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Global call for fossil fuels divestment

Irene Banos Ruiz
May 5, 2017

Activists have started an eight-day push to get individuals and institutions to divest from oil, gas and coal corporations. Investing in the fossil fuel industry equals pumping money into climate change, they say.

Pressebild 350.org Divestment
Image: 350.org

Fossil fuels seem to be losing their unquestioned position as the world's primary source of energy, particularly after the Paris climate agreement. Even so, governments and private investors continue to support fossil fuel businesses worldwide.

The Global Divestment Mobilization (May 5 to 13) will draw together thousands of people from across 39 countries on six continents to push forward divestment from fossil fuels, in favor of renewable energy. In other words, to convince investors to withdraw their financial support fossil fuel companies - and in doing so, protect the climate.

Environmental activists and concerned individuals ask for an immediate freeze of any new investment in coal, oil or gas companies.

The movement has spread across the world over the past five years. It's based on the argument that investing in fossil energies fuels the climate crisis. 

A global movement

As a project of the environmental nonprofit organization 350.org, the Global Divestment Mobilization started in United States universities in 2012. But the movement has now reached global dimensions.

"Everything is growing very rapidly," Melanie Mattauch, Europe communications coordinator told DW.

The network includes now countries from Asia, Latin America and Africa. The development of the movement in Brazil, for instance, has been particularly exciting for Mattauch.

"There, many bishops and Catholic groups are engaged," she said. "They want the Vatican to react as a great moral authority - and a great investor."

And the movement has also been very successful, Mattauch said, pointing to its growth. More than 700 public institutions worldwide have already committed to divest, including educational institutions, philanthropic foundations and governments. Just this week, the German city of Göttingen has become the fourth German city withdrawing investment in coal, oil and gas companies.

Divestment protest in Mani
The divestment movement has spread around the worldImage: 350.org

Push for divestment

Faith-based organizations represent around 20 percent of the total divestment reached yet.

"Christians in the Church have a particular moral and religious obligation to speak out on climate change," a spokesperson from the Christian Climate Action group told DW. She didn't want to be named, out of professional reasons.

"But we are very embarrassed by the fact that the church still has investments in fossil fuels."

The Christian group is preparing a theater piece representing a marriage between the church and fossil fuels. They have sent invitations to commissioners in charge of the Church of England's investments.

This is all about raising awareness and making pressure, the spokeswoman said.

Invitation to the "wedding" between the Church of England and fossil fuels
Image: Christian Climate Action

Beside drawing negative attention to institutions supporting fossil fuel companies, the movement particularly caught the attention of young people, Anthony Hobley, chief executive director of the Carbon Tracker Initiative, told DW.

"The movement has a large influence on universities," Hobley said. "Now students will think twice before taking a job in a fossil fuel company instead of in a clean tech company."

Movement bolstered by external factors

Despite the fast growth of such pressure groups, external factors have also played a determining role in recent divestment decisions.

Hobley explained that the Paris climate agreement and the subsequent international commitments to reduce greenhouse gas have been crucial for boosting divestment from fossil fuels.

Hobley also highlighted the impact of pressure coming from high-profile people such as the governor of the Bank of England, Marc Carney.

In his speeches, Carney warned about the long-term risks of continuing to invest in fossil fuel companies, and the burning of the worldwide reserves.  

"We have here a perfect combination of elements, and the divestment movement helps make all of them visible," Hobley pointed out.

The dropping cost of renewables has also bolstered the movement.

Global tax subsidies fossil fuels infographic

Fossil fuels flailing

According to the international network Fossil Free, most oil and coal companies are struggling financially. Exxon, Shell, Chevron and BP were not able to cover costs with their profit in 2016, and coal is becoming a losing financial gamble in many regions worldwide.

Some accuse fossil fuel companies of only surviving thanks to governmental subsidies. Oil Change International issued a 2015 report that G20 governments provided more than $400 billion (360 billion euros) per year to fossil fuel production, including some of the world's most carbon-intensive and polluting ones.

Unless governments stop propping up fossil fuel companies, divestment will be limited, even with clean energy becoming ever cheaper.

"Sometimes such subsidies are even reverting the direction in which governments themselves are going - which is a low-carbon transition," Hobley commented.

Pressebild 350.org Divestment
Action against financing coal companies at the Louvre, in ParisImage: 350.org

The future of divestment

Mattauch is confident that the movement will keep growing - as well as the divestment from the coal, oil and gas industries.

The increasing effects of climate change will surely contribute to it, she believes.

Hobley said investing in certain fossil fuel projects is neither beneficial financially nor for the climate.

The movement plays a crucial role in helping investors understand the risks, and putting them in the international agenda, he concluded.