Church of England, join the divestment partyThe Church of England is planning to submit shareholder resolutions to BP and Shell in an attempt to influence the ‘climate change strategy’ of the world’s two biggest oil companies. The Church of England has been criticised over the fossil fuel investments in its £9bn investment fund.

An ability to influence companies’ behaviour is the recurring argument used by investors for keeping stocks in fossil fuel companies. Indeed, engagement by shareholders is an important aspect of keeping many companies in check. However, in the case of the top 200 fossil fuel companies, the hard question institutional shareholders need to ask themselves is:

Can we influence the companies to stop exploring for new reserves and keep the vast majority of their current oil, coal and gas reserves in the ground?

Otherwise ‘engagement’ to influence their ‘climate change strategy’ boils down to little more than profiting from destruction: Eighty percent of the top 200’s fossil fuel reserves cannot be burnt to limit global temperature rise below 2 degree.

‘We prefer to engage’

The Presbyterian Church in the USA recently ditched engagement attempts in favour of divestment as it simply didn’t have the capacity to meaningfully engage with the many fossil fuel companies it was invested in. A key consideration for other institutions is the ability to actually have an impact on corporate behaviour and the resources that are needed to do that effectively.

Engagement is an important tool for keeping companies in check and responsible for the immediate impacts that they are having; a good example being Platform’s recent work targeting Shell. However, given recent responses by oil companies to the threat of the carbon bubble and stranded assets, it’s clear that talking these companies out of their business plans is not going to work. We must take action now and one action that we can easily take is divestment.

‘Divesting from fossil fuels is going to be difficult’

Another commonly used excuse is that it’s going to be difficult; that fossil fuels are embedded in every part of our economy. This excuse was presented most recently by Reverend Richard Burridge, head of the Church of England’s  ethical investment board  in response to the World Council of Churches’ call on its member churches – which include the Church of England – to follow its example and ban fossil fuels from its investments. He said:

“Carbon emissions remain so embedded in our economic system that the ethical investment policy recommendation will need to be sophisticated.” 

While this is true, it fails to recognise the basic logic that underpins the divestment movement. A handful of companies are responsible for the majority of carbon emissions, and currently the top 200 companies in terms of reserve size are spending hundreds of billions searching for new reserves of fossil fuels that simply can’t be burnt if we’re to stop dangerous climate change. It’s these companies, the ones searching for and intending to exploit ever more fossil fuels that are the focus of the campaign. We’re not asking for full divestment from the entire energy sector or any company that uses energy just yet.

If it were true that this is just too difficult then how come others have already done it and found it so straightforward?

Gunnela Hahn, the head of ethical investments at the Church of Sweden’s central office explains:

“We instructed one of our asset managers, SAM in Switzerland, to look at what impact excluding certain companies would have on our portfolio. When the results came back it showed that there would be no impact, so we went ahead and divested.” 

The Church of Sweden also went an extra step.

“It’s not just about divestment though, investing in climate solutions is equally important. We therefore instructed the inclusion of companies from SAM’s other funds working on energy efficiency and renewable energy and were glad to see that inclusion of these companies improved performance.”


Come on Church of England! Join the divestment party!

The Church of England has initiated a a long, formal process to explore fossil fuel divestment. However, it appears that moving this conversation forward isn’t happening with the required urgency. The Church of England has been dragging its heels on publishing details of the working group and process that was mandated by the General Synod – it’s decision-making body. co-founder Bill McKibben commented in The Guardian on the Church of England’s divestment tardiness:

“Their response so far has been to say that they’ll study it until late 2015, which means they will have examined it for a period slightly longer than Jesus’s public ministry. It’s not exactly what Desmond Tutu had in mind.”

South African anti-apartheid activist and former archbishop Desmond Tutu has called for divestment from fossil fuels, saying, ‘People of conscience need to break their ties with corporations financing the injustice of climate change.’

McKibben added:

“I have no doubt eventually [the Church of England] will do the right thing, I have no doubt eventually everyone will do the right thing. The problem is we don’t have eventually with which to work.”

As the divestment movement continues to win both the financial and moral arguments we must continue to build pressure on institutions such as the Church of England, who continue to invest a large chunk of their multi-billion pound investment portfolio into fossil fuels.


By Tim Ratcliffe and Melanie Mattauch


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