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Climate activists target fossil fuel shareholders

June 19, 2023

As big energy companies make record profits and expand production of climate-wrecking fossil fuels, activists are appealing directly to shareholders to demand rapid emission cuts.

A sign at a petrol station reads TotalEmergies and lists petrol prices
Fossil fuel company shareholders are being asked to demand climate action Image: Sebastian Gabsch/Future Image/IMAGO

While some climate activists have made headlines in recent months for their acts of civil disobedience, others have been making their climate case to shareholders at the annual general meetings (AGMs) of Europe's biggest polluters.

Employing a form of shareholder activism, representatives of climate activist group Fridays for Future (FFF) have been standing up to demand concrete emission reduction plans and an end to greenwashing at the hands of companies from German energy giant RWE to French oil major TotalEnergies.

With the support of climate scientists and campaigners, the activists are also demanding radical action to slash emissions at AGMs for car manufacturers like Mercedes and Volkswagen. And FFF spokesperson Luisa Neubauer called out oil and gas financier Deutsche Bank's "fairy tales of green change" during its AGM last month.

One hundred corporations together cause 71% of global emissions, and fossil fuel companies have been making record profits during the energy crisis, noted Pauline Brünger, an FFF activist who spoke at RWE's virtual AGM in early May.

After she was invited by a "critical shareholder" to speak, Brünger accused the company of having lobbied against climate science and targets for decades.

A young women is carried by two heavily armed police
Fridays for Future founder Greta Thunberg was detained at a protest against an open-pit mine in Germany earlier this yearImage: Federico Gambarini/dpa/picture alliance

This failure to take responsibility for RWE's climate impact was evidenced, she said, by the decision to expand an open-pit coal mine under the village of Lützerath in western Germany, a project that faced intense resistance in January but is now going ahead. 

"No other company in the whole of Europe emits as much as this company," Brünger said. "No other company on this continent is so deeply indebted to present and future generations."

Recent severe flooding and drought in Africa, and the acceleration of ice melt in the Arctic, have been linked to human-induced climate change, while scientists fear that the 1.5-degree-Celsius (2.7-Fahrenheit) warming limit could come sooner than expected due to a failure to cut emissions.

From shareholder activism to storming AGMs

Inspiring shareholder activism on climate has a history. For Larry Fink, the CEO of BlackRock, the world's largest asset management firm, climate action is good for shareholders because it secures long-term profitability.

BlackRock is the second largest shareholder in Exxon Mobil, the world's biggest non-state oil company, and in 2021 supported the ascension of pro-climate shareholders to the board. The new members helped push through a previously rejected measure to realign business practices with the energy transition.

Still, Fink's style of shareholder activism has been labelled greenwashing due to BlackRock's ongoing fossil fuel investments.

Germany's Association of Ethical Shareholders, meanwhile, buys shares in companies to acquire the right to speak at shareholder meetings, and is supporting the campaign to influence shareholders at AGMs. But FFF and other activist groups have also made demands at the doors of such meetings when they can't get a seat at the table.

In Paris on May 26, the head of Fridays for Future in Uganda, Patience Nabukalu, spoke outside the AGM of French oil giant TotalEnergies, which she noted is behind the East African Crude Oil Pipeline that will cut through pristine rainforest in Congo. FFF's Neubauer stood with Nabukalu in solidarity, having noted that Deutsche Bank is a major funder of TotalEnergies.   

Some activists tried to block entry to the AGM and were pepper-sprayed by police.

"I'm the voice to the voiceless," Nabukalu said outside the TotalEnergies offices, "because our leaders ... don't care about the people, but rather the profits."

Days earlier in London, scores of activist shareholders disrupted the AGM of oil major Shell — which announced a record near $40 billion (€37.42 billion) profit in 2022 and said it would expand fossil fuel production — and tried to storm the stage where company executives sat. 

Showing shareholders the climate science

Niklas Höhne, a climate scientist with Berlin-based NGO New Climate Institute, was also invited to speak at RWE's shareholder meeting in May.

The scientist of 25 years questioned the company's claim that it's on track to keep emissions within the Paris Agreement target of 1.5 Celsius. He noted that RWE trades fossil gas around the world, and does not include this business in its emissions figures.

RWE countered that its carbon budget is in line with a 10-year-old standard, the Science Based Targets Initiatives, that Höhne said is outdated and fails to account for total global emissions.

"This is why we are confronting the board members and shareholders at their AGMs," Brünger said of the need to call out inconsistencies in a company's stated emissions.

With the scientific consensus on climate change now near unanimous, it's time to inspire shareholders to "engage with the management of the company to move them in the right direction," Höhne said.

The smoking stacks of a huge power station
RWE's massive Neurath power plant will be fed by high-polluting brown coal until 2030 Image: Rupert Oberhäuser/picture alliance

Will profits continue to override the climate emergency?

Berlin-based climate activist Tadzio Müller questions the extent to which this shareholder activist approach will shift the business model of fossil fuel behemoths.

After a year of record profits on the back of the energy crisis, he said "investments in highly profitable sectors" such as oil and gas will continue to drive global capital markets.

"Given the relative inability of FFF and the climate movement in general to achieve legislative changes to force fossil phaseouts, I understand the move," he said in reference to the AGM campaign.

However, he cannot see fossil fuel companies willingly giving up oil, coal and gas through shareholder pressure or what he calls "reputational damage."

Referring to activists like the Last Generation and Just Stop Oil, who are blocking roads and besmirching artistic masterworks to bring attention to the climate emergency, Müller said this kind of "hands-on-disobedience" is currently the most effective strategy.

But Niklas Höhne believes pressuring shareholders remains important.

"All of these companies are eager to show themselves as climate leaders," he said. "At least they fear that they need to do it." This is partly for the sake of shareholders who "might divest and go somewhere else," meaning share prices will drop.

When climate activists made their demands on the streets during the Paris AGM of TotalEnergies, CEO Patrick Pouyanne defended the company's climate record.

"We can act — and we do act — on our customers' demands by diversifying our ever-evolving energy offers towards lower carbon energies," Pouyanne told the shareholders and board members. That said, 70% of Total's energy investments remain in fossil fuels.

Can climate shareholder activists make an impact? 

RWE recently reneged on a planned liquified natural gas terminal near the island of Rügen in northeastern Germany. Activists have said the decision was partly due to fear of further massive protests like those that beset its coal mine in Lützerath.

"It wasn't until the local resistance was augmented by the threat of disobedient actions from a climate camp that RWE withdrew from the project," said activist Müller.

Höhne said while the threat of direct action has likely influenced RWE in their calculation, the impact of bad climate PR on shareholders could also have been a consideration — as might the threat of litigation, with the company facing a decision on a potentially decisive climate lawsuit this year.

For Brünger, a vital activism tool going forward, especially in regard to RWE, is "to remind shareholders and the board of directors of the gigantic responsibility that they bear and point out the enormous consequences for every single additional ton of fossil fuel that is mined and burned."

Edited by: Jennifer Collins

Stuart Braun | DW Reporter
Stuart Braun Berlin-based journalist with a focus on climate and culture.