Refuelling progress: divestment in fossil fuels gathers pace

We revisit the divestment movement. What progress has been made?

The global fossil fuel divestment campaign – a bid to urge institutions to move their money out of oil, coal and gas companies – has gained momentum.

In October 2014, when we first reported on the movement, a handful of universities had transferred their assets and Oxford had become the first UK city to divest. There has since been a wave of divestment commitments from major European cities including Paris, Copenhagen, Berlin, Stockholm and Oslo.

The mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has promised to “take all possible steps” to divest the city’s £4.8bn pension fund after his predecessor Boris Johnson refused to do so. The mayor of Amsterdam has also urged the Dutch national pension fund to halt investments in coal, oil and gas.

According to environmental campaign organisation, faith groups are responsible for a quarter of divestments to date. June saw the world’s first mayor joint Catholic divestment, when four Catholic organisations in Australia announced they were breaking ties with fossil fuel companies. Those at estimate the current global value of divestments made by all institutions, ranging from governmental organisations and NGOs to schools, to be around $3.4tn (£2.56tn).

But it is about more than the financial impact on companies, says Melanie Mattauch of Europe: “Divestment aims to bankrupt the fossil fuel companies morally, thereby weakening their political influence and creating the space for meaningful action on climate change.”

Following public pressure, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation sold off its entire $186m (£140m) stake in BP, after having previously dumped its near $825m (£620m) interest in ExxonMobil in early 2015. The foundation has shrunk its total holdings in fossil fuel companies by 85 per cent since 2014.

Not with my money: divestment in history

Recent history holds examples of a handful of successful divestment campaigns, including those targeting violence in Darfur and tobacco advertising. But the largest so far focused on South African apartheid. Divestment from all over the world, including 90 cities and 150 universities and colleges in the US, heavily dented the multinationals that did business in the troubled country. This, in turn, helped weaken the apartheid government.

Main image: Saskia Uppenkamp