Fossil fuel divestment campaign grows as protesters target UK banks

Damian Carrington, The Guardian, 14th February 2015

With Britain’s big five banks investing £66bn in fossil fuel extraction, campaigners believe pressure is building on banks to sell off toxic assets

Coal worker Baicheng, China
A coal worker in Baicheng, China. The country is the world’s biggest consumer of coal. Photograph: Photograph: China Daily/Reuters

At least 1,400 UK customers are set to move their accounts in protest at their banks’ multibillion-pound funding of the fossil fuel industry. The campaign, mirrored by actions in Australia and South Africa, is part of a global day of action by the fast-growing fossil fuel divestment movement.

The Go Fossil Free campaign has already persuaded 180 institutions, worth $50bn (£33bn) and including local authorities, universities and churches, to sell off their investments in coal, oil and gas. The campaign will stage a series of protests on Saturday, with hundreds other events planned in more than 50 countries.

A spokesman for the Move Your Money campaign, Fionn Travers-Smith, said: “Britain’s biggest banks have been using people’s money to fund fossil fuels and climate change for too long, and the public simply don’t want to support these socially and environmentally catastrophic industries.”

The divestment movement asks investors to commit to selling their investments in the biggest 200 fossil fuel companies over five years. A series of analyses have shown that there are already three times more fossil fuels in accessible reserves than can be burned if catastrophic climate change is to be avoided, as world leaders have pledged.

The campaigners argue that companies spending trillions of dollars exploring for more fossil fuels that could not be burned if climate change is to be checked is a danger to both the environment and investors’ capital. Divestment has been backed by the anti-apartheid campaigner Archbishop Desmond Tutu, while the heads of the Bank of England and the World Bank have both warned that action to cut carbon emissions would devalue fossil fuel investments.

Demonstrators outside the headquarters of Commonwealth Bank in Sydney to protest at plans  for coal port coal expansion on the Great Barrier Reef as part of Global Divestment Day.

Demonstrators outside the headquarters of Commonwealth Bank in Sydney to protest at plans for coal port expansion on the Great Barrier Reef as part of Global Divestment Day.Photograph: Peter Parks/AFP/Getty

The Move Your Money campaign is targeting HSBC, Barclays, Lloyds, Santander and the Royal Bank of Scotland, which also owns NatWest. Only HSBC responded to a request for comment. A spokesman said: “HSBC recognises climate change is a serious threat to the world [but] the shift to a low-carbon economy will take time and fossil fuels will be an important part of the global energy mix for the foreseeable future.” He said HSBC policy “severely restricted” its financing of new coal-fired power plants.

Other UK divestment events this week included Bristol city council following Oxford in excluding fossil fuels from their investments and a protest at the Church of England’s general synod. In Australia, people will be moving their money from banks looking to finance the world’s largest coal port in the Great Barrier Reef world heritage site.

New divestment campaigns will be launched on Saturday in countries including France, Vietnam, Ukraine and Japan. In the US, where the campaign began, activists in California will demonstrate at the country’s biggest pension fund, CalPERS, which is already the subject of a state bill requiring divestment. US students are also staging sit-ins at universities that have refused to divest, such as Harvard, which has a $36bn endowment fund.

“Divestment serves as a key tool in moving the world beyond fossil fuels and towards renewable energy,” said Payal Parekh, global managing director for campaigners “The divestment movement is modelling what governments need to be doing: withdrawing funds from the problem and investing in the solution.”

Leading financial groups including Goldman Sachs, Citigroup and Standard & Poor’s have also warned of the risk posed to fossil fuel investments by action on climate change. A series of large funds have excluded coal and other highly polluting companies, including the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund in Norway, which revealed it had shed dozens of coal companies on 5 February. In September, the Rockefellers, heirs to the fabled Standard Oil fortune, withdrew their funds from fossil fuel fuels.

“As a rule, money flows downwards, to ever lower moral levels,” said Professor Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany and a former chief adviser to Angela Merkel and the European commission president José Manuel Barroso. “Why? Because the return on investment is highest in the most unsustainable business cases.

“Divestment tries to invert this flow and to make the money move upwards again,” he said. “Everyone can contribute, from huge institutional investors to each ordinary citizen with a bank account or a retirement scheme.”