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Disinvestment from fossil fuels: debate continues

by
19 December 2014

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From the Revd Mark Bennet

Sir, - As a member of Oxford diocesan synod, I am rather bemused by the response (Letters, 12 December) to Oxford diocesan synod's motion on fossil fuels. The motion did not commit the diocese of Oxford to any immediate action, but was framed as a request for a national debate in the General Synod on the subject.

The text that we carried allows the proponents of disinvestment to put their best case, which is subtly different from a general argument about fossil fuels. At heart, they are arguing that it is wrong to invest large sums of church money in unsustainable technologies, because that puts capital at risk and cannot secure long-term financial returns for the Church. This is an argument on investment grounds, not on the ethics of the technology involved.

Of course, it is in part the ethics surrounding climate change which arguably make the technology unsustainable and a poor investment. There is a contrary case to be made, suggesting that the situation will change more quickly through direct engagement with companies - many of which are, after all, well-resourced and powerful multi-national entities. If we can change their behaviour through engagement, that would be a good thing.

If this view prevails, I believe that the fact of the debate, and the presence of the voices of grass-roots members of the Church within it, will bring more urgency to such conversations, and a sense that we would be prepared to put our money where our mouth is if progress is too slow.

So the General Synod will either carry the motion, if it believes the Church will benefit by rebalancing its investments away from the risk of unsustainable technology; or it will reject the motion (or carry some amended motion), and thereby have more to bring to its conversations with powerful global entities.

I couldn't see any significant downside to a well-conducted and informed national debate. Let the General Synod do its business of taking counsel together, and let us have an informed and high-quality debate that leaves us in a better place.

MARK BENNET
The Rectory, 2 Rectory Gardens
Thatcham, Berkshire RG19 3PR


From Mr Mark Letcher

Sir, - Contrary to the Revd Mark Roberts's assertion (Letters, 12 December), the fossil-fuel disinvestment campaign is not based on knee-jerk ideology. Churches are disinvesting after careful analysis and debate, challenging the moral legitimacy of companies that plan to explore and extract fossil fuels for decades to come while our window of opportunity to hold temperature rise to 2°C grows smaller.

Bright Now - Operation Noah's campaign to persuade Churches to disinvest from fossil fuel companies and reinvest in clean energies - is based on theological, ethical, and financial arguments. The campaign was launched after the 2012 publication of the Ash Wednesday Declaration (Climate Change and the Purposes of God), which followed careful deliberation about how Christians and the Church should respond to climate change, and was endorsed by leaders of all the main UK denominations.

Nor does Bright Now suggest that it would be possible to cease using fossil fuels today. We ask Churches to consider whether it is right to hold substantial investments in companies whose business strategies contradict the Churches' own policies on avoiding catastrophic climate change. We urge Churches to use their funds to help kick-start the urgently needed transition to a low-carbon energy system.

The disinvestment campaign is about reinvesting as much as it is about moving money away from fossil fuels. Eighty-five per cent of disinvestment pledgers worldwide have also committed themselves to investing in clean energy, including the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, which disinvested its $860 million fund million this year. Operation Noah's recent report outlines opportunities for sustainable reinvest­ment available to Churches.

The vast majority of existing fossil-fuel reserves need to remain underground to hold average global temperature rise to 2°C. Yet in its statement to investors (September 2014), Shell promises that it will improve financial returns through greater extraction of oil and gas and increased acquisition of fossil-fuel reserves. It states that it intends to use 85 per cent of capital investment - provided by investors such as the Church - to explore new reserves and develop new extraction projects.

So it is not surprising that Churches are, like the diocese of Oxford, concluding that this reckless approach is incompatible with Christian ethics and theology, and that the only way to persuade these companies to change strategy is to sell their shares and reinvest in clean-energy alternatives.

As Gunnela Hahn, Head of Responsible Investment at the Church of Sweden, which made its $691-million portfolio fossil-free in October, said, "We do not want to own, and thereby fund, the ex­­traction of fossil fuels. Instead we want to own and fund companies that stand for solutions."

As for fracking, the UK Govern­ment may have thrown its weight behind this, but it has yet to set out how this change in energy strategy can be squared with the UK's commitment to playing its part in reducing global pollution from fossil fuels. There are many, in­­cluding leading climate scientists, who believe that fracking is not compatible with this commitment.

Leaving aside concerns around local environmental impact and safety, whether fracking will have any positive impact on UK gas prices in the next decade, the impact of methane leakage and local acceptability of fracking, would it not make more sense for the UK to move away from the old model of "predict and provide", and set about cutting energy de­­mand by investing in proved, cost-effective, and benign energy ef­ficiency technologies, before locking us in to decades of reliance on fracked gas?

MARK LETCHER
Vice-Chair
Operation Noah
The Grayston Centre

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