Church Divestment and Investment for a Zero-Carbon Economy – skill-up day report


On Saturday 19 November, Operation Noah and Quaker Peace & Social Witness organised a skill-up day for campaigners and church treasurers, entitled ‘Church Divestment and Investment for a Zero-Carbon Economy’, which was attended by 40 people from across the churches. The event offered participants the chance to learn more about the range of alternative investment options available, how to divest and reinvest in practice and campaigning for divestment and reinvestment in their churches.

Panel discussion from left to right: Seb Beloe (WHEB), Sarah Rowe (Christian Aid), James Buchanan (Operation Noah), Jamie Hartzell (Ethex), Ben Pearce (Power Up North London)

Panel discussion from left to right: Seb Beloe (WHEB), Sarah Rowe (Christian Aid), James Buchanan (Operation Noah), Jamie Hartzell (Ethex), Ben Pearce (Power Up North London)

Sunniva Taylor from Quaker Peace & Social Witness began by giving an overview of the issues and explained why Quakers in Britain decided to divest from companies involved in fossil fuel extraction in 2013. The current context, she said, provides reasons for concern and reasons for hope. The year 2016 has now been declared the hottest year on record – with temperatures 1.2 degrees above pre-industrial levels, according to the World Meteorological Society. The event took place the day after the conclusion of COP22 in Marrakesh, with questions about future US climate policy following the election of Donald Trump but with world leaders determined to build on the progress of the Paris Agreement.

Among signs of hope, she highlighted the recent COP22 interfaith statement on climate change signed by various high profile religious leaders including the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Bishop Nicholas Holtam among others, which called for “more commitments to divest -invest from fossil fuels into renewable energy”, and the UK’s ratification of the Paris Agreement – although much more action is needed to reduce the UK’s carbon emissions.

The Church, she said, “has a great opportunity to demonstrate moral leadership and be a powerful voice for change”. This change is already starting to take place, with divestment commitments by universities, local councils, churches and cities amounting to $3.4 trillion in assets moved out of the fossil fuel industry. Churches that have already committed to full divestment from fossil fuel companies include Quakers in Britain, the Church of Sweden, the World Council of Churches, the United Reformed Church in Scotland and, more recently, the Anglican Church of Southern Africa.

Rev Alex Mabbs then shared the experience of how Brighthelm became the first local UK church to divest from fossil fuels in 2014. He explained the process by which the decision was made, how they went about divesting the portfolio, and how their decision was based on the motivation to “put our treasure where our heart is”.

This was followed by a panel discussion, in which the speakers covered a range of different topics. Seb Beloe, Head of Research at WHEB Asset Management, provided an overview of sustainable finance and the changing attitudes of investors regarding alternative investment options. He quoted Joseph Schumpeter, who said that “Creative Destruction is the essential fact about capitalism” – meaning that new technologies disrupt and replace old ones.

It makes economic sense to divest from fossil fuels and invest in sustainable energy, he said, pointing to the examples of e.on and RWE which saw huge falls in their share prices during the last decade (77% and 83% respectively). “Coal is no longer competitive”, he added. “Trump may be going for it, but it is just delaying its death”. Furthermore, he stressed that “the oil industry hasn’t woken up to the fact that it is facing an existential threat”, quoting from Mark Twain: “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme”.

Sarah Rowe, Campaigns Officer at Christian Aid, then spoke about the new phase of the Big Shift campaign, which is calling on the banks to shift investments from fossil fuels to renewable energy. While it is sometimes claimed that coal is necessary to lift people out of poverty, a recent report from Christian Aid, CAFOD, ODI and others shows that this is not the case. Instead, renewable energy and micro-generation are more effective, with the global South requiring $4 trillion a year to invest in clean infrastructure. Meanwhile banks in the UK alone manage $5 trillion in assets, which could be used to support renewable energy rather than large fossil fuel projects. She invited people to support the Big Shift campaign by writing to their bank.

Jamie Hartzell, Founder and Chair of Ethex, a platform for positive investment, spoke about the range of investment options available, including community energy and affordable housing. Since 2013 Ethex has raised more than £50 million for a large number of projects, and the wider positive saving and investment market has been growing rapidly in the UK. He encouraged participants to get involved in supporting renewable energy projects in their area, particularly those involving partnerships with churches.

Finally Ben Pearce from Power Up North London spoke about a community energy project in which the group partnered with a local church, St Anne’s in Highgate, to install solar panels on the church roof. He spoke about the different stages of the project and how the group had raised £30,000 through a community share offer, around 30% of which was invested by the church and parishioners.

Workshops in the afternoon focused on how to get a decision on divestment and reinvestment, and how to go about the process once a positive decision had been reached. The first workshop, which was run by James Buchanan from Operation Noah’s Bright Now campaign, included input from Rev Hugh Lee who shared his experience as a member of the Church of England’s General Synod, and Rev Alex Mabbs who spoke about his efforts in campaigning for divestment in the United Reformed Church. In the second workshop, Simon Bond, a member of the Quakers in Britain Finance and Property Committee, described how Quakers in Britain and the Mid Thames Area Meeting of Quakers went about making a decision on divestment and reinvestment and putting it into practice.

There was a great deal of interest and enthusiasm among participants of the event, who expressed their desire to return to their local churches and Quaker meetings and use what they had learned to move forward with divestment and reinvestment locally, as well as calling on the national churches to commit to full divestment from fossil fuels and make positive investments in areas such as renewable energy.

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