Record number of faith institutions launch new wave of fossil fuel divestment

16 November 2020

Today, 47 faith institutions from 21 countries, including nine institutions from the UK, announce their divestment from fossil fuels as a practical response to the climate emergency.

Participating institutions include five Catholic religious orders in the UK, two United Reformed Church Synods, UK-based local Anglican and Methodist churches, the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Union (Catholic) and American Jewish World Service.

The urgency of divestment and a just and green recovery from Covid-19

The announcement coincides with the fifth anniversary of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. Faith leaders’ action puts pressure on government leaders, and their commitment to clean energy stands in stark contrast with many governments’ failure to deliver ambitious energy strategies.

The UK government faces increasing pressure to demonstrate global leadership on the climate crisis ahead of the UN climate talks (COP26) taking place in Glasgow in November 2021. Earlier this month, 70 organisations launched The Climate Coalition’s 10 Point Plan for a Green, Healthy and Fair Recovery. This includes a call for the UK government to end all public support for fossil fuels overseas and support countries to leapfrog to renewable and efficient energy.

Lord Deben, Chair of the UK Committee on Climate Change, recently advocated for Catholic leaders to play a more active role when he addressed hundreds of people in a webinar organised by Operation Noah and others on Catholic investment for an integral ecology. He said: ‘It is hugely important for the Catholic community to be very visible… it must be very determined, and it must be clear that we all ought to be in this together.’

This week, from 19-21 November, Pope Francis has convened the ‘Economy of Francesco’, an online conference involving more than 1,000 young adults, which will explore innovative ways of shaping a sustainable economy. This conference builds on an announcement in June, when the Vatican recommended in its first-ever operational guidelines on ecology that all Catholic organisations divest from fossil fuels.

With renewables now growing at a faster pace than fossil fuels, institutional investors are increasingly moving toward sustainable investments in the clean energy economy. Faith investors are an important part of this movement, constituting the single-largest source of divestment in the world, making up one-third of all commitments.

Recently, in preparation for the G20 summit that begins on 21 November, environment ministers released a statement that was widely seen as rubber-stamping fossil fuel bailouts and removed a long-standing G20 call for the end to fossil fuel subsidies.

UK Churches divesting from fossil fuels in response to the climate emergency

Thames North Synod and Southern Synod in the United Reformed Church are among the organisations participating in the announcement. The United Reformed Church (at a national level) and 10 out of 13 URC Synods have now completed divestment from fossil fuels, as recommended by the URC Mission Council in May 2019.

Trinity Methodist Church, Chelmsford, is another of the organisations announcing its decision to end investments in fossil fuel companies as part of the global divestment announcement. Last month, the Methodist Council voted to support a resolution on divestment from fossil fuel companies, agreeing that further action is needed by JACEI and the Central Finance Board to fully implement a motion on divestment passed by the 2017 Methodist Conference.

Earlier this year one of the Church of England’s three National Investing Bodies, which is managed by investment management company CCLA, sold its last remaining shares in fossil fuel companies. CCLA, whose CBF funds manage investments on behalf of most Church of England dioceses and many local Church of England churches, dropped its investments in oil giants Shell and Total for financial reasons.

A Church of England parish, St Mary’s Walthamstow, announced its decision to divest from fossil fuel companies as part of the global divestment announcement, meaning that 18 local CofE churches have now made fossil fuel divestment commitments. The church’s commitment to divest adds to calls for the Diocese of Chelmsford to divest the close to £1m it currently has invested in fossil fuel companies, according to a report earlier this year by DeSmog.

Last month, the Church of England Pensions Board communicated its decision to divest from ExxonMobil as a result of the US oil company’s failure to set targets for Scope 3 emissions that are generated when customers burn fossil fuels. However, the Church Commissioners intends to continue investing in ExxonMobil, despite Exxon having blocked shareholder resolutions put forward by the Church of England at its AGM in 2019 and 2020. Exxon is also planning to increase production of oil and gas by 35% by 2030.

In September, it was revealed that Shell plans to resume oil and gas exploration in the Arctic for the first time since 2015, despite pressure from faith investors and others that has exposed the inherent weakness of the fossil fuel industry. Shell has cited divestment as a material risk to its business.

Today’s divestment announcement means that more than 400 religious institutions have now committed to divest.

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