Church of England divests from fossil fuels

Claiming a moral responsibility to speak and act for environmental stewardship and the world’s poor, the Church of England announced Thursday it would divest from companies mining high-emissions-emitting fossil fuels.

The Anglican church’s pension board and church commissioners announced Thursday evening in a new climate change policy that it would cease direct investments in any company generating more than 10 percent of its revenues from the extraction of thermal coal (mainly used in power generation) or tar sands oil, totaling 12 million euro ($13.43 million).

“Climate change is already a reality. From an ethical perspective the focus of the investing bodies must be on assisting the transition to a low carbon economy,” said the Rev. Canon Professor Richard Burridge, deputy chair of the church’s Ethical Investment Advisory Group. 

“The Church has a moral responsibility to speak and act on both environmental stewardship and justice for the world's poor who are most vulnerable to climate change. This responsibility encompasses not only the Church's own work to reduce our own carbon footprint, but also how the Church's money is invested and how we engage with companies on this vital issue,” he said.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, thermal, or bituminous, coal contains anywhere from 45 percent to 85 percent carbon content. Of the four major coal types, only anthracite coal contains a higher percentage (86-97 percent). Tar sands oil emits approximately 17 percent more greenhouse gas emissions than typical crude oil, according to a 2014 environmental impact statement from the U.S. State Department regarding the proposed Keystone XL transnational pipeline.

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A January study published in the science journal Nature estimated that in order to keep average global temperatures from rising above 2 degrees Celsius -- the benchmark scientists and activists point to in order to avoid the worst impacts of climate change -- 80 percent of coal reserves, about half of gas reserves and a third of oil must remain in the ground.

In its new policy, the Church of England's ethical investment advisory group stated that “Climate change cannot be separated from the values and priorities that are reflected in our social and economic practices and systems, and cannot therefore be successfully addressed by technical or managerial measures alone. It will be the values and priorities of society that will drive society’s response to climate change.”

The partial divestment policy keeps the church engaged with other fossil fuel producers and electrical utilities and large energy users, what it called “the primary focus of the new policy.” It cited recent shareholder-initiated resolutions proposed to energy giants Shell and BP as reason for optimism that such a process could spur positive developments.

“We want to be at the forefront of institutional investors seeking to address the challenge of energy transition. This will predominantly be achieved through strategic engagement … But this new policy rightly goes beyond to incorporate investment exclusions for companies focused on the highest carbon fossil fuels where we do not think engagement would be productive,” said Tom Joy, director of investments at the Church Commissioners, in a statement.

While skeptical shareholder advocacy can effectively sway companies to stop extracting or selling fossil fuels, the Rev. Fletcher Harper, executive director of GreenFaith, called the Church of England policy “a strong and important first step.”

"I thought it was extremely positive news," he told NCR

The Church of England announcement came two days after the Vatican held a one-day conference on climate change and sustainable development. Before that meeting, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon spoke with Pope Francis, and in a later press conference asked the pope for “moral support” to address climate change.

In a final declaration from the workshop, participants -- a mix of scientists and leaders from the worlds of religion, politics, business and development -- called for financing sustainable development through a transition to a low-carbon economy.

“Climate-change mitigation will require a rapid world transformation to a world powered by renewable and other low-carbon energy and the sustainable management of ecosystems. These transformations should be carried out in the context of globally agreed Sustainable Development Goals, consistent with ending extreme poverty; ensuring universal access for healthcare, quality education, safe water, and sustainable energy; and cooperating to end human trafficking and all forms of modern slavery,” the declaration said.

Likewise, during the U.N. climate negotiations held in December in Lima, Peru, a group of nine Catholic bishops from five countries urged for new models of development and lifestyles compatible with TK addressing climate change and global poverty.

“Central to this is to put an end to the fossil fuel era, phasing out fossil fuel emissions and phasing in 100% renewables with sustainable energy access for all,” the bishops said in their statement.

In the U.S., several Catholic college campuses, as well as many other universities, have seen divestment campaigns initiated with varying levels of success. Last June, the University of Dayton, in Ohio, became the first U.S. Catholic school to pull its endowment out of fossil fuels. In February, the faculty senate at the University of Loyola-Chicago passed a resolution for its administration to consider a similar move.

At Georgetown University, three students members of GU Fossil Free interrupted a March 18 address by Jim Yong Kim, World Bank Group president, and faced possible disciplinary action. The group has been in dialogue with the administration about divestment since 2013.

A similar group of students at Boston College, Climate Justice at Boston College, has yet to gain official student organization status and several students also faced disciplinary action for an unsanctioned demonstration on Feb. 14, what climate activists declared Global Divestment Day. Area climate groups sympathetic to the students demonstrated on their behalf April 19 during the school’s “Admitted Eagle Day" for incoming students. 

Bill McKibben, founder of the grassroots climate group 350.org who in 2012 sparked the fossil fuel divestment push with the Do the Math Tour, said in an email the Church of England’s decision was a “powerful moment,” since it was the first time he recalled an institution had reversed course after first stating it would not divest.

Combined with previous divestment commitments made by the United Church of Christ, the Unitarian Universalists and the World Council of Churches, McKibben predicted further momentum on the faith front.  

“I think this makes it more likely that others will continue moving in the same direction,” he said.

Harper said that divestment discussions have begun in Jewish communities in the U.S. and the United Kingdom, building on what he sees as the formation of a powerful, moral consensus on climate change across faiths.

“There’s a growing and increasingly clear global consensus that it is no longer moral to profit from the fossil fuel industry. And the Church of England is one in a growing series of faith communities that are making that decision,” he said.

[Brian Roewe is an NCR staff writer. His email address is broewe@ncronline.org. Follow him on Twitter: @BrianRoewe.]

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