Recent Advances in the Fossil Fuel Divestment Movement
Updated: Jun 8
Fossil fuel emissions are driving rapid climate change, but those profiting from the extraction and use of these fuels show no signs of slowing down. As a result, the International Energy Agency emphasizes the need for a reduction in fossil fuel investments and increased funding for low-carbon infrastructure in order to meet our climate change goals (1). In just the first month of 2020, UK-based news outlet The Guardian, and the British Medical Journal, both committed to divest from fossil fuels (2,3). Together they join the growing list of financial institutions (4), schools (5), faith-based groups (6), and health organizations, including the Canadian Medical Association (CMA) (7), committing to or considering fossil fuel divestment. Specific actions vary between sectors, but generally divestment entails a withdrawal from stocks, bonds, or investment funds that have a stake in fossil fuels (3). Divestment reduces financial support for fossil fuel suppliers, and adds social pressure to other organizations to follow suit.
Divestment initiatives help to decrease overall emissions, especially if money is later invested in renewable energies and efficient infrastructure (9). While divestment commitments do not necessarily mean that money will then be re-invested in sustainable energies, organizations such as 350.org have pushed to streamline capital from fossil fuels into renewable energies (8). It is difficult to determine exactly how much of the $11 trillion divested from fossil fuels will be reallocated to green energy sources but, beyond the finances, the move symbolizes a shift in priorities of global institutions.
The Guardian and the British Medical Journal have agreed to take similar avenues to divest from fossil fuels: they will now refuse advertisements from fossil fuel extractors, and the British Medical Journal will no longer accept research funded by such companies. The Guardian reported that some called on them to go a step further and ban advertising from companies with a large carbon footprint; however, they claimed that this was not realistic. Nevertheless, this move aims to reduce money funneled into fossil fuel companies from the general public and removes their platform from public spaces. In this commitment, they join organizations like the CMA, which voted to divest in 2015. After this decision, a general council delegate from the CMA compared fossil fuels to big tobacco, at once highlighting the health risks of climate change and the unwillingness of responsible corporations to change (8).
Divestment will not look the same across all sectors, as opportunities differ group by group. We can, however, figure out which industries we should no longer support. The British Medical Journal suggested a brief list of criteria that organizations can use to determine which industries should be divested from, including any which: (a) cause harm exceeding benefits, (b) manipulate science to hide undesired findings, and (c) are unnecessary for survival or can be replaced by a sustainable alternative (3). This is just a starting point - criteria can be enhanced to direct organizations in making thoughtful divestment choices.
We are beginning to see the global community put its money where its mouth is and work to meet our climate goals. Divestment tells fossil fuel companies that we are moving on without them and into a sustainable future. Although any one organization can only make a small contribution to the reduction of fossil fuel financing, each have tremendous capacity to act as a climate leader and help pave the way for others to do the same. It is time for Canadian groups, organizations, companies, and governments to take the necessary steps toward divesting from fossil fuels.
(1) IEA. World Energy Investment 2019. Paris, France: International
Energy Agency, 2019. Retrieved from: https://www.iea.org/reports/world-energy-investment-2019#
(2) Rice-Oxley, M. In the ground and off the page: why we’re banning ads from fossil fuels extractors. The Guardian. News. 2020 Feb 1. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/membership/2020/feb/01/ads-fossil-fuels-extractors-guardian-ban
(3) Abbasi K & Godlee F. Investing in humanity: The BMJ’s divestment campaign. BMJ Editorial. 2020 Jan 23. Retrieved from: https://www.bmj.com/content/368/bmj.m167?utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=social&utm_term=hootsuite&utm_content=sme&utm_campaign=usage
(4) Euopean Investment Bank. EU Bank launches abitious new climate strategy and Energy Lending Policy. Press release. 2019 Nov 14. Retrieved from: https://www.eib.org/en/press/all/2019-313-eu-bank-launches-ambitious-new-climate-strategy-and-energy-lending-policy
(5) Maina NM, Murray J, McKenzie M. Climate change and the fossil fuel divestment movement in Canadian higher education: The mobilities of actions, actors, and tactics. Journal of Cleaner Production. 2020 Apr 20;253:119874. Retrieved from: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0959652619347444?via%3Dihub
(6) Roewe B. Faith pledges push global fossil fuel divestments over $11 trillion. National Catholic Reporter. 2019 Sept 13. Retrieved: https://www.ncronline.org/news/earthbeat/faith-pledges-push-global-fossil-fuel-divestments-over-11-trillion
(7) Lough S. CMA votes divest from fossil fuels. Canadian Medical Association Journal. 187(14) E425 https://www.cmaj.ca/content/187/14/E425
(8) 350.org. Global Fossil Fuel Divestment and Clean Energy Investment Movement Crosses $11 Trillion Milestone. (2019, Sept 9). Retrieved from: https://350.org/press-release/global-fossil-fuel-divestment-11t/
(9) Pachauri RK, Allen MR, Barros VR, Broome J, Cramer W, Christ R et al. Climate change 2014: synthesis report. Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the fifth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. IPCC; 2014. Retrieved from: https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/2018/02/SYR_AR5_FINAL_full.pdf