Since World Youth Day Lisbon was announced in 2019, organizers have said that they want to make their gathering the greenest edition of World Youth Day yet.
Claiming for World Youth Day the spirit of Laudato si’, the president of the WYD Lisbon foundation — future Cardinal Américo Aguiar — has insisted on green talking points in most of his interviews.
Organizers have taken a lot of measures they hope will be good for the earth.
They’ve cut down on use of paper by avoiding the distribution of any printed material to pilgrims, placing everything on the app, which has been designed to work offline.
All registered pilgrims or participants are being given refillable water bottles, to avoid a crush of disposable plastic ones.
The containers used for meals will be made of one material only, to make them easier to recycle.
Pilgrims will be able to choose what food they take with them, and what to leave behind, to avoid food waste.
All over World Youth Day, information on recycling is posted prominently, since the color codes for recycling bins are not universal, it turns out — and Americans aren’t really used to sorting their recycling into different categories at all.
Planners also made efforts to ensure that venue construction materials are environmentally friendly, and a campaign was launched that has already seen over 8,000 trees planted.
Pedro Madureira, a staff member on the team in charge of staging WYD events, told The Pillar those measures are more than window dressing. Green plans have been a World Youth Day preoccupation from day one, even at the headquarters, he said.
“I don’t think we bought anything for the offices. Everything was either donated or reconditioned. There is no disposable cutlery or dishes, we bring everything from home, to avoid waste, or wash them ourselves,” Madureira explained.
“I was never the sort of person who worried very much about recycling, for example, but I think it is good that we have this concern, and it has had an effect on me personally. I will be adopting some of these practices in my daily life after WYD,” added the 37-year-old father of three.
Teresa Nazareth, who will be hosting pilgrims in Lisbon and is involved in the Economy of Francesco – an initiative launched by Pope Francis to rethink the global economy – believes that “it is important to show the pope that we are with him in this struggle. And it is important that the Church should get behind the issue of sustainability, which affects us all, even though it might sometimes seem distant, ideological, or partisan. Caring for our common home is not a problem for one group or another, and the Pope has done well in putting this uncomfortable topic on the table”.
Others have also been inspired.
Before traveling to Lisbon, Pilgrims from the Portuguese archipelago of the Azores recently gathered on the island of Pico, where they climbed the highest mountain in Portugal, and spent the night.
The local bishop made the daunting climb with them, and celebrated Mass at sunrise in the volcano crater at the top.
All the participants signed a pact, committing “to care for the common home.”
But not everybody is convinced.
Some say they find the insistence on sustainability annoying. And there was widespread criticism — and some mocking — when it was revealed that the official app includes a carbon footprint calculator, so that pilgrims can see how much their participation is contributing to global warming.
If you’re curious, a delegation from the Northern Mariana Islands, in Micronesia — who had to catch four flights to get to Lisbon — account for around 6,500 metric tons of CO2 each.
A pilgrims’ guidebook, which is yet to be launched, will provide suggestions on how participants can offset their carbon footprint, with ideas ranging from planting trees to cutting down on meat.
“I never like seeing the Church riding along with the latest moralising fad, such as measuring carbon footprints and not eating meat. I think that there is more to caring for the common home than trying to turn us all into Greta wannabes,” said Pedro Pereira dos Santos, a lawyer who will be helping to look after pilgrims during the event.
Francisco Correia, a university professor of law in Potugal who will be hosting pilgrims, said he worries about the Church dipping into political issues.
“I think the idea of the calculator has more risks than benefits, and should be avoided. This is a tool to measure highly complex effects, about which there an be a variety of scientific opinions, and so it lends weight to a position which is open to debate, and is not theological in nature. It’s one thing to say that creation is a gift from God, and that we should care for it, but it is quite another to favour one particular way of measuring humanity’s impact on creation.”
“The second risk, which I consider more serious, is that by getting deeply involved in ways of fixing environmental problems, as well as being involved in tackling other earthly issues, the Church can forget its mission to preach the Gospel, and give in to the utopian temptation of trying to create heaven on earth,” he told The Pillar.
From Cold War to global warming
Mariana Arrobas, a 48-year-old veterinarian and mother of seven, who is also involved with hosting and caring for groups of WYD pilgrims, has a more nuanced view, saying that the event had no other choice but to speak the language of this generation.
