage and the time period when they were built. Having an organization that can provide expertise not just in technical and project management areas but in church governance and in the specific concerns of congregations is likely to be a major strength to churches looking to get to net zero, he says.
The Anglican Church of Canada offered a green audit program for churches from 2013 to 2016, providing grants of up to $1,000 to pay for two-thirds of the cost of green building audits. But the program was ended, partly because the church concluded it was not appropriate at the time given an increasing array of efficiency-boosting programs offered across the country by various levels of government and the private sector.
Dioceses looking to involved in Net Zero Churches can contact [email protected]