Faith and civil society leaders support fossil fuel divestment by pension funds


More than 70 prominent civil society leaders – including faith leaders, MPs, Councillors, pension fund trustees, investment experts and NGO directors – have signed an open letter countering the Pensions Minister Guy Opperman’s support of continued investment in fossil fuel companies, The Guardian has reported.

In an article published in the Telegraph, Pensions Minister Guy Opperman MP argues that investors with environmental concerns should hold onto their stocks in oil and gas companies so that they can ‘nudge, cajole or vote firms towards lower-carbon business practices.’

In response, the civil society leaders – which include former Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams, Sir Ed Davey MP, Caroline Lucas MP,  and Sir Mark Rylance – have signed the letter expressing concern that Mr Opperman’s article ignores the ‘clear moral, scientific and financial arguments for fossil fuel divestment’.

Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams speaking at WEF Davos. (Photo by Sebastian Derungs)

Faith leaders signing the letter include Rt Revd David Atkinson, Assistant Bishop in the Diocese of Southwark; Revd Dr Inderjit Bhogal, former President of the Methodist Conference; Revd Dr Dave Gregory and Revd Dr John Weaver, former Baptist Union Presidents; Revd Dr David Pickering, Moderator of the United Reformed Church Synod of Scotland; Paul Parker, Recording Clerk of Quakers in Britain; Revd Dr Damian Howard, Provincial of Jesuits in Britain; and Revd Lucy Winkett, Rector of St James’s Piccadilly.

Christine Allen, Director of CAFOD, and Patrick Watt, Director of Policy, Public Affairs and Campaigns at Christian Aid, also signed the letter, together with Revd Dr Darrell Hannah, Chair of Trustees of Operation Noah.

The letter highlights that fossil fuel companies are working against international efforts to tackle the climate crisis: ‘Despite clear evidence that we need to leave fossil fuels in the ground, companies such as Shell and Exxon are planning to significantly expand fossil fuel extraction by 2030. For every £1 invested by fossil fuel majors, over 95p ends up in further expansion of oil and gas reserves that are incompatible with a Net Zero trajectory.’ 

In response to the Minister encouraging investors to practice ‘constructive engagement’ with fossil fuel companies, the letter states: ‘Mr Opperman’s assertion that collaboration through investor engagement can turn fossil fuel majors into low-carbon companies is not borne out by evidence. Investor pressure has never reshaped any company’s core business and cannot transform an entire sector of powerful multinationals.’

The letter has been signed by Mark Campanale, Founder and Executive Director of Carbon Tracker, and emphasises that fossil fuel divestment also helps protect people’s pensions from financial risk. The UN Special Envoy for Climate Action and Finance, Mark Carney, the G20’s Financial Stability Board and the Environmental Audit Committee have repeatedly warned that UK investors run the risk of exposing themselves to ‘stranded assets’, as fossil fuel stocks are made worthless by the inevitable transition to renewable energy and clean technologies.

Mr Opperman’s public support for continued fossil fuel investment by pension funds stands in opposition to the rapidly growing divestment movement and rising consumer demand for fossil free pensions. Current Government guidance to pension fund trustees lists divestment as an appropriate strategy for trustees wanting to take positive action to tackle climate change, and a growing number of local authorities have acted upon this – including Lambeth, Islington, Newcastle City and Merseyside. Most recently, Conservative-led Shropshire Council unanimously passed a motion to completely divest from fossil fuels by 2023.

A cross-party group of 360 serving and former MPs have signed the Divest Parliament Pledge in support of phasing out fossil fuel investments from the Parliamentary Pension Fund, including Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, Defra Minister Rebecca Pow and Committee on Climate Change Chair Lord Deben.

Last week, the UK’s biggest pension fund, the government-backed National Employment Savings Trust (Nest) scheme with nine million members, is to ban investments in any companies involved in coal mining, oil from tar sands and Arctic drilling by 2025.

You can read the letter and see the full list of signatories here.

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