Tuesday

22nd Jan 2019

Is your money invested in a climate-friendly way?

  • Divestment protest in Edinburgh, last February (Photo: Friends of the Earth Scotland)

A growing group of people in Europe and elsewhere is urging governments, universities, and pension funds to end investments in fossil fuels.

Analogous to the trend of wanting to know if livestock held for food products is treated well, more people want to "invest ethically".

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  • Scientists say two-thirds of the available fossil fuels should remain in the ground, if the world is to stand a fair chance of limiting global warming. (Photo: Kamyar Adl)

The fossil fuel divestment movement started several years ago in US universities and colleges, and recently crossed the Atlantic to educational facilities in the UK.

Most of the $50 billion that is said to have been divested occurred in US institutions, but slowly European commitments are being added.

The universities of Glasgow, Bedfordshire, and one of the colleges of the university of London, as well as the Swedish Chalmers University of Technology are listed as part of the movement.

Sometimes a refusal is met with protests.

Last week, students from the University of Edinburgh occupied one of the university's buildings in protest against its recent rejection of a call to fully divest from fossil fuels.

A few weeks earlier, albeit in a less rowdy manner, the divestment movement also reached the European Parliament.

In Strasbourg, German centre-left MEP Jo Leinen attended the first meeting of the informal Carbon Group, a cross-party structure.

Leinen told this website the group was set up “to promote the idea” of fossil fuel divestment, but also as a pressure group to change legislation.

“Carbon divestment is a great idea ... it is part of our future if we want to have a good future”, he said.

He pointed to estimates by scientists that two-thirds of the available fossil fuels should remain in the ground if the world is to stand a fair chance of limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial times. Any excess would lead to irreversible and catastrophic effects, scientists predict.

But while news came out last week that the Antarctic's largest ice shelf is at risk of collapsing, possibly causing quicker rising sea level, the US government on Monday (11 May) approved a plan from Anglo-Dutch company Shell to drill for oil in the Arctic.

“We see with some concern that big global companies are so involved in fossil projects that they don't find a way out”, noted Leinen.

“I think they need pressure from outside to change their policy.”

Some may argue that such pressure is also needed towards European governments.

While politicians often 'talk green' at home, they still financially support many fossil fuel projects abroad.

According to a recently leaked OECD document, between 2003 and 2013 western government provided guarantees or preferential loans for fossil fuel projects worth $36.8 billion.

Germany, although undergoing an energy transition at home, is one of the biggest providers of such guarantees, or export credits, for projects abroad.

“Our financial institutions that we have - the public bank for export credits, for development aid - they are under public pressure to divest from fossil projects and go into carbon neutral projects”, said Leinen, whose centre-left social-democratic party is a coalition partner of Angela Merkel's centre-right conservatives.

“The divestment movement will add an additional pressure on this.”

Leinen also hopes his new informal group can influence the way EU money is invested.

The EU's investment bank, he said, “should have a zero fossil lending policy”. The bank adopted lending criteria in 2013 that exclude projects which emit more than a certain threshold, but this allows projects with some fossil fuels, like natural gas.

Leinen also mused that there could be “regulations for banks, financial institutions”, for example requiring transparency on how much of its funds are used in the fossil fuel industry.

But even the European Commission noted that the term fossil fuel industry “is not a precise concept which makes it difficult to develop a clear attribution of issuers into this category”.

In a comment to this website, a commission spokesperson said it had no statistics on how large the share of EU funds in fossil fuel industry is, although she added several EU funds “are targeting sustainable energy”.

Next month, the Norwegian parliament will decide if it will ban the global division of its government pension fund, worth $900 billion, from investing in coal.

EU apathetic on fossil fuel divestment

Organisations around the world have pledged to remove €2.3 trillion in investments from oil, gas, and coal companies. However, MEPs have yet to convince political leaders to hold a debate about it.

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