Church of England votes for fossil fuel divestment, but still some way to go


The Church of England’s governing body, General Synod, voted overwhelmingly on Sunday to divest by 2023 from oil and gas companies not on track to meet the Paris Agreement target of limiting global average temperature rise to well below 2°C.

The amendment was put forward by Canon Giles Goddard of the Church of England’s Environmental Working Group and strengthens the original motion of the National Investing Bodies, which stated that the Church would begin in 2020 to divest from companies ‘not taking seriously their responsibilities to assist with the transition to a low carbon economy’.

The amendment gives the Church’s strategy of engagement with oil and gas companies a deadline and adds alignment with the Paris Agreement targets as a clear condition. The overall motion passed with 347 votes in favour, 4 against and 3 abstentions.

General Synod also debated an amendment proposed by the Bishop of Oxford, Rt Revd Steven Croft, which called on the National Investing Bodies to divest from any oil and gas company which was not on an ‘unequivocal path to aligning its business investment plan with the Paris Agreement’ targets by 2020.

The Bishop of Oxford argued that due to the urgency of climate change and the need for global carbon emissions to peak by 2020, divestment should proceed more rapidly.

Bishop Steven Croft introduced his amendment with a powerful speech, arguing for a ‘much greater urgency in this debate’ and that ‘internal engagement needs to be matched by external pressure’. He went on to highlight the sluggish progress of fossil fuel companies, saying:

‘As a measure of how far we have to go, 2017 was BP’s biggest year of exploration since 2004.’

The amendment had been backed by the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, who expressed his support in a Telegraph article on Saturday, as well as by Operation Noah, Tearfund, USPG and Christian Aid, who last week released a statement calling for the Church to divest fully from fossil fuel companies.

Operation Noah met with Adam Matthews, Director of Ethics and Engagement at the Church of England, outside the General Synod chamber in York on Saturday to pass on the message of support for divestment from the thousands of people who have signed our petition.

An open letter from 91 Anglican bishops and clergy, published in the Church Times, was also sent to Synod members in the week leading up to the debate, pointing to the irresponsibility of fossil fuel companies’ plans for further exploration and extraction:

‘…as companies such as Shell and BP are still pursuing business plans that would lead to 3-5°C+ of global warming, there is little sign that notice is being taken.’

James Buchanan, who works on Operation Noah’s Bright Now divestment campaign, welcomed the outcome of the debate, saying: ‘We are very glad that General Synod has sent a strong message to oil and gas companies that they are on final notice to fundamentally change their business model, or face divestment.

‘While the major oil and gas companies claim to support the Paris Agreement, they continue to pursue business plans taking us on a path to dangerous levels of climate change, with devastating consequences for humanity.’

The Church of England issued a statement following the debate, defending its strategy of engagement:

‘Today’s decision, including the amendment by Giles Goddard, will allow us to continue to push for real change in the oil and gas sector and use engagement, our voting rights and rights to file shareholder resolutions to drive the change we want to see.’

Although the decision represents a major step forward, the amended motion passed by Synod members pushes back the Oxford amendment’s timescale for divestment from oil and gas companies that do not align with the Paris Agreement. It does however state that the Church must complete divestment from these companies by 2023. It will be important to hold the Church of England to account on its engagement strategy in the months and years to come!

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