Thanks for your interest in the Fossil Free campaign. We don’t have answers to every question, but here are a few that we’ve been hearing a lot.
You’ll also find useful rebuttals to common arguments made by universities on People & Planet’s website.
Divestment is the opposite of an investment. It means getting rid of stocks, bonds or investment funds that are unethical or morally ambiguous. Fossil fuel investments are a risk for investors and the planet – that’s why we’re calling on institutions to divest from these companies.
In recent history, there have been a number of successful divestment campaigns. The largest and most impactful one targeted South African Apartheid, which helped break the back of the Apartheid government.
The Fossil Free campaign is asking organisations to:
- immediately freeze any new investment in fossil fuels
- divest from direct ownership and any commingled funds that include fossil fuel public equities and corporate bonds within 5 years
There are 200 publicly-traded companies that hold the vast majority of listed coal, oil and gas reserves.
Stopping fossil fuel infrastructure projects is important. Coal plants cause asthma and dump mercury into the air and water; fracking fluid can leak into groundwater and make people sick; pipelines can leak, and so on. We can and should stand with people on the front lines of these fights to stop projects like proposed fracking sites across the UK or the Keystone XL pipeline, that would destroy communities and the planet, and contribute to climate change.
But, we can’t stop global warming one pipeline, coal plant or fracking well at a time–the numbers just don’t add up. At the same time that we’re working hard to stop these destructive projects, we need to loosen the grip that coal, oil and gas companies have on our government and financial markets, so that we have a chance of living on a planet that looks something like the one we live on now. It’s time to go right to the root of the problem–the fossil fuel companies themselves–and make sure they hear us in terms they might understand, like their financial reputation.
The carbon bubble refers to an inflated investment bubble in fossil fuels. It is the result of an over-valuation of coal, oil and gas reserves that does not take into account that the majority of proven fossil fuel reserves carry the risk of being unexploitable and turning into stranded assets.
There are various factors for this risk, a key one being climate legislation. If governments take regulatory action to stay below 2 degree global warming, 80% of proven fossil fuel reserves are unburnable. Other factors that make fossil fuel reserves unlikely to see a return of investment include falling renewable energy costs, environmental challenges, changing resource landscapes, evolving social norms and consumer behaviour, litigation and changing statutory interpretations.
If uncontained, there is a risk that this ‘carbon bubble’ will burst, which would have a ripple effect that would hit all markets, including the European economy. A study commissioned by the the Greens/ European Free Alliance warns that over €1 trillion in European financial institutions is at risk from the carbon bubble.
Stranded assets are economic resources held by a company that cannot earn an economic return. In the case of fossil fuels, it means that changes in the market and regulatory environment associated with the transition to a low-carbon economy lead to fossil fuel reserves becoming economically unviable and seeing no return on investment.
We’re all complicit in fossil fuel consumption, and we should do all that we can to reduce our own use, but the real culprits — the ones who are rigging the system — are the fossil fuel companies. The largest 200 coal, gas and oil companies own oil, gas and coal reserves that represent a significant percentage of the entire global market(1). These companies, incidentally, are also the largest contributors to politicians’ of all stripes in this country and across the world — they’re the ones writing laws, and getting billions in government handouts each year (2).
There are many more companies that contribute indirectly to climate change — the multinationals that build drilling equipment, lay oil pipelines, transport coal, and utilities that buy and trade electricity. But right now, we’re focused on these 200 companies. For a full list of the companies and their reserves, check out this list.
Top 5 Coal companies
- Severstal JSC
- Anglo American PLC
- BHP Billiton
- Shanxi Coking Co. Ltd.
- Exxaro Resources Ltd.
Top 5 Oil and Gas companies
- Lukoil Holdings
- Exxon Mobil Corp.
- BP PLC
- Gazprom OAO
- Chevron Corp.
Nope — none of us at 350.org are experts on financial markets, but we’ve talked to a lot of divestment experts and they’ve given us a few tips. It’s useful to have the phone number or email address from a local economist, broker or financial analyst, but it’s not necessary. To kick off a campaign, all you need to do is download a Fossil Free Action Guide, pull together a crew of your friends and colleagues, and get to work!
We have a whole team of people at 350.org and our partner organisations People & Planet, Operation Noah and Medact happy to answer your questions and help you along — you just need to get in touch.
A common refrain from administrators, and even sometimes university Vice Chancellors or Board members is “We can’t divest because we don’t even know where the money is invested — and even if we did know, we couldn’t make that information public because it would reduce our profits.”
Well, here’s where you get to play your trump card. It may be true that administrators don’t know what stocks or bonds they own at any given moment, but administrators and boards hire the money managers, and thus get to decide where their money is, or isn’t, invested. If they really wanted to divest from fossil fuels, all they would have to do is tell the money managers to do just that!
It sometimes makes sense to bring public attention to the fact that Presidents and Boards are trying to keep their investments secret, but don’t let this argument distract you from the fact that they are the ones who get to make the call, not the money manager. Transparency becomes a much more important issue after you’ve won your divestment campaign with the President and Board, so that you can hold them and the money managers accountable for actually following through with the divestment promise.
