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Climate change and the Church of England investing bodies

08 May 2015


From Mr Simon Court

Sir, - The Church of England's National Investing Bodies' (NIBs') adoption of a new climate-change policy, recommended by the Ethical Investment Advisory Group (EIAG), was made public last Friday to an impressive publicity fanfare ( News, 1 May).

The Church Commissioners and the Church of England Pensions Board announced a £12-million disinvestment from their filthiest investments in thermal-coal and tar sands, omitting to mention they retain extensive investments in fossil fuels, including the major thermal-coal producer BHP Biliton.

Headlines were favourable, as the C of E presented itself as belatedly moving away from seeking to profit from climate change with fossil-fuel investments. It is worth looking behind the headlines, even of a C of E press release. The new NIB Climate Change Policy states: "from an ethical perspective, their key focus in relation to climate change should be on assisting the transition to a low carbon economy. The primary focus for the delivery of this commitment should be engagement with companies and with policy makers."

The new NIB Climate Change Policy is an aid to transparency, making it clear that the NIBs are determined to retain substantial investments in fossil-fuel producers. The claim to assist the transition to a low-carbon economy by profiting from fossil-fuel production is an unethical use of language. The policy recommended by EIAG attempts to justify the C of E's seeking to profit from unethical investments in businesses whose activities drive climate change.

The Ethical Investment Advisory Group appears to be in need of a new title that more accurately describes its function. Unethical Investment Advisory Group would seem more appropriate.

Simon Court
Eastgate Cottage, Perrys Lane
Cawston, Norwich NR10 4HJ

From the Revd John M. Overton

Sir, - When our activities cause damage to the planet, we need to change our ways. There may, however, be various ways to change. It is all too easy for single-issue groups to focus on one route, regardless of reality or possible consequences.

For example, the "green" lobby in the 1990s to make inclusion of biodiesel in diesel fuels compulsory had the effect of the loss of Indonesian rainforest in order to plant oil palms for biodiesel. Typically, the rainforest was cleared by burning. This caused massive extra man-made carbon-dioxide emissions, and removed the corrective effect of the rainforest that was lost.

Bishop David Atkinson ( Letters, 24 April) wrote: "The recent, very welcome shareholder resolution that was promoted by church investors, requiring BP to be more transparent in its relation to climate change, reportedly took three years to negotiate."

At least it happened. If Churches had not been investors, it might not have happened.

In response to the Bishop's question how the Church of England can treat the issue of climate change more urgently, Mark Letcher, vice-chair of Operation Noah and Managing Director of Climate Works Ltd (Letters, 1 May), urges disinvesting from fossil-fuel companies as the first of three suggestions. It might be a right thing to do, but influence as a shareholder would be lost.

We shall have a measure of dependency on fossil fuels for some time to come - at the very least. There is no current alternative for air travel, and if we all switch to electric vehicles, the demand for electricity will increase tremendously. No government is going to opt for energy insecurity or to put at risk reliable distribution of foodstuffs and essential services.

In the case of static plant such as coal, oil, or gas-fired electricity generation, carbon capture and storage (CCS) offers a potential route towards elimination of huge quantities of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere.

The last Government agreed a multi-million pound contract for engineering, design, and financial work on the Peterhead CCS project in Aberdeenshire. A written statement to Parliament (24 February) said: "The world's first planned gas CCS project, Peterhead involves installing carbon-capture technology onto SSE's existing Peterhead gas power plant, and transporting the carbon dioxide 100km offshore for safe, permanent storage 2km under the North Sea in the old Goldeneye gas field. If built, the project could save one million tonnes [of carbon dioxide] each year, and provide clean electricity to over 500,000 homes."

There is no instantaneous solution to the issue of climate change, but we need to move forward simultaneously on as many fronts as possible - not least because we do not necessarily know in advance which steps will work and which will be blind alleys.

We also need to be alert to stopping something once it has become clear that it is compounding the problem, as was the case with biodiesel and burning of rainforest. The problems of getting global inter-governmental agreement on such matters should not be underestimated.

My own background is that I worked for Shell for more than 30 years. By profession, I was a patent attorney; so I had a keen interest in technology and innovation. I retired from Shell six years ago and have no ongoing active role with Shell. I was proud to work for Shell, and many of its employees are keen Christians. Shell employees whom I knew were as concerned as anyone else about environmental issues. It is certainly not a company in denial about climate change.

Lobbyists may succeed in persuading the Church of England to disinvest from Shell and BP. If so, I hope that the reasons for disinvestment are better than those so far proposed.

6 Brown Edge Close, Buxton
Derbyshire SK17 7AS

From the Revd Dr Jan Goodair

Sir, - In his letter, Mark Letcher's third suggested step towards combating climate change was that we should fast and pray on the first of each month.

May I humbly suggest that, in addition to this, we might daily imitate the Bishop of Bath & Wells's present "meagre vegetarian diet" (the Bishop lives on £1-a-day diet of bananas, onions, and beans), or go even further and embrace a wholly plant-based (and entirely healthy) diet.

The use of animals as food is the biggest contributor to climate change. If we are serious about demonstrating leadership here, then this is the change we can and must make. Such a change also makes it possible for us to feed the world more easily, and shows compassion to God's non-human creatures.

It requires no legislation, just an act of will. We could all do it today.

Haberdashers' Aske's Boys' School
Butterfly Lane
Hertfordshire WD6 3AF

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