“Climate emergency is to the current generation of tweens what nuclear holocaust was to the generation growing up in the context of the Cold War — an all-pervasive menace lurking on the horizon, with the added stress of amplification on social media, which our generation was spared. Everything is marketed to them with a sustainability angle – it's either recycled or recyclable, or trees have been planted to get it to you by plane. Carbon offsetting is a business that caters to assuaging the conscious of those who care about the environment,” Arrobas told The Pillar.
But — she added — “WYD is aimed at them, not us, so the language that they speak may grate on our ears but it's their common parlance.”
“From the more spiritual aspect, Pope Francis has been very vocal about the importance of living in a way that cares for the common home – our planet – and the duty and responsibility vested upon us as guardians of God's creation,” Arrobas said.
“So yes, it makes sense for the aim to be carbon neutral. The suggestions for offsetting are just that — suggestions. It may bring about awareness regarding more sustainable options of transport, it may make us think about what we eat; where and how the food was sourced, how much we eat and how much we waste.”
“These are not bad ideas and they are not impositions, just an invitation to see the world through a younger lens,” Arrobas added.
Right diagnosis, wrong cure?
Catarina Barreiros is a young Catholic influencer, with a focus on issues regarding sustainability.
Barreiros thinks skeptics about a green World Youth Day don’t mean any harm, but are uninformed about the importance of sustainability.
“When we talk about sustainability, we are talking about a system which is fair for everybody in the world,” Barreiros told The Pillar.
“What is happening at the moment is that most of the population in the global north is not aware of how badly countries in the global south are being affected by rising temperatures. From a scientific perspective, a 1.5º C. rise in temperatures will lead to a world where there is less food, lower life expectancy, and more disease, and those who will suffer most are the ones who are already at a disadvantage.”
“We have to realize that what we do in Portugal affects people in Pakistan, and vice-versa, so this is not an issue that each country can deal with individually, it is a global problem, and when the Church gets involved, it is carrying out what has always been an important part of its mission, to fight for dignity for everyone,” she added.
Still, Barreiros balks at the idea of the carbon footprint calculator, saying there is little use in making people feel guilty for problems that are largely beyond their control.
“This is exactly why we need the Church involved as an institution, rather than shift the blame onto individuals, especially those who have come from far away, probably with considerable personal sacrifice, and who are already disadvantaged. It’s the global system, especially the financial system, that needs changing.”
“Look at the airline industry, for example. Airlines don’t pay taxes on kerosene, which costs our economies billions in lost revenue, so you can’t pin the carbon footprint on one person who has as much right to come to WYD from Micronesia as do pilgrims from Spain and France. The Church, being a global institution with much influence, can help to advise other institutions to make large-scale changes.”
While few object to planting trees, regardless of where they stand on sustainability issues, the suggestion to avoid eating meat has struck a nerve among many in Portugal, including practicing Catholic meat producers like Bernardo Albino.
“As a farmer, I think it would make more sense to ask participants to eat locally sourced food, rather than call on them to avoid eating this or that product. Local produce can be identified through the IGP and DOP seals on packages, or the sentence ‘Portugal sou eu’ [I am Portugal].”
That idea had the support of 18-year-old Sebastião Stilwell, son of a prominent veterinarian, who is an outspoken environmentalist and specialises in sustainable cattle farming.
“At home we always learned that it is not cows that are increasing the greenhouse effect. The airplanes that import vegetables, for example, produce more [carbon dioxide]. That being said, I have nothing against the principle of making WYD as sustainable as possible, in fact I think it’s great, despite some of the sillier recommendations,” the WYD pilgrim told The Pillar.
Catarina Barreiros built on that idea. She told The Pillar that in the Portuguese context, the recommendation to avoid eating meat is not only silly, it is actually counterproductive.
“Most of our meat comes from regenerative, rather than intensive farming. The cattle are an integral part of land management, their manure helps reduce the need for artificial fertilizers. Yes, we do eat more red meat than is healthy for us, but asking people simply not to eat meat doesn’t solve any problems, it just creates new ones.”
A better idea, she said, and a suggestion for future WYD editions, would be to provide participants with a list of places where they can buy sustainably sourced products, including meat.
It seems likely that future World Youth Days will pick up on Portugal’s commitment to a green event — in light of the guidance of Laudato si’.
But environmental policy isn’t always straight-forward — and as organizers in Lisbon are learning, it’s not always easy being green.