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Five things to know about fossil-fuel divestment

Campaigns to persuade institutions to withdraw investments from the fossil-fuel sector are gaining momentum. So what do you need to know?

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One of the biggest successes of the divestment campaigns has been to popularise the idea of a carbon bubble (Image by Jiri Rezac / Greenpeace)

Glasgow has just become the first university in Europe to divest from fossil fuels. After a year-long campaign, the university court voted to begin divesting £18 million (US$29 million) from the fossil-fuel industry and to freeze new investments from its endowment of £128 million (US$206 million). The move has inspired a flurry of headlines, and jubilation from similar campaigns the world over, so here’s five points to know about “fossil free” divestment.

1. It’s growing, at a remarkable rate.

Glasgow follows Australian National University in Canberra who, earlier this month, made a similar move. For pure symbolic blast, it’s hard to beat last month’s announcement that the heirs to the Rockefeller fortune (itself largely built on oil) would take their charitable funds out of fossil-fuel investments. In May, Stanford said it would pull investments in coal. In July, the British Medical Association voted to divest from fossil fuels, and the World Council of Churches made similar movements. There are a host of active "Go Fossil Free" campaigns in universities, local towns, religious centres, banks, pension funds and more, all around the world. What started only a couple of years ago in American universities has grown into a sizeable global movement.

2. But it’s questionable it’ll ever grow enough.

Back in August, Simon Evans of Carbon Brief poured some cold water on the idea of a seamless Go Fossil Free juggernaut, stressing the massive scale of fossil fuel investment they’re up against. Working from a report from Bloomberg New Energy Finance, Evans pointed to the nearly 1,500 oil and gas firms listed on stock exchanges around the world, worth a combined US$4.65 trillion. The hundred or so clean energy firms are, in comparison, worth a twentieth of that. Each of the world’s top four oil and gas firms is on its own larger than the entire US$220 billion stock-market value of the clean-energy sector. There is still hope that, for all these assets might be worth a lot today, strong action on climate change might change their value in the future. But, Evans uses BNEF’s report to argue that oil and gas companies are just too large for divestment to be either easy or fast. He offers a first step in coal, but only a first step.

3. It’s not just about the money.

Ultimately, the point of the Go Fossil Free campaigns isn’t just to put money where fossil-fuel companies can’t use it (they know they aren’t up to this US$4.65 trillion challenge). It is to make public declarations that they don’t want to be associated with such industries. It’s a cultural project, about stigmatising fossil fuels. This is one of the reasons why campaigners have courted churches and universities, and why activists are pushing stories about high-status institutions like Oxford and Harvard, even though they haven’t divested yet. It’s also why the BMA decision was so key, as there’s particular power in medics making a health case against fossil fuels. The campaign is also about what we might call the "social capital" of people organising and connecting with each other. Fossil Free groups create communities. People get together to convince a board to pass some motion or another, and they learn a lot about climate change in the process, they become committed to it, and they go then on to work on other actions. Undoubtedly, the huge turnout at the climate marches worldwide last month was in part due to groundwork done by Go Fossil Free.

4. It is still kind of about the money.

It’s a call to engage with the financial aspect of the debate which has created this hook for activity, and that shouldn’t be forgotten. Indeed, one might argue that a central achievement of the divestment campaigns has been to popularise the idea of a carbon bubble; that stock markets currently overvalue fossil fuels and that could change. It’s also been striking to see intersections between divestment campaigns and student groups advocating a reassessment of economics teaching (e.g. Rethinking Economics). Money might not be the primary mode by which divestment campaigns aim to enact change, but it’s still central to the whole project. And, ultimately, all the social and cultural work done by the campaigners can have economic impacts; they are about creating the social and cultural spaces where the economic change of something like a carbon bubble might happen. As a study from the University of Oxford last year argued, divestment campaigns could pose considerable reputational risk to fossil-fuel companies, even if their immediate direct effects are likely to be limited.

5. If you really want to go fossil free, move more than your money.

There is a danger in thinking that divesting alone allows organisations to brand themselves Fossil Free. We’re all still using these fuels. It’s arguably true that the fossil-fuel industry works hard to keep us locked into using them, and these are the sorts of arguments which people involved in divestment campaigns learn about. But there is a particular irony in universities of all groups taking on the moniker of "Fossil Free". They support fossil-fuel industries via research into new techniques, or data to help extend operations and the training of staff. There is more than just money Go Fossil Free campaigns can cut off. As London-based NGO Platform has argued for years, there are multiple ways people could end support for fossil fuels, only some of them financial.

This post was first published by Road to Paris

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