MUMBAI – Just ahead of Pope Francis’s scheduled participation in the COP-28 climate change summit in Dubai, a national ecological conference in India suggests the pontiff’s agenda of environmental concern is taking root at the Church’s local level.

The Nov. 21-23 summit is being held at the Dharmaram Vidya Kshetram, a pontifical atheneum in Karnataka state in southeastern India, and is jointly sponsored by both the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (which includes the country’s eastern churches) and the Conference of Catholic Bishops of India (which brings together bishops of the Latin rite church).

The theme is, “Care for our common home, towards an integral ecology in India.” According to organizers, the three main aims of the conference are the following.

  1. To comprehend India’s precise ecological situation
  2. To examine the response of the government to the ecological crisis, including how authorities balance ecological sensitivity with development concerns.
  3. To examine the response of the Church and other religions to protect our common home, with an eye towards how Catholicism can cooperate with other faith traditions to promote greater environmental awareness.

Underlining the high-level ecclesiastical backing for the initiative, Indian Cardinals Oswald Gracias of Mumbai, Anthony Poola of Hyderabad and George Alencherry of the Syro-Malabar Church all attended the opening session, while Canadian Cardinal Michael Czerny, head of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, delivered an on-line address.

One concrete fruit of the Church’s ecological push came Nov. 22, when St. Joseph’s Parish in Ponkandam, located in the southern Indian state of Kerala, was officially declared a “net zero” parish, having been certified as achieving zero net emissions of greenhouse gases.

“This isn’t just about policies; it’s about safeguarding our planet, our communities, and the diverse life forms,” said Father Saji Joseph Vattukalathil of St. Joseph’s Parish.

“When we talk about achieving ‘net zero,’ it’s essentially about finding equilibrium between what we take from the environment and what we give back,” Vattukalathil said. “It’s a commitment to being mindful of our impact and striving for harmony, not only for the sake of ecology but also for the sustenance of a robust economy.”

“In India, we are fortunate to be surrounded by a kaleidoscope of landscapes – from the majestic mountains to the serene oceans. Our forests, rivers, and deserts are all part of the incredible beauty that makes up our home,” he said.

“However, the way we’ve been using resources and energy has put a strain on this beauty, impacting both our ecological diversity and economic resilience. It’s like neglecting the maintenance of a shared space, and that affects each and every one of us,” Vattukalathil said.

“When we commit to achieving net zero emissions, it’s not only a commitment to caring for our shared home on a global scale but also to fostering a sustainable economy that benefits everyone,” he said.

Vattukalathil compared the commitment to combatting climate change and environmental degradation to gardening.

“Picture it as a communal garden, where every plant and creature has a role to play. We, as humans, are also part of this community,” he said. “But sometimes, our actions – like excessive pollution and deforestation – disturb the harmony of this shared garden. Committing to net zero is like saying, ‘Let’s be good gardeners. Let’s minimize our impact and nurture the life around us, recognizing that a healthy ecology is fundamental to a resilient economy’.”

In comments to Crux, Vattukalathil said the parish’s environmental journey began with education programs for members of the congregation, including the idea of a “carbon calculator.”

St. Joseph’s is a 140-family parish, Vattukalathil said, and the family homes were subjected to a “green audit” as part of the project. Initial results showed that per capita emissions in the parish were already below the national average.

With the help of a start-up company called Equator Geo, which helps farmers and others engage in carbon trading, as well as a voluntary association called Social Initiative for Global Nurturing (SIGN), the project then focused on carbon sequestration possibilities for each home. The effort was assisted, Vattukalathil said, by the fact that the surrounding village is an agricultural area with mixed crops, capable of substantial carbon offsets.

The net zero certification, Vattukalathil said, coincides with the 50th anniversary of the establishment of St. Joseph’s Parish.