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Don’t ‘faithwash’ fossil-fuel firms

07 January 2022

Church investors should heed Desmond Tutu’s call, say Rachel Mash and James Buchanan


Archbishop Tutu speaks at a rally before the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, in 2009

Archbishop Tutu speaks at a rally before the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, in 2009

“WE MUST decide what kind of world we want to leave to future generations,” the Archbishop of Canterbury, Pope Francis, and the Ecumenical Patriarch wrote in a statement in September. “God mandates: ‘Choose life, so that you and your children might live’ (Deut. 30.19). We must choose to live differently; we must choose life” (News, 10 September).

In the context of the climate crisis, what does it mean for Churches to choose life? Is it better to invest in fossil-fuel companies and engage as a shareholder (Comment, 22 October), or should Churches disinvest from fossil-fuel companies and invest in climate solutions such as renewable energy?

Across the Anglican Communion, Churches and dioceses are disinvesting from fossil fuels. In 2021, six Church of England dioceses and the Church in Wales joined the Anglican Church of Southern Africa, the Church of Ireland, and the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia in announcing their full disinvestment from fossil-fuel companies (News, 11 May). The diocese of Truro has disinvested from fossil fuels and invested nearly £2 million in funds that invest directly in renewable energy (News, 29 October).

In recent years, climate-change denial has been largely accepted as false, but a new era of “greenwashing” has arisen, whereby companies promote their destructive practices as eco-friendly. At the recent COP26 climate summit, in Glasgow, Laurence Tubiana, the architect of the Paris Agreement, warned that “Greenwashing is the new climate denial.”


DESPITE a growing global consensus on the need to disinvest, and calls to do so from the front line of the climate crisis, the Church Commissioners, the C of E Pensions Board, and 18 C of E dioceses continue to invest in fossil-fuel companies.

The C of E has created the Transition Pathway Initiative (TPI) to assess the environmental credentials of oil and gas companies, and companies in other sectors. There is a danger that this scheme becomes the ultimate greenwashing exercise for fossil-fuel companies. It also risks “faithwashing” those same companies, giving them international social licence and political power.

In November, for example, the TPI concluded that three oil and gas companies, including the French company TotalEnergies, were on a pathway to align with 1.5°C in 2050 (News, 3 December). This conclusion has been described as “misleading” and “dangerous” by Reclaim Finance, whose research, published in Bloomberg in September, showed that TotalEnergies planned to increase Arctic oil and gas production by 28 per cent by 2030.

The TPI is giving too much credibility to the 2050 net-zero “ambitions” of fossil-fuel companies, instead of focusing on the crucial next few years. If we do not halve global carbon emissions by 2030, we will not limit global average temperature rises to 1.5°C.


LAST week, the world bade farewell to Archbishop Desmond Tutu (News, 31 December), who described climate change as “the human-rights issue of our time”.

He rejected the policy of “constructive engagement” with apartheid South Africa, understanding that, although engagement might indeed bring some changes, these would be superficial, and allow for “whitewashing”, whereby the apartheid regime could maintain the moral high ground while blocking the radical change required. For similar reasons, he was also one of the first to embrace a call for disinvestment from fossil-fuel companies.

In Africa, climate activists are pleading with people of faith to disinvest from fossil-fuel companies — not only because of climate change, but because of human-rights abuses, the ignoring of land rights, pollution of scarce water supplies, the flaunting of environmental-protection laws, and political destabilisation. The former Archbishop of York Lord Sentamu has described the actions of oil companies in Nigeria as “environmental genocide” (News, 15 November 2019).

The Anglican Bishop of Nampula, in Northern Mozambique, the Rt Revd Manuel Ernesto, has said that oil and gas companies both “increase climate change” and “destabilise communities”. He continued: “We have seen how over 700,000 people in Northern Mozambique have been displaced — many fleeing for their lives in terror from insurgents. This violence only occurs in the areas where gas prospecting is taking place. We plead with the international community: take your money out of fossil fuels and invest in renewable energy, which is decentralised, benefits local people, and does not contribute to climate change.”

Besides committing human-rights abuses, fossil-fuel companies are destroying local ecosystems and biodiversity. In South Africa, Shell has pursued plans for seismic blasting on the Wild Coast, despite threats to marine life, fishing communities, and local communities dependent on ecotourism. This caused outrage in South Africa, where more than 443,000 people signed a petition opposing the plans. Last week, a court halted the seismic surveys, ruling that Shell had failed to consult communities and individuals who would be affected.

The COP26 summit highlighted the urgent need to phase out not only coal, but oil and gas, too. The chief executive of A Rocha UK, Andy Atkins, said: “In light of the COP decision, and the latest science, the C of E needs to reconsider whether its current approach is working. We’re more likely to build the pressure on governments if whole sections of society, like Churches, make it clear we are getting out of fossil fuels.”

This year, bishops of the Anglican Communion will come to the UK for the Lambeth Conference. Let us listen to the voices of our sisters and brothers from the global South and indigenous communities. And let us take inspiration from Archbishop Tutu and make 2022 the year to remove the Church’s moral support of the fossil-fuel industry.

Let us invest in life-giving climate solutions. May this be the legacy that we leave for our beloved “Arch”.

The Revd Dr Rachel Mash is the Environmental Coordinator of the Anglican Church of Southern Africa (Green Anglicans). James Buchanan is the Bright Now Campaign Manager at Operation Noah.

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