Putting the pressure on investors to pull money from dirty fuels

Fossil fuel divestment drives debate on our energy future away from its current parlous state


Today marks the beginning of Global Divestment Day, a worldwide event that turns up the volume on investors pulling money from dirty fuels.

The movement to divest from fossil fuels is a strong example of a divestment campaign surging forward and rattling investors. Just three years old, this campaign has quickly won the endorsement of 650 individuals and 180 institutions holding over $50bn of assets.

In a remarkable development, the Rockefellers, who made a vast fortune in oil, have said that they will join other philanthropies in divesting from the fossil fuel industry.

Divestment campaigners are not unrealistically focusing on ending all fossil fuel use tomorrow. Our actual demand is for investors to cease buying new fossil fuel stock now and rebalance their portfolios over the next five years.

Part of the campaign’s success lies in delegitimising fossil fuel burning. And as the list of divesters grows to include universities, churches and charities – all with leadership roles in policy debate – the odds of larger and even more prestigious institutions waking up to the power of an idea improve.

My city council, Oxford, has become the first local authority in the country to embrace fossil fuel divestment. It became clear to me and other councillors that if we accept that climate change is happening and harming people and the planet, we have a duty to halt the dangerous rise in world temperatures.

Banning ourselves from investing in companies that burn fossil fuels is my council’s way of showing that it clearly listens to the experts in our city and beyond and prioritises a sustainable environment.

What large cities say and do – particularly when those two things match up – carries weight in other town halls. Declaring loudly that we accept the advice of climate scientists to leave more fossil fuels in the ground, unburned, has a wide reaching effect.

Other councils are looking to emulate our investment policy as they rethink how to put social and financial value at the centre of their responses to declining government contributions and rising demand.

Fossil fuel divestment also offers a concrete example of local government innovating in its delivery of public services (in this case, bringing our own carbon emissions down even further). After long years of losing the political argument for strong local government, localists are finally getting to debate town halls winning autonomy to run their own affairs. Divestments offers an example of what local government is doing in today’s environment, so that devo- sceptics can better imagine what more we could do – given room to breathe- in tomorrow’s reformed political landscape

Oxford’s ethical investment policy is a hand-on-heart approach to residents, furthering action on a cause they feel passionately about. Councillors wanted to assure taxpayers that their hard-earned money was going to be bolstering, not undermining investments in meaningful action on climate change.

Whatever we do to bring our emissions down globally won’t speed up nature’s cleaning of the 43 per cent excess of heat-trapping carbon dioxide in the air quickly enough to stop a warmer world. In this context, divestment is not the panacea and it would be deeply unhelpful to say otherwise.

But, divestment does drive debate on our energy future away from its current parlous state. That’s why it’s important to mark this important milestone in the campaign’s three-year history and celebrate Global Divestment Day this weekend.

Tom Hayes is an Oxford City Councillor. Follow him on Twitter

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