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C of E investors seek to dethrone 'old king coal'

01 May 2015


THE national investment bodies (NIBs) of the Church of England have announced a £12-million disinvestment from two of the most polluting fuels.

From 30 April, the Church Commissioners and the Pensions Board will not directly invest in any company that derives more than ten per cent of its revenues from the extraction of thermal coal or the production of oil from tar sands. Existing shares have already been sold. The new policy also contains a threat to disinvest from companies who "are not taking seriously their responsibilities to assist with the transition to a low carbon economy".

The move was welcomed by campaigners, but tempered with a warning that the Church must not be "lukewarm in our pursuit of justice".

"The Church of England has effectively read the last rites to the coal and tar sands industry," Christian Aid's director of policy and public affairs, Christine Allen, said after the announcement on Thursday. "The message must be heard loud and clear: they have no place in a sustainable future, and, ultimately, other fossil fuels don't, either.

"The openness to further divestment from intransigent companies must be heard as a final warning to the energy industry: shift investment out of fossil fuels and into renewables, or your investors will do so for you."  

"We are delighted that the Church has begun to align its investments with its moral responsibility to take action on climate change," a disinvestment campaigner for Operation Noah, Ellie Roberts, said.

"By divesting, the Church has sent a strong signal to these companies that they cannot continue to act in denial of the climate crisis."

The senior campaigner for climate and energy at Friends of the Earth, Simon Bullock, supported the Church's "moral stance in putting coal investment on a par with tobacco, pornography, and payday loans".

But he warned that "coal is not the only fossil fuel putting our futures at risk. Only a tiny fraction of the world's coal, oil, and gas reserves are safely burnable; so we should not be exploring for new fossil fuels. New exploration such as fracking should also join the Church's list of morally unacceptable investments." 

The climate-change policy of the Ethical Investment Advisory Group (EIAG), adopted by the investing bodies on Thursday, states that "some ongoing use of fossil fuels is likely to be necessary for some time" if other goals are to be achieved, such as tackling poverty. It speaks of "sustained efforts of many fronts over many years".

Reportedly, the NIBs have about £92 million invested in BP, and about £100 million in Shell.

Investment in fracking is not ruled out by the EIAG, which suggests that it "may well have a part to play in reducing emissions".

Engagement with fossil-fuel companies rather than disinvestment, is the means by which the NIBs propose being at "the forefront" of those "addressing the challenge of the transition to a low-carbon economy".

The Commissioners' director of investments, Tom Joy, explained that the £12-million disinvestment announced was from a sector where "we do not think engagement would be productive".

Other Christian organisations - including the World Council of Churches, and the Church of Sweden - and the Quakers in Britain have gone further in their disinvestment pledges. Last year, the diocese of Oxford announced that it would begin to withdraw its investments in oil, gas, and coal companies (News, 5 December).

Ms Roberts said that she hoped that the General Synod would back this movement when it met in July.

"We are not called to be lukewarm in our pursuit of justice," said a spokeswoman for Christian Climate Action. "If the Church is to show real prophetic leadership before the climate talks in Paris, in December, it needs to divest from all those fossil-fuel companies who continue to put profit before people.

"We would also urge the members of General Synod to not settle for 'divestment-lite' when they are asked to make a decision, but instead to vote to divest completely from all fossil-fuel companies, putting the Church on the right side of history."

Paul Bodenham, who chairs Green Christian, said: "Hanging on to selected fossil-fuel investments for the sake of engaging with the extractors is futile. . .  

"The Church's investors call this a transitional, evolving policy, and that is what it must be. Ultimately divestment is inescapable, and they need a policy that goes all the way. Anything less risks colluding in a fool's paradise." 

Mr Bartley called for the Church to go beyond disinvestment. "What many people in the pews also want to see is the Church moving from a policy of 'minimising harm' through divestment to one of actively investing more in the green business sector, which is worth £120 billion in the UK," he said.

Implementation of the previous EIAG climate-change policy, adopted in 2008, included investment in an environmental-technology fund (the Commissioners are one of the largest investors), and investment in sustainable forestry. The new policy includes a commitment to increase investments in climate-change adaptation, sustainable energy, and energy efficiency.

"The Church has a moral responsibility to speak and act on both environmental stewardship and justice for the world's poor who are most vulnerable to climate change," said the deputy chairman of the EIAG, Canon Richard Burridge.

The Bishop of Salisbury, the Rt Revd Nick Holtam, the lead bishop on the environment, said that the move "marks the start of a process of divestment as well as engagement with fossil fuel companies. . . Climate change is the most pressing moral issue in our world."

The Vicar of St John's, Waterloo, Canon Giles Goddard, a member of the working group established by the Synod last year to address climate change, welcomed the announcement: "There is now broad consensus that we have to move as quickly as we can to a low-carbon economy."

But he warned: "The report is not clear about criteria for success. At what point would it be recognised that engagement has not borne fruit? More than 50 churches around the world have moved away from the oil, gas, and coal companies.

"The Church of England is now part of this movement, but must not be left behind again."

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