While it’s true that fossil fuel companies are extremely profitable (The top five oil companies, last year, made $137 billion in profit—that’s $375 million per day), they’re also very risky investments (1). Coal, oil and gas companies’ business models rest on emitting five times more carbon into the atmosphere than civilization can handle, which makes their share price five times higher than it should be in reality. In addition, disasters like Exxon Valdez, the BP oil spill, along with massive fluctuations in supply and demand of coal, oil and gas, make energy markets particularly volatile, and therefore risky investments.
Report after report has shown that investing in clean energy, efficiency and other sustainable technologies can be even more profitable than fossil fuels (2). It’s a growing market, with over $260bn invested globally last year, and a safe place for your institution to invest (3).
There are also number of ways to re-invest locally that help build your community and stimulate good jobs. Projects like energy efficiency and rooftop solar have high up-front and labor costs, but save institutions money in the long run, because electricity, heating and other costs are reduced significantly. You can find out more about bringing green funds to your campus here, and more about community re-investment here.
Shareholder action can be an effective tool to make small reforms at a company, such as pressuring Apple to institute better labour practices at the factories it works with in China. Over the last decade, there has been an attempt to use shareholder action to change the behavior of the fossil fuel industry, as well. While there have been some limited successes — instituting sustainability practices inside the company, for instance — there haven’t been any resolutions that have been able to address the core problem with the industry: the massive amounts of carbon they insist on dumping into the atmosphere for free. Voting for climate friendly resolutions is a good thing to do, but it’s not going to solve the problem. Scientists say that in order to keep warming below 2 degrees C, we’re going to need to leave about 80% of the fossil fuel industry’s current reserves underground. This is an achievable goal, but it’s the type of move that no group of shareholders would ever vote for willingly. Make no mistake, Shell or BP could still make a profit as an energy company if they transitioned their massive wealth and expertise over to renewables, but they’ll do it because of government regulation, not because they willingly decide to make the move. They have both made recent public statements to this effect.
Shareholder resolutions are useful in cases where a company can reform its practices, principles, or procedures, but are virtually impossible when the reform undermines the economic purpose of the company in question. Companies can, and frequently do, throw out shareholder resolutions that are “related to the company’s ordinary business operations.”
Divestment is the most powerful and direct way the University can help stop climate change, by using its considerable social clout to stigmatise the fossil fuel industry.
We need to make the moral stakes of our current situation clear: the fossil fuel industry is wrecking the planet and it’s immoral to profit off that wreckage. Divestment is a clear and powerful action that helps build the case for government action, along with making the economic point that we should be moving our money into the solution as supposed to the problem. If we’d started this campaign 30 years ago, then shareholder action would make more sense, but with the rapidly closing window for action, we need to act swiftly and boldly. Divestment can be an uncomfortable step to take, but it’s the right thing to do — and it will make a far greater impact than any shareholder resolution we could ever pass.
Kicking off a divestment campaign is easy. The first thing to do is sign up for updates at gofossilfree.org/uk. Then, take a look at our map of campuses and other institutions that have divestment campaigns going, and get in touch with local organisers through our easy contact tool. If there isn’t anything going on yet, sign up here and download a toolkit from our Resources page.
Depending on the type of institution you want to get to divest, there are different organisations working together on this campaign in the UK that can help you.
A good place to start a divestment campaign at your institution is to set up informational meetings with its investment manager or investment committee. From there, you might decide to start a petition targeting the institution’s President or Board of Trustees. Engaging your community by tabling, holding informational sessions, putting up posters, and other public education tactics is a good next step.
350 parts per million is what many scientists, climate experts, and progressive national governments are now saying is the safe upper limit for CO2 in our atmosphere.
Accelerating arctic warming and other early climate impacts have led scientists to conclude that we are already above the safe zone at our current 390ppm, and that unless we are able to rapidly return to below 350 ppm this century, we risk reaching tipping points and irreversible impacts such as the melting of the Greenland ice sheet and major methane releases from increased permafrost melt.
For more on the science of 350, vsit 350.org/science
To grasp the seriousness of the climate crisis, you just need to do a little math. Fossil fuel corporations have 5 times more oil and coal and gas in known reserves than climate scientists think is safe to burn. We have to keep 80% of their fossil fuels underground to keep the earth in livable shape.
Here are the three numbers you shouldn’t forget:
2 degrees — Almost every government in the world has agreed that any warming above a 2°C (3.6°F) rise would be unsafe. We have already raised the temperature .8°C, and that has caused far more damage than most scientists expected. A third of summer sea ice in the Arctic is gone, the oceans are 30 percent more acidic, and since warm air holds more water vapor than cold, the climate dice are loaded for both devastating floods and drought.
565 gigatons — Scientists estimate that humans can pour roughly 565 more gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and still have some reasonable hope of staying below two degrees. Computer models calculate that even if we stopped increasing CO2 levels now, the temperature would still rise another 0.8 degrees above the 0.8 we’ve already warmed, which means that we’re already 4/5 of the way to the 2 degree target.
2,795 gigatons — The Carbon Tracker Initiative, a team of London financial analysts, estimates that proven coal, oil, and gas reserves of the fossil-fuel companies, and the countries (think Venezuela or Kuwait) that act like fossil-fuel companies, equals about 2,795 gigatons of CO2, or five times the amount we can release to maintain 2 degrees of warming.