02 Mar 2020 Story Ecosystems and Biodiversity

Faith for Earth: Shifting the needle on environmental action

(Monks in forest) Photo by Pixabay

Interview with the United Nations Environment Programme’s Faith for Earth director, Iyad Abumoghli

What are the aims of the United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP) Faith for Earth initiative? What can faith organizations do that others can’t? Why does Faith for Earth favour moves towards “business unusual”? Can institutions of the world’s religions make a difference? What were Faith for Earth’s major achievements in the past couple of years?

Faith for Earth has three main objectives. Firstly, we aim to strengthen partnerships with faith-based organization leaders to boost environmentally friendly policies. Secondly, we aim to promote green faith-based organizations’ investments, operations and assets. And thirdly, we aim to establish an accessible knowledge-based support system for faith-based organizations.

These objectives support, and seek to catalyse, the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda. We work with faith-based organizations at all levels to strengthen interfaith partnerships in implementing the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Goal 17 (Partnerships for the goals) is particularly relevant for Faith for Earth.

Faith leaders are particularly well placed to communicate meaningful, pro-environment messages. The principle of environmental stewardship is a common thread among almost all religions, and we need to better exploit that fact.

What other Goals are relevant for Faith for Earth?

As you know, we are facing biodiversity and climate emergencies, so Goal 13 (Climate action) and Goal 15 (Life on land) are key areas of focus. Another important objective is getting faith-based organizations to divest from fossil fuels and promote green energy in line with Goal 7 (Affordable and clean energy). Goal 12 (Responsible consumption and production) is at the heart of our work. Religion often dictates what we eat, what we drink and our attitude towards natural resources.

What can faith organizations do that others can’t?

Faith-based organizations have unparalleled reach and mobilizing power because of the sheer number of their adherents in every corner of the world—even in remote areas where the fight against environmental degradation will be won or lost. They have enormous potential to influence policy and tip the scales on the massive global movement we all know is needed to address the planet’s environmental challenges.

Faith-based organizations also have a comparative advantage in addressing the cultural dimension of sustainable development by tapping into people’s spiritual side and highlighting that faith and science can be mutually supportive when addressing environmental issues.

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Photo by Shutterstock

What’s the relationship between Faith for Earth and the Interfaith Rainforest Initiative?

The Interfaith Rainforest Initiative is an international alliance working to bring the commitment, influence and moral authority of religions to bear to protect the world’s rainforests and the indigenous peoples that serve as their guardians. The initiative is building on faith-based movements in five major rainforest countries—Brazil, Colombia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Indonesia and Peru—and is also active globally promoting faith-based campaigns and action to end tropical deforestation.

Faith for Earth, located in UNEP’s Executive Office, supports this, and other initiatives under development, in line with its overarching role in implementing UNEP’s strategy on engaging with faith-based organizations.

Why does Faith for Earth favour moves towards “business unusual”?

It’s time for a mindset change in terms of how we interact with the Earth’s finite resources.

Over the past few decades, consumption and production patterns have been altering weather patterns and destroying ecosystems, and leading to a new mass extinction of species. Human-induced climate change is widely acknowledged as presenting a significant threat to world peace, security and prosperity, and potentially even the very existence of humanity. Shifting to a more sustainable consumption and production model globally is of paramount importance.

Can institutions of the world’s religions make a difference?

Certainly. The root cause of our environmental issues is our attitude towards natural resources. Policies and agreements will help, but it is our daily environmental behaviour that affects consumption patterns. There are an estimated 37 million churches, 3.6 million mosques, 20,000 synagogues and countless other temples and houses of worship dotted around the world. These institutions hold enormous assets which can make a huge difference if channeled for positive impact. They are also beacons to guide followers seeking spiritual redemption and inspired actions.

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A church in Lebanon. Photo by Iyad Abumoghli

What were Faith for Earth’s major achievements in the past couple of years?

I am pleased to launch the Faith for Earth achievement report. In 2018 and 2019 Faith for Earth:

  • Increased the number of accredited faith-based organizations from 8 to 45, thus enhancing policy dialogue between religious leaders and environmental decision makers
  • Strengthened its advocacy campaigns by establishing a network of more than 3,000 faith leaders
  • Organized eight global interfaith conferences and coordinated with 12 major religions
  • Participated in more than 30 webinars on environment and religion
  • Worked with intergovernmental organizations to institutionalize engagement with faith-based organizations on policy issues and the implementation of environmental projects

What’s your next major event?

In partnership with the Swedish International Development Agency, from 16 to 18 March we’re holding a People and Planet conference with around 180 participants from six countries—and no air travel! Religious leaders in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Indonesia, Jordan, Kenya, South Africa and Sweden will be exchanging experiences. Discussion will focus on the role of young faith leaders in tackling deforestation, water scarcity and climate change.

In May 2020, in partnership with the Vatican, UNEP will be organizing an interfaith launch of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration 2021–2030.

Nature-based solutions offer the best way to achieve human well-being, tackle climate change and protect our living planet. Yet nature is in crisis, as we are losing species at a rate 1,000 times greater than at any other time in recorded human history and one million species face extinction. In addition to important moments for decision makers, including the COP 15 on Biodiversity, the 2020 “super year” is a major opportunity to bring nature back from the brink. The future of humanity depends on action now.

For more information, please contact Iyad Abumoghli: Iyad.Abumoghli@un.org