The world’s biggest asset manager, whose name, BlackRock, is apropos to their level of fossil fuel financing, just made a big announcement. The distilled version of the announcement is that they are divesting [some] coal companies from a part of their investment business, and working to drive their clients to invest in “sustainable” portfolios. Although it may sound wildly incremental and, well, underwhelming given the climate crisis, this announcement changes things for the climate movement, and may have a significant impact on the finance world, especially the fossil fuel industry.
Over the last year, while wildfires rage, floods ravage, and ice disappears, the immovable institutions of global capital are starting to show cracks of recourse. Just last month, Goldman Sachs, synonymous with a vampire squid because of their economy-wrecking-predatory-practices, announced they would dump investments in coal mines and coal-fired power plant projects worldwide, as well as direct finance for new Arctic oil exploration and production.
Goldman and Blackrock land on top of an incrementally expanding community of institutions committing to some level of fossil fuel divestment. As of this writing (not including Blackrock) there are 1,158 investors who have set some sort of fossil fuel divestment policy. Many of these entities were pushed by their constituents, their members, or their student-base organised as volunteer campaigns. And, many campaigns are still pushing to get their targets on this list.
So, let’s take a moment to recognise the context the fossil free divestment movement is operating in today. Over 100 and counting globally significant financial institutions have announced their divestment from coal. These announcements have had a real impact on the coal industry’s ability to raise capital, meaning their ability to raise funds has become more difficult than ever. It also means that the finance world is filling the void of our broken political systems and introducing coal restrictive policy is fast becoming the standard, the norm, the baseline. Depending on specific context, divestment campaigns have a new starting point. Or barring that, there is certainly leverage for campaigners to call their targets laggards applying good ol’ capitalist competition and peer pressure.
In addition to low hanging fossil fuels being established divestment norms, many of the big divestment announcements mention something called “climate risk.” That is to say, those stranded asset talking points, made popular by Carbon Tracker back in 2012, are starting to sink in. BlackRock’s announcement helps establish climate risk as a mainstream risk management issue. Climate risk is often defined as both physical risks (e.g. floods) and “transition risk” (e.g. technology change, policy change). If BlackRock is managing this risk (or starting to – see this in-depth analysis), then every financial institution should. Central Banks need to wake up to that fact, and make sure they’re limiting the finance sector’s exposure to stranded asset investments by actively disincentivising commercial lending to the fossil fuel industry. Just a few months ago, Japan’s $1.5 trillion USD pension fund withdrew billions of dollars from BlackRock arguing that environment, social and government issues must be taken into consideration and as part of their investment ethos.
And finally, it’s safe to say, the climate movement has done the impossible, moved the immoveable. From Goldman Sachs, to BlackRock, to AXA (one of the largest insurance companies in the world), to the European Investment Bank (the largest public lender in the world), to the African Development Bank; there is not a single institution that is immune to the pressure of people power from the climate movement now.
We need to turn up the volume, go for the big systemic change needed, hold those big feet to the fire, and make real change out of this momentum.
We’ll be doing that in the US with the #StopTheMoneyPipeline, in Europe by calling on Central Banks to end fossil financing, in South Africa by calling for a Just Transition Transaction, and in Japan with the #NoCoalJapan work. BlackRock’s announcement is more dynamism to a powerful social movement that will need every ounce of energy it can get.