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Christian charity: we must divest from, not engage with, fossil fuels firms



A campaign group made up of Christians who are concerned about climate change is urging British churches to ditch their investments in fossil fuel companies, saying it is too late to try and engage with polluters.

In response to statements from the Church Investors Group (CIG), the charity Operation Noah has said that the window of opportunity to get such firms as Royal Dutch Shell and BP to improve their social and environmental credentials has passed.

The CIG, which is made up of 44 members connected to British churches and holds combined assets of £12 billion, has lead a campaign urging “laggard” firms to change their approach to environmental, social and governance (ESG) risk.

In the CIG’s annual report, released last week, it claimed that this campaign had brought some success. It said that 38% of the lowest rated companies, as scored by FTSE’s ESG ratings, had made improvements after being approached by CIG members.

“The continued results of our engagement programmes hearten me that, together, church investors are making a real difference for the better in company practice”, said Richard Nunn, the outgoing chair of the CIG. 

However, Operation Noah argues that a policy of engagement is no longer appropriate in the light of “the failure” of recent UN climate talks in Warsaw and increasing investment by fossil fuel companies to develop new high-carbon assets.

The long held policy of engagement with companies with whom churches hold investments has achieved many things”, said Mark Letcher, co-ordinator of Bright Now, Operation Noah’s divestment campaign.

But what it has never managed to do is to change the entire raison d’être of a business. That’s why churches choose not to invest in tobacco, gambling or pornography.

The Bright Now campaign, launched in September, called on religious institutions to drop their polluting energy assets and become leaders in sustainable investment in clean energy technologies. Letcher insists that such an approach will have greater impact.

“Companies such as BP and Shell know only too well that existing reserves of fossil fuels already exceed many times the global carbon budget for holding the average global temperature rise to 2C”, he said. 

“It is clear that the fossil fuel sector is intent on finding, and developing new fossil fuel assets with the intention of burning these, despite stark warnings from scientists that we need to do the opposite. There is nothing to suggest that a policy of engagement will persuade companies to change tack now when it has failed to do so to date.” 

Operation Noah recommends that British churches instead follow the example of Quakers in Britain, who in October said that investing in fossil fuel companies “is incompatible with Quakers’ commitment to become a low-carbon community.” 

In July, the Church of England said it was reviewing its investment policy on fossil fuels, telling Blue & Green Tomorrow that such assets were not yet excluded from investment decisions but were “up for review”.

Further reading:

Church investors ‘making a real difference’ on pushing for sustainability

Christian charity launches fossil fuels divestment campaign for churches

Quakers: fossil fuel investment ‘incompatible’ with Christianity and low-carbon goals

Christian charity launches fossil fuels divestment campaign for churches

Church of England urged to use theology as motivation for fossil fuel divestment