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This is the year for action on fuel

01 August 2014

The call for the Church to disinvest from fossil fuels is now urgent, says David Atkinson


"THIS is the year for action," the Executive Director of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, Christiana Figueres, said at St Paul's Cathedral in May.

The climate-change talks in Paris in 2015 will be crucial - and 2014 is the year in which the world's governments need to get their act together, she said. It is good, therefore, that this year, the C of E's Ethical Investment Advisory Group (EIAG) is reviewing its policy. Some urgency is needed.

At the debate on the environment at the General Synod in February, the EIAG said that it would consider disinvestment from fossil-fuel extraction, even though it was unlikely to recommend disinvesting fully from all fossil fuels (Comment, 7 February; Synod, 14 February).

Ms Figueres listed a number of companies that are part of a growing international disinvestment campaign, and intimated that the Church should join in. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu said recently: "It makes no sense to invest in companies that undermine our future."

The EIAG uses several criteria to determine policy, to avoid "profiting from, or providing capital to, activities that are materially inconsistent with Christian values". So the Church does not invest, for example, in tobacco - which damages health. Nor in alcohol - a gift from God, but open to damaging misuse. It does, however, have a policy both of partial disinvestment, and of engagement with alcohol companies, in the hope of reducing abuse.

WITH fossil fuels, it is much more complicated. We all need energy, especially electricity, and can use it for good (travel, heating, cooking, and much more). Many people (even, shamefully, in the UK) are in fuel poverty, although the cost of energy is by no means the only factor.

Developing parts of the world understandably need more energy. There are, however, clean forms of energy, which, coupled with energy-efficiency and carbon capture, could - given the right incentives and subsidies - provide for all that is needed.

The issue for investors is that (as the UK Parliamentary paper Green Finance showed) there is little clarity about government policy, and relatively little subsidy for low-carbon energy generation. Many investors are unwilling to take the risk.

The Church puts a high value on engagement, and it is vital to engage with policy-makers and the Government, and with other companies, to ensure proper carbon disclosure. But what would direct engagement with fossil-fuel companies be for?

Those companies globally have reserves of fossil fuels many times more than could ever be safely burned without triggering potentially catastrophic climate change. They are committed to future extraction for decades to come: would the Church be trying to make them change their minds? Time is too short.

Is continued investment in fossil-fuel extraction and supply, which feeds dangerous consumption, "consistent with Christian values"?

THE Church's five Marks of Mission include the aims (i) to respond to human need byloving service (the dignity of all people; the loving service ofGod and all our neighbours, especially in the poorest parts of the world; and our children's children); (ii) to seek to transform unjust structures of society (the questfor a different sort of economy based on flourishing for humanity and the planet, not unlimited economic growth, over consumption and debt; the need to critique the exercise of corporate power; (iii) to strive to safeguard the integrity of creation (God's creation is good; the Earth which we damage through sin and selfishness is the Lord's. Caring for creation is foundational to the gospel).

We should continue to investin fossil-fuel companies only if they: 

(i) demonstrate that they have a viable strategy for diversification away from coal, oil, and gas;

(ii) recognise the urgent need for reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions;

(iii) work with the Government to achieve binding climate-change targets;

(iv) work with the Government to create a favourable investing environment for clean energy, CCS, and energy efficiency;

(v) refuse to invest in developing oil and gas deposits from environmentally sensitive areas;

(vi) refuse to develop new coal seams or tar sands.

Otherwise, we should disinvest - perhaps in a phased way: first, dirty carbon, such as coal and tar sands, then oil and gas. Then reinvest in low-carbon assets and clean energy. 

CHRISTIANS are called to make bold and sometimes sacrificial steps. The church investors have a fiduciary duty to their beneficiaries, and disinvestment could result in reduced stipends, reduced church pensions, and reduced grants. Such reductions should, however, not be necessary.

There is evidence of a growing, vibrant global market in renewable energy. Some pension funds have divested, and then reinvested in clean energy, to find profits boosted. Ms Figueres called on faith leaders to find their voice on climate change.

I took a bit of persuading, but my view now is that continued investment in fossil-fuel extraction cannot be reconciled with "Christian values". Church disinvestment and reinvestment would not change much in fossil-fuel companies' finances; it could, nevertheless, be a hugely effective demonstration of the Church's commitment to respond urgently - this year - to climate change, and of the need to reframe the moral and gospel issues that are involved. 

Dr David Atkinson, Assistant Bishop in the diocese of Southwark, has until recently been a board member of Operation Noah, but is writing here in a personal capacity. This article draws on a longer, referenced paper on brightnow.org.uk

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