Engagement with fossil fuel companies won’t save the planet

This blog has been written in response to Graham Lawton’s article Why your pension may be destroying the planet – and how to change that, published in the New Scientist on 2 June 2021.

Graham Lawton has fundamentally misunderstood the strategy behind the global fossil fuel divestment movement – the fastest-growing divestment campaign the world has ever seen.

Divestment aims to undermine the political power of the fossil fuel companies, which have spent decades[1] – and over $1bn since the 2015 Paris agreement[2] – acting to prevent and / or delay the transition to a zero carbon world.

By making a public commitment to divest from fossil fuels, institutions like universities and pension funds can send a powerful signal to the world’s governments, helping to pave the way for the legislation and international agreements that will be needed if the world is going to rapidly phase out these industries and ensure a just transition. This is a strategy with ample historical precedents.[3]

By contrast, years of ‘engagement’ with fossil fuel companies – the approach Lawton favours – have failed to put a single oil major on track to align their emissions with a 2°C pathway in 2050, let alone a 1.5°C one now.[4] Furthermore, there are no precedents for a company changing its core business model following pressure from shareholders.

Gabriel Carlyle
Divest East Sussex

[1] ‘White knights, or horsemen of the apocalypse? Prospects for Big Oil to align emissions with a 1.5 °C pathway’, Energy Research & Social Science, 15 April 2021. Available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2214629621001420

[2] ‘Big Oil’s Real Agenda on Climate Change’, Influence Map, March 2019. Available at: https://influencemap.org/report/How-Big-Oil-Continues-to-Oppose-the-Paris-Agreement-38212275958aa21196dae3b76220bddc

[3] ‘Stranded assets and the fossil fuel divestment campaign: what does divestment mean for the valuation of fossil fuel assets?’, Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, University of Oxford, October 2013. Available at: https://www.smithschool.ox.ac.uk/publications/reports/SAP-divestment-report-final.pdf

[4] ‘Fossil fuel giants still aiming wide of 2°C mark, investors say’, Transition Pathway Initiative, 7 October 2020. Available at: https://www.transitionpathwayinitiative.org/publications/60.pdf?type=Publication