This article was originally published on The Ecologist.
At the climate talks in Lima in December, politicians were for the first time talking about a goal to phase out carbon emissions by mid-century. That would mean the end of the fossil fuel industry as we know it.
2015 is going to be critical for the climate. At the end of the year, world leaders will gather in Paris to attempt once again to secure a global climate deal.
Given their track record, they will not act in accordance with the urgency of the climate crisis while the fossil fuel industry holds the balance of power. Therefore, the climate movement will turn up the heat to erode the industry’s might.
Already, people all over are gearing up to confront dirty energy projects, demand solutions and build pressure on decision makers. A key effort that has helped to build renewed momentum on climate change last year is the fossil fuel divestment campaign.
Removing the fossil fuel industry’s social license to operate
For decades, fossil fuel companies have successfully blocked political action on climate change. These companies have five times more carbon in their reserves than can be burnt to stay below the politically agreed 2 degrees global warming.
In other words, 80% of their current reserves are unburnable. For Europe, this translates into 89% of coal, 21% of oil, and 6% of gas reserves, according to a study published in the scientific journal Nature last week. Yet, fossil fuel companies spend billions every year to discover and develop yet more carbon.
Every institution that stops funding fossil fuel companies, is taking an active step towards removing the industry’s social acceptance and consequently its political influence. It is therefore not just actual divestment wins, the campaign aims to elevate the public debate leading to a change in social norms.
In 2014, the number of institutional divestment commitments more than doubled. High-ranking figures such as former archbishop Desmond Tutu, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and World Bank president Jim Yong Kim got behind the campaign.
It is hard to believe that the divestment campaign kicked off only just over a year ago in Europe. Since then campaigns urging local authorities, universities, religious and other institutions have popped up at a dizzying pace, adding up to 94 active campaigns throughout the continent.
The European movement has already celebrated a number of big wins. The University of Glasgow has become the first academic institution in Europe to ditch its fossil fuel holdings. Boxtel in the Netherlands and Örebro in Sweden are the first local authorities on the continent to divest.
The Quakers in Britain and the Church of Sweden were among the first faith-based organisations to lead the way, and the British Medical Association has become the first medical organisation in the world to ban investments in fossil fuels.
Making fossil fuels history
Besides the rapid pace with which the divestment movement is spreading, it is its breadth and diversity that lend it its power. Diversity is essential to achieving social change.
What started with student campaigns at US college campuses, now encompasses a large variety of different groups of people. It is a movement of citizens who do not want their pension money invested in companies whose business model is based on undermining the very future their pension is meant to safeguard.
It is doctors who are concerned about the health impacts of climate change. It is people of faith who believe in our moral obligation to care for creation. It is academics demanding their institution’s finances stop undermining its mission.
It is concerned citizens from all walks of life who believe in climate justice, the stewardship role public institutions should play and in doing what’s right.
This first year has only been the start of the divestment movement in Europe. The year ahead already holds big promises as campaigns build their power to confront the power of the fossil fuel industry. The movement is also gaining strength globally. The first divestment campaigns have started in South Africa and the Pacific Islands.
On 13-14 February, the global movement is going to show its collective force. On Global Divestment Day, thousands of people everywhere will turn out to demand institutions do what is necessary for climate action by divesting from fossil fuels.
Local authorities will come under pressure to walk their talk on climate. New campaigns will be launched. University students will hold flash-mobs, vigils, sit-ins and rallies calling upon their endowments to invest in a liveable future.
Faith leaders and people living on the frontline of climate change will band together to urge their communities to divest from climate destruction. Individuals will close their accounts with banks investing in climate chaos.
Fossil fight-back goes into a tailspin
Of course the fossil fuel industry and its backers have also started to fight back fiercely, dismissing the movement and attacking divestment decisions.
Maybe it’s just coincidence – but big fossil’s attempt to dictate the terms of the debate comes at a time when large parts of the energy industry are in deep trouble owing to low energy prices, with oil sinking below $50 a barrel, and gas fast following suit.
High-cost ’unconventional’ oil and gas – from shale fracking, tar sands, the Arctic and deep water marine wells – is already a loss-making proposition. One small Texas shale oil company went bust only last week. Many more will surely follow.
Of course prices could rise again – but the current financial bloodbath that has overtaken fossil fuels will permanently spook investors, who will no longer see fossil fuel investments as a reliable cash cow, but as a hazardous proposition fraught with financial risk.
As the fossil fuel industry throws more money at fossil fuel expansion, the divestment movement too is turning up the volume.
And now, history is on our side. Investors are turning away from fossil fuels in droves as fear of loss overtakes greed for profit, and as the ’unburnable carbon’ meme hits home with a resounding slam that will reverberate through 2015, and beyond.