In a Resurgence article based on his latest book The Energy of Nations, Jeremy Leggett gives the history of four systemic risks in energy markets: climate change and the need to keep fossil fuels in the ground; the resulting carbon bubble in capital markets; corporate losses in US shale gas and oil production, which means the ‘boom’ may just be a bubble; and peak production of affordable oil.
Expanding on the second risk, he writes: ‘Over the next 10 years, spending [by the world’s 200 biggest gas and oil companies on expanding and developing their reserves] could exceed US$6 trillion, if things stay as they are. This is one very big bet the policymakers will do nothing about climate change. In the last year, key investors have balked at that bet. Major insurers and pension funds have curbed their investment in coal and oil.’ State pension funds in Norway and Sweden have said they would ‘withdraw from all fossil-fuel investments, for fear of assets being stranded’. Australian coal investments are under huge pressure, as China develops legislation to ban coal use. ‘Investors arguing that capital expenditure was too high and dividends were too low forced Shell to cancel all Arctic drilling in 2014.’ And hence, ‘Investors may increasingly be setting up future emissions reductions by default [for climate policymakers].’
So divestment makes sense in two ways: it works, and every divestment, however small, adds to the momentum; and it makes financial sense to join the World Council of Churches, the British Medical Association and the University of Glasgow and pull out before the crash!
It is not as though alternative investments aren’t available. I recently wrote an article for Third Way magazine about fracking, in which I argued ‘Even a cursory comparison with the renewables sector clearly shows that fracking is a distraction … A second “dash for gas” would lock the UK into a high-carbon future, and would divert investment away from cleaner renewables now.’ For individuals, the Which? Ethical Investments Guide and YourEthicalMoney.org provide independent information on green and ethical money, including investments, banking, pensions and insurance. And for those looking for a social return on their investment, there are plenty of opportunities to invest in community energy schemes – from Abingdon Hydro via REPOWERBalcombe to Zouch Solar, which I may have made up!
Some of the responses on Twitter to Glasgow University’s announcement are interesting. A couple argue that divesting is ‘futile symbolism’ unless the University also stops using fossil fuels, and I think they partly have a point.
In my fracking article, I concluded that the UK government’s keenness to promote fracking is about money and power: ‘[George] Osborne is hoping for a repeat of the North Sea oil bonanza, and there are strong links between the government and the fracking industry.’ But I also had to acknowledge our own culpability. ‘There is a disconnect between public opinion of fracking “in my back yard”, and our energy-hungry lifestyles … We are addicted to energy, and take it for granted.’
Money equals power, and giving the fossil fuel companies our money, whether as investment or payment for energy, means giving them power. I am happy to say that I bank with Co-op, buy my energy from Good Energy, and am at present car-free. But as a participant in the UK economy, I am still locked in to fossil fuels, and spending money on almost anything means oil production and carbon emissions.
The Christian Climate Action group asks What Would Jesus Divest?* But I asked ‘[W]here have we put our treasure, and thereby our heart?’ (Matthew 6:19-21) Do we see ourselves deep-down as consumers and individuals, or citizens and neighbours and members of the body of Christ seeking God’s Kingdom? After all, the treasure hidden in the field (Matthew 13:44) is not a pocket of shale gas to be exploited, but rather, as R. S. Thomas suggested in The Bright Field, ‘the eternity that awaits you’ … or perhaps we might say it is a ‘Bright Now’.
* It would perhaps be more accurate to ask what would the women providing for Jesus divest? See Luke 8:1-3.