Church of Scotland narrowly votes against fossil fuel divestment


The Church of Scotland voted narrowly against divestment from fossil fuel companies at its General Assembly in Edinburgh yesterday.

Photo credit: Ric Lander (Friends of the Earth Scotland)

The motion was tabled by Revd Gordon Strang, who worked in the North Sea oil and gas industry before becoming a minister. In his speech, he said: ‘We are now in a climate emergency. United Nations reports have left no doubt of the scale of the crisis. We’ve heard moving accounts from partner Churches this morning of the devastating, life-changing, life-destroying impacts of climate change, right now.’

The Church of Scotland currently holds investments worth an estimated £443 million, including in oil majors Shell, BP and Total. In 2016, it took the decision to drop investments in coal and tar sands.

During the debate, the Assembly heard from speakers living in parts of the world already experiencing the impacts of climate change, including Mozambique and Australia. Rev Peter Kaniah, from Kenya, spoke of how climate change was driving violent conflict over water in East Africa.

A report presented to the General Assembly had said that efforts by the Church to engage with oil and gas companies as shareholders had not made an impact, saying: ‘Engagement may result in oil companies becoming aware of our concerns, but their core activity remains the damaging extraction of fossil fuels.’

Nonetheless, a majority of General Assembly members backed the Church’s current strategy of engagement, with 303 votes in favour, compared to 263 members (or 46%) who supported divestment. A motion for full divestment last year only gained 24% of votes, suggesting growing support for climate action after months of protests and multiple declarations of a ‘climate emergency,’ including by the Scottish government.

The news comes a week after the United Reformed Church voted to divest from fossil fuel companies by July 2020.

The outcome of the debate prompted frustration among General Assembly members, with more than 70 formally registering their “dissent” at the decision not to divest. Among them was the Very Revd Susan Brown, outgoing Moderator of the Church of Scotland.

Revd Gordon Strang said: ‘It is hugely disappointing that, in the midst of a climate emergency, they couldn’t grasp the urgency of the situation and move forward. We all know that engagement will not achieve the results we want, and it is my earnest hope that next year’s General Assembly will finally be able to see that.’

Seonaid Knox, Clerk to the National Youth Assembly of the Church of Scotland, responded to the news saying: ‘While it’s positive that more commissioners were in favour of divesting compared with 2018, the reality is that – despite youth and international delegates stressing the urgency of the matter – our pleas fell on deaf ears.’

Knox had said in a speech during the debate: ‘Young people will not be interested in a church that lags behind the curve when it comes to environmental issues, especially after previously being at the forefront of advocating for climate justice in Scotland and globally.’

James Buchanan, Campaign Manager at Operation Noah’s Bright Now divestment campaign, said: ‘We would like to thank everyone who supported fossil fuel divestment at this year’s General Assembly, recognising the urgent need to accelerate a just transition to a net-zero carbon economy. It is time for all Churches to divest from fossil fuels and invest in clean alternatives in response to the climate emergency. The time to act is now.’

Ric Lander, Divestment Campaigner at Friends of the Earth Scotland, said: ‘It seems to me that the Church of Scotland Investors’ Trust have been taken in by a deeply cynical public relations effort by big oil, designed to waste the precious time of public spirited investors.’

First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, had addressed the General Assembly earlier in the morning, saying the Church was ‘passionately engaged in the great national and international issues of our day… The church in recent years has been deeply concerned in tackling climate change.’

Both BP and Shell’s AGMs have been taking place this week, with debates on how the companies are currently tackling climate change. BP chose to host their shareholder meeting in Aberdeen, home to the North Sea oil and gas industry, for the first time.

MPs debated the risks of fossil fuel investments in a Westminster Hall debate yesterday afternoon, as part of the Divest Parliament campaign, now backed by more than a third of MPs.

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