World Youth Day’s ecological conversion opportunity

In Australia — especially in this time of drought — people are increasingly conscious of climate change. Not a day goes without a news headline highlighting some new initiative to reduce carbon emissions.

Despite the climate change sceptics, the upswing in environmental consciousness is a global phenomenon. It is not just first world elites who are taking notice, but all kinds of communities in the developing world as well, from Pacific islanders worried about rising sea levels and storm surges to Filipino rainforest dwellers concerned about typhoons.

Interestingly, the late Pope John Paul II was aware of and shared this environmental consciousness. In a remarkable and almost prophetic statement in 2001, he called on the Church to encourage and support the “ecological conversion (that) has made humanity more sensitive to the catastrophe to which it has been heading”.

“Man,” he said, “is no longer the Creator’s ‘steward’, but an autonomous despot, who is finally beginning to understand that he must stop at the edge of the abyss.”

Picking up on increasing signs of this ecological consciousness, noted American commentator, John L. Allen, said “ecology and natural resources” are one of ten “megatrends” that he expects to shape global Catholicism in coming decades.

I’ve been thinking about these issues, particularly in the context of the forthcoming World Youth Day 2008 event, for which I am organizing a local program for a Melbourne parish.

Each time I look at the World Youth Day website the number of people expected to participate keeps rising. Half a million, 600,000, now 700,000 people are expected to come to Sydney for the final Mass with Pope Benedict on the 20th of July.

Many of the Australian participants will fly in to Sydney. More than 100,000 international visitors are also expected – nearly all of whom will fly for up to 25 hours.

According to figures available on climate change websites, a flight from Europe will generate seven to eight tonnes of carbon dioxide that will be emitted into the atmosphere. Even a flight from Singapore will generate over three tonnes.

It is obvious then that, depending on exactly how many people come, and from where, the ‘carbon cost’ of hosting World Youth Day in Sydney could easily reach half a million to a million tones of CO2 equivalent.

That’s five to ten times more than the 100,000 tonnes that FIFA estimated as the carbon cost of hosting last year’s World Cup!

Significantly, though, FIFA committed itself to making the World Cup a ‘carbon neutral’ event. It did this by partnering with the United Nations Environmental Program, and by purchasing 100,000 tonnes of ‘carbon credits’ to compensate for the extra carbon dioxide generated by spectators attending matches.

This raises the question of how World Youth Day will ensure that it is an environmentally responsible event.

The German hosts of World Youth Day 2005 in Cologne recognized that it was beyond them to make the event carbon neutral. Nevertheless, they adopted a series of environmental guidelines which are still available on the WYD2005 website.

So how will WYD2008 respond to the challenge?

If climate change and environmental destruction are really threats, is it enough to limit ourselves to simply issuing a series of guidelines? How seriously do the organisers take Pope John Paul II’s call for “ecological conversion”?

If the organisers are serious, the answer is clear — at a minimum, they need to ensure that WYD2008 is ‘carbon neutral’. Better still, why not work to make it a ‘carbon positive’ event?

Could World Youth Day 2008 be transformed from an environmentally expensive event into one that will call 700,000 people towards “ecological conversion”? It is worth also reflecting on recent words of Pope Benedict who will also be present at World Youth Day 2008.

“The destruction of the environment, its improper or selfish use, and the violent hoarding of the earth’s resources cause grievances, conflicts and wars, precisely because they are the consequences of an inhumane concept of development,” he wrote in this year’s World Day of Peace message, drawing a clear link between the concept of human development and environmental concern and protection.

Pope Benedict also chose the theme for next year’s World Youth Day — Jesus’ words in the Acts of the Apostles: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses.” They are words worth reflecting on in the context of the challenge of “ecological conversion”.

It is possible to make WYD2008 an environmentally responsible event — though it will take a lot of work. The end result could be that WYD2008 will become a moment when people stepped back from the environmental abyss, and turned the spirit of St Francis of Assisi, patron Saint of the environment, into a modern megatrend.

Stefan Gigacz


World Youth Day’s ecological conversion opportunity (Eureka Street) 08/03/2007