When asked how to tackle climate change, a common answer is to reduce our CO2 emissions. But how can this be done? Over the last few years, an idea has been growing worldwide: if the combustion of fossil fuels is the main source of CO2 emissions from humans, it is key to stop investing in these resources. It is high time to divest from resources that are damaging our environment, plus from a financial point of view it is a market run by a lobby and has high investment risks. However, our current system highly depends on fossil fuels–they are the primary source of energy worldwide and its industry is one of the richest.
Fossil fuel divestment activists in Madison, Wisconsin
The concept of divestment is not new. It was used in South Africa in response to its Apartheid policy and also in several other countries to enforce tobacco laws to protect non smokers' rights. In reference to fossil fuels, “the logic of divestment couldn't be simpler: if it's wrong to wreck the climate, it's wrong to profit from that wreckage. The fossil fuel industry has five times as much carbon in its reserves as even the most conservative governments on earth say is safe to burn–but on the current course, it will be burned, tanking the planet. The hope is that divestment is one way to weaken those companies–financially, but even more politically,” explained Bill McKibben in an article in Rolling Stone. McKibben, an environmentalist and author, is co-founder of the movement 350.org, which runs a worldwide campaign towards fossil fuel divestment. This grass root organization has become one of the main global climate change movements with a presence in almost every country. It organizes campaigns and takes actions to reduce our current atmospheric levels of CO2 from 400 ppm to 350 ppm (parts per million), which is where its name comes from. One of its key campaigns is Fossil Free, a project to convince and to move institutions away from fossil fuels through divestment.
Institutions such as the Rockefeller Brothers Fund; religious organizations like the Lutheran World Federation; pension funds in Australia, UK and Norway; universities such as Oxford and Stanford; the Guardian Media Group, and cities like Melbourne, Seattle and Bristol are some of the examples of entities that are already divesting, fully or partially, from fossil fuels. Yet there still is a long way to go. For example, one ongoing action of Fossil Free is aiming to get the support of the Catholic church, to divest the Vatican.
Student members of Divest UMass posing for a picture with author and activist Naomi Klein
Fossil Free is present in several countries through national and local organizations which are working independently but with the support of the 350.org headquarters. One of these groups is the one based in Berlin. Fossil Free Berlin is working on making Berlin citizens and politicians fully aware of the need to stop using fossil fuels in the German capital. The group, run by volunteers, is organizing different actions in order to achieve it this. For example, they made a petition that can be signed online, they are attending the open City Hall and Parliament meetings to ask about divestment, and they did a projection mapping at the City Hall building. Nowadays, the group is directing Divest Berlin to get the City Hall politicians to stop investing in fossil fuels. Ella Lagé is a volunteer at this organization in Berlin and explains that when she heard about divestment she felt relief: “I did not know how to address the problem of climate change but I wanted to do something. Divestment is a simple idea and a useful tool towards achieving a goal, and divestment in fossil fuels is a purpose that can be reached”. Maybe this is one of the reasons why more and more people are joining this movement every day, or it is maybe because the global question of climate change has been part of the political discussion for years. But instead of being solved the problem has been growing and growing, so it was about time to find a social tool to move politicians and society towards a real change. During the COP21 held in Paris last December, more than 500 global organizations committed to divestment, which represents around 3.4 trillion dollars withdrawn from the fossil fuels sector.
“The switch from fossil fuels to a panorama of clean energies is possible. Besides divesting public capital reserves, consumers need to put pressure on companies. One important step would be to know the C02 footprint of the products that we buy. If companies were obliged to give their customers that information, it would urge them to change,” explains Ella. She is also supporting the financial argument that shows that divestment from fossil fuels and to invest in clean energy is not only a path towards sustainability but can also save money. “In the past two years, oil and coal companies’ values have dramatically decreased in the stock exchange. That’s probably why even Allianz (a global German insurance company) is divesting from certain coal companies,” asserts Ella.
What this movement and its advocates are supporting–the change towards green energies, is already starting to be done and to become a reality: Costa Rica was recently run for 285 days only using renewable energies last year, and one of the Canary Islands, the island of Hierro, also managed last summer to be completely supplied by clean energy for four hours a day. So now it is the moment to stop giving excuses and to really do the math. It is not only a political issue or something to be handled by big organizations. Anyone can do something to contribute and to convince institutions to divest. Maybe there is a local divestment group you could join or simply support the international campaigns of 350.org. Ask your bank if they are still investing in fossil fuels (or other naughty things like the weapon industry), and if they do or can’t really tell you let them know why you are moving your savings to an ethical bank. It is up to us to decide what our money is working for.