What has the power of faith to do with environmental action? A lot, these days more than ever. Think about it: if your community or political representative suggested planting a tree, versus your faith leader, which one would you more likely follow? Chances are, a representative of your faith would outdo the elected official. Increasingly, faith-based organizations (FBOs) worldwide are gaining a seat at environmental conferences and are becoming major players in advocating environmental stewardship.
Actions have consequences, and when an estimated 80 per cent of the world’s population associate themselves with a faith, an environmental message from their faith leaders is more likely to bring about change. This, we believe at UN Environment, is a values-based trend environmental groups need to leverage in order to be most effective. Working in silos hasn’t gotten the job done – by integrating economic, social and environmental issues, coupled with ethics, beliefs and individual responsibility, the UN is seeking maximum impact.
In August of 2017, UN Environment has taken the initiative to reach out to faith-based organizations and faith leaders worldwide and involve them more holistically in the UN’s collaborative process. Hence, the Faith for Earth Initiative was born. "I personally believe that leadership empowerment and partnership with spiritual leaders is important," says Iyad Abumoghli, Lead Principal Advisor on Engaging with Faith-Based Organizations at UN Environment. "The words of faith leaders often get to the hearts and minds faster than any other word, because they are considered to be the words of sacred scripts and represent what God has asked us to do."
High stakes, deep faith
With an estimated US$3 trillion invested by religious institutions around the world in various financial instruments and stocks, the purchasing and investment power of these institutions become apparent. When the spiritual influencers are themselves inspired by holy texts, the message can translate from the divine to the everyday. Take care of nature. Recycle. Plant a tree. Conserve water. Invest in environmentally coherent funds and companies that match your values. "When we talk about greening, we are not just supporting environmental projects, but also how we do charity work and provide for the eradication of poverty – while at the same time sustainably thinking of these actions and resources. The integrated approach is part and parcel of everything we do," says Abumoghli.
The 2030 Global Agenda and goal 17, Partnership and the means of implementation, lie at the heart of this initiative. Not a single country or group of countries can achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) alone. All stakeholders, including faith organizations, must be part of the solution. "The essence of the work of UN Environment is to integrate faith perceptions into the initiatives and strategies of whatever we do in the organization – whether on ecosystems, environmental laws or when tackling diverse environmental issues," says Abumoghli.
Three goals of Faith for Earth
Faith for Earth has three main goals. The first is to inspire and empower faith organizations and their leaders to actively promote the relationship between environment and faith. Wherever you go in any neighborhood, you find an imam, priest, rabbi or temple leader. Their words are best heard by the people.
The second goal is to work with faith organizations on their investments (such as bonds), banking and assets to finance sustainable development. They are the third largest group of global investors in the world and "greening them" is literally God’s work. Many, such as the Church of England and the World Council of Churches, have divested from oil and gas investments, or industries that generate carbon. The Islamic Development Bank, for one, is investing US$6 billion in renewable energy. Together with its partners, UN Environment is trying to establish norms for faith-based investments – or faith-consistent investments – that integrate environmental sustainability into investment criteria. These norms historically concerned negative aspects, to avoid financing industries such as alcohol or arms dealing. By integrating environmental sustainability into investments, the goal is to introduce positive criteria that benefit people and society.
The third goal is to provide faith leaders with knowledge, networking opportunities and scientific evidence to help them connect issues of faith and the environment. The starting point might be sacred scripts, all the way to current scientific research on the impacts of climate change, pollution or lifestyles. A lot of the work that UN Environment comes up with provides evidence that current human behaviour and economic development are unsustainable. Pope Francis has been very vocal on climate change issues, criticizing the current financial system and calling for a paradigm shift in how we address economic development.
Acknowledging environmental priorities
The Global Environment Outlook (GEO) published by UN environment highlights priorities and identifies key areas for local, regional and global action. The GEO process can integrate priorities identified by faith groups and engage them in finding local solutions based on these priorities. Faith leaders were already discussing climate change as being on their mind. This included sustainable consumption and production, and resource efficiency. Faith leaders play a major role in influencing the behaviour of their followers and lead them to sustainably consume natural resources. UN Environment is working with them to integrate their perspectives into the GEO process.
Faith organizations and UN Environment share common objectives – those of the SDGs and Agenda 2030. As the custodian of 26 SDG indicators, UN Environment has a global obligation to keep monitoring and reporting on them. To do so, we must be able to involve all sectors of society. Faith for Earth is one way to reach this objective, by connecting with over than 400 organizations and building on ethics and faith-consistent values that positively impact the daily lives of people and protect our planet.
For more information about UN Environment’s Faith for Earth Initiative, please contact Iyad Abumoghli: iyad.abumoghli[at]un.org.