March 2019: The Wood, The Trees & The Carbon Footprints

Image of Gloucester Cathedral solar panels kindly provided by St Ann's Gate AchitectsThe Wood, The Trees & The Carbon Footprints

When I was 16 years old, I decided to stop eating meat.  I really wish that I could offer a dignified, ethical reason for that, but I’m ashamed to admit it was much more about teenage awkwardness – and possibly even some attention seeking behaviour, coinciding with my sister’s 18th birthday!  Despite that, I remained a vegetarian for the next thirteen years before cravings whilst pregnant with my second child provided the perfect excuse to return to my carnivorous ways.

It’s now many years later but my resolution this New Year was to give up meat – and this time it was a decision taken deliberately – because of the imminent risks from climate change.  Weirdly, it was a decision made as a result of my day job: in June last year I was asked to speak about the Cathedral’s installation of solar panels at Manchester’s Our Faith, Our Planet, Our Actions conference.

If you’re not familiar with this first piece of the Pilgrim jigsaw, we installed 150 panels on the Cathedral’s nave roof back in 2016.  We’re a grade 1 listed building – the most iconic in the county I’d argue – so it was no small feat to get the permissions needed for this.  As you can see from this month’s blog photo, part of the reason we were “allowed” to do this was because the installation is so beautifully done.  Although we took endless photos from hills and tall buildings to prove you’d not be able to see the panels, when you get up close to them, it’s hard to argue that they’re anything other than a glorious addition to an already exceptional building. 

If you’re interested in the technical side of things, the panels have a total system capacity of 38.25 kWp and pre-installation were estimated to generate 27,500 kWh of energy in a year. That’s enough to power seven semi-detached houses, make 250,000 cups of tea or provide 25% of the Cathedral’s electricity.  Each and every year.  Without causing carbon emissions.  For free.  Who knew a “heritage” project could be so forward thinking?

Two years down the road, the panels have actually done better than we imagined, outperforming initial estimates by 15% in 2017 and an incredible 21% in 2018.  They’ve also become famous (albeit in rather a niche way), featuring as a case study for Historic England (and the cover star of their Energy Efficiency Photovoltaics Guide); as well as looming large in a great piece on the Church of England’s Shrinking the Footprint commitments for the 24 Hours of Climate Reality broadcast produced every year with the support of (former) US Vice President Al Gore.

It’s wonderful for the Cathedral to have such a platform and to be able to show leadership in this way.  It’s the reason I was asked to speak last June.  But, almost without exception, every time we talk about our panels, we realise how much more we could and should be doing – and how much less complicated than installing solar panels lots of that action is!  At Manchester, I sat in on a conference workshop and learned that reducing my consumption of meat and dairy was straightforwardly the single best way to reduce my environmental impacts.  After dipping my toe in the water with six months of Meat Free Mondays, January proved the perfect opportunity to make a more significant commitment.

And that’s very much the pattern with the Environmental Sustainability work we’re now developing at the Cathedral – one of a number of “unintended consequences” of Pilgrim.  We’ve written our commitments into the Cathedral’s updated Vision and Strategy and we’ve been clear that this is one of the four key areas of “Social Responsibility” we’re going to focus our actions on.  As an aside, the next steps in the other three areas (wellbeing; young people’s prospects and action on homelessness) are also becoming clearer thanks to Pilgrim.

Turning my attention back to Sustainability, having spent the last few years getting a really good sense of how we work as a building and an organisation we’ve decided to focus our work on our impact as a tourist destination as well as a place of worship.  After all, when 400,000 people visit you every year there’s bound to be some impact on your carbon footprint!  Which is why colleagues in the Visits Team have been working behind the scenes and have just secured a Silver Green Tourism award for the Cathedral. 

For me this is simultaneously impressive and encouraging: who doesn’t respond well to praise?  But when the impact of climate change is so catastrophic – and when other parts of the Cathedral’s sustainability (mission and financial to name but two) depend on our continuing to attract and appeal to large numbers of visitors for the foreseeable future, the balance can be hard to see.

The challenge this month then is finding new ways to deliver against every element of Sustainability without losing sight of our traditions and purpose.

Image of Gloucester Cathedral solar panels kindly provided by St Ann's Gate Achitects